- Seaway to the Future: American Social Visions and the Construction of the Panama Canal
Europeans have long been fascinated by the U.S. project to construct the Panama Canal. Many journalists and memoirists from across Europe and the United Kingdom wrote books and articles during the construction decade, documenting—and critiquing—the U.S. approach to solving the human and engineering challenges involved. More recently the British author Matthew Parker published Panama Fever: The Epic Story of the Building of the Panama Canal (New York: Anchor Books, 2007), which told, in popular style, of America's triumph in the Canal Zone. Now the German scholar and journalist Alexander Missal has contributed a very sophisticated analysis of the meaning and discourse associated with the canal project. Missal brings to his book the perspective of a cultural and intellectual historian. He is not so much concerned with the actual construction of the canal but rather with the ways Americans took lessons from the project for thinking about American national identity and the future of the country. Seaway to the Future is a savvy and sophisticated exploration of the Panama Canal's history.
Truth in advertising, so to speak, requires that I note another recent book on the canal's construction, one that shares some important themes with Missal's book. My own The Canal Builders: Making America's Empire at the Panama Canal (New York: Penguin Press, 2009) was published just months after Missal's. Our books are different in many ways—mine focuses more on the actual construction project and how class, race, gender, and imperialism shaped the process. But like Missal, I probe into the meanings Americans ascribed to the project and especially the ways that the project was used to provide lessons regarding the role of the state in progressive America. Because of the overlap, I turned to Missal's book with great curiosity.
Seaway to the Future, which began as Missal's PhD dissertation at [End Page 889] the University of Cologne, provides an excellent analysis of popular books and articles written about the canal construction project. He examines journalists, travel writers, and Canal officials—anyone, in the end, who wrote articles or books meant for a popular audience—and refers to them commonly as the "Panama authors." Missal argues that "for the authors, the Panama Canal was a utopian experiment, a showcase of the future America" (p. 9). Missal sees his writers as central "translators and interpreters of social change" (p. 13) who, at a critical moment in the emergence of America as a modern nation, saw the canal project as exemplifying a new public spirit alive across the land. Missal's analysis covers authors from the socialist Arthur Bullard to muckrakers like Ray Stannard Baker, and from a spokesperson for the government's official view of the project like Joseph Bucklin Bishop to prominent intellectuals like Walter Lippmann.
Missal's book unfolds eloquently. It begins with an introductory chapter that perhaps spends more time than needed briefing us on the general history of the canal, going back to sixteenth-century dreams of uniting the two oceans, summarizing the disastrous attempt by the French to build the canal in the late nineteenth century, and finally the U.S. support for the 1903 treaty that brought independence to Panama and U.S. acquisition of the broad strip of land known as the Panama Canal Zone—and with it, the right to build the canal. Then Missal introduces his "Panama authors" and begins exploring major themes in their writings: the conquest of disease on the Isthmus of Panama, the project's conversion from an infamous tale of corruption to a triumphant and utopian vision, and the common urge to compare the project to major war. He poignantly explains that "A war-like effort such as the Panama Canal was the modern cure for a society threatened by excessive individualism and lacking manly resolve. It was precisely this image of the weakened, over-civilized...