Posted by: Karen | January 1, 2008

THE CANAL BUILDERS by Julie Greene

Like preceding chronicles of the construction of the Panama Canal (Matthew Parker’s Panama Fever, 2008), Greene’s account focuses on its feats of engineering, but in this case, social engineering. Previously an author of a history about the American Federation of Labor, Greene includes the workers’ experience within the context of the creation of a community from scratch, and that, within the wider contexts of empire building and Progressivism. Many Progressives, Greene relates, visited the canal project; the encouragement some of them took from an American example of governmental socioeconomic intervention contrasts with the actual on-the-ground character of the canal zone until the completion of the canal in 1914. Greene portrays a complex web of regulations that authority applied to those drawn to the zone. Through many personal accounts, Greene covers conflicts that inevitably arose, centrally over labor rules and a pay structure that discriminated against black workers, among others means of enforcing segregation. Interests in social history and attitudes of the Progressive Era will be drawn to Greene’s perspective on the building of the Panama Canal. –Gilbert Taylor, BOOKLIST

“With crystal clear style and pioneering research, Julie Greene finally, and thankfully, takes us far beyond the well-known technology which built the Panama Canal to reveal two great themes of the project, themes which also characterized much of the following century. First, it was built by a pluralistic labor force—in this case one dominated by blacks and including nurses whose heroism is (until now) little known. Second, an historic U.S. imperialism shaped and drove the project. As the sign said at the outskirts of the Canal’s largest town, ‘Welcome to Empire.’ Greene here reveals the fascinating and central roots of the empire that followed that Empire.”
—Walter LaFeber, Andrew and James Tisch University Professor Emeritus, Cornell University

“Most histories focus on the larger-than-life men who conceived the Panama Canal, particularly President Theodore Roosevelt and chief engineers John Stevens and George Goethals. Greene shifts the focus away from those at the top, instead telling the story of rank-and-file workers on the ground.… Engaging labor history, and an astute examination of American policies.”
Kirkus Reviews

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