NYU (US)—At a time when Detroit’s status as a hub of the automobile industry is in grave doubt comes a book by New York University’s Greg Grandin that chronicles a little-known Henry Ford endeavor aimed at creating a more perfect American company town in the Brazilian Amazon—and, with it, a Midwestern America of the automaker’s imagination.
In Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford’s Forgotten Jungle City (Metropolitan Books), Grandin recounts Ford’s attempt to turn a tract of land twice the size of Delaware into a rubber plantation. But the venture was more than that. Drawing parallels with English Puritans seeking to complete the Protestant reformation by coming to the New World, Grandin writes that “what made Fordlandia more quintessentially American was the way frustrated idealism was built into its conception.”
While the first years of the settlement “were plagued by waste, violence, and vice, making Fordlandia more Deadwood than ‘Our Town,’ ” Grandin observes, it wasn’t for a lack of effort. Ford built Cape Cod-style shingled houses for his Brazilian workers and installed electric lights, telephones, washing machines, victrolas, and refrigerators on the plantation, which held weekend square dances and recitations of poetry by William Wordsworth and Henry Longfellow.
But Ford’s Midwestern Puritanism and the genius he brought to industrial production—the assembly line—clashed with the Amazon, earth’s most complex ecological system, and the settlement’s indigenous workers. Ford abandoned the plantation in 1945.
Fordlandia, Grandin concludes, was Henry Ford’s worldview put into practice. The author cites the observations of journalist Walter Lippmann to make his case.
“Lippmann identified in Henry Ford, for all his peculiarity, a common strain of ‘primitive Americanism,’” Grandin writes. “For Lippmann, Ford represented the essence of Americanism not just because he embodied a confidence born of money but also because he reflected ‘our touching belief that the world is like ourselves.’ ‘Why shouldn’t success in Detroit,’ Lippmann asked, ‘assure success in front of Baghdad?’”
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