The Canal Builders: Making America’s Empire at the Panama Canal (Julie Greene)

Some people say that reading about different places is a way to travel. Well, my mother planned to take a cruise that included the Panama Canal, so I thought I’d take the opportunity to read about the Panama Canal.
Anyone with any awareness of current events knows what happened to the cruise, but I was already in the middle of the book, and I have a hard time not finishing books so, despite being incredibly frustrated, I finished it.
The problem with the books is that it should never ever have made it past the book proposal stage. It’s not that Greene lacks the information. And, at times, she demonstrates some writing flair. I’d be interested in discussing with her whether an historian should apply contemporary standards to historical events. But first, what should have happened first, is that someone should have told her how to organize her material.
There is a thesis, albeit one that has to be inferred from different pieces of the text. It goes something like this. The Canal, from the moment the United States took over the project (and the land), represents an American accomplishment, both at the time and in retrospect. Some of the claims are legitimate and some are a product of President Roosevelt’s public relations efforts, the 1915 Exposition in San Francisco and 100 more years of history. Still others – like the economic impact of the Canal – are not considered here. Overall, I closed the book with the sense that those 10 years near the beginning of the 20th century do a perfect job of telling us the best and worst about us, lessons we should still heed today.
But Greene does not approach her tale in anything resembling an argument or a narrative. Instead, each chapter has an agenda. The administrators of the Panama Canal project were racist and set up systems to reinforce this racism. And here are 100 examples. The administrators of the Panama Canal project had to adjust their thinking about the presence of women. And here are 100 examples. So instead of any kind of cohesive narrative, each chapter is a kind of mini-mountain complete with a dissertation-style summary at the end with its requisite token effort to provide a link to the next chapter.
Some chapters are more effective than others. When I learned that some viewed the Panama Canal Project as an example of socialism at work, I was intrigued by how the intensity of government control in an isolated location for a relatively short period of time could be perceived that way. But Greene does nothing to complicate the notion the administration of the project could be more than one thing at a time, that it could have virtues and faults. Instead, as I mentioned, I had to construct a thesis myself and try to cast aside Greene’s retrospective judgements even when I did agree with them.
So if you are doing research on the canal, this is a great book for you. If you are looking for a book to read about the canal, then this is not that book. In the absence of any compelling structure or any narrative drive, it becomes pretty tedious pretty quickly.

Charles Ellenbogen is the author of the teaching memoir, THIS ISN’T THE MOVIES: 25 YEARS IN THE CLASSROOM, and teaches high school English in Cleveland, Ohio. He lives in Shaker Heights, Ohio with Kirsten, his wife, Zoe, their daughter, Ezra, their son, Lincoln, their dog, and Chocolate Scales, their snake.

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