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Bewildering Stories

Greg Grandin, Fordlandia

reviewed by Danielle L. Parker

Author: Greg Grandin
Publisher: Metropolitan Books, 2009
Length: 402 pages
ISBN: 978-0-8050-8236-4
There’s a peculiar fascination reading pride-goeth-before-a-fall true life stories. The Greeks were fond of cautionary tales about pride. Part of the hold the story of the Titanic has on our imagination has to do with how the rich and powerful got it when they, too, sank under the waves with the bilge-water crowd. How we boasted we could tame and overpower Nature, and Nature proved us wrong.

The story of Henry Ford’s jungle dream, Fordlandia, is another story about nature, human and vegetative, fighting back against human hubris. And like the Greek myths, this story has vast and tragic dimensions.

On one side we have Henry Ford, the Man Who Could Regiment Anything, founder of the modern factory, the time-punching king. Ford, the man who knew best how man should live his life, to the point of maintaining home inspectors to pry into the personal lives (sex lives, vices, health, and habits of personal cleanliness) of his hapless workers. Ford, the man who personified the American dream of success through hard work, at the same time he was well on his way to destroying his nostalgic dreams of America as G-rated Disney Main Street, Home-Town Clean, hard-working makes-no-waves workerdom.

In the other corner of this fight, we have the Amazon jungle, with all its vipers, ferocious vegetation, insect and animal life, and tropical diseases. Standing in the same corner are the native Brazilians, representing human nature, which didn’t want to fit into Henry Ford’s clean-living, Baptist lifestyle.

There on the right, Henry Ford’s Fordlandia, with white picket fences, Michigan-style bungalows that trapped an inferno of heat in the jungle. His diligent doctors and hospital staff, forcing mandatory pills on unwilling workers and regimenting how they could hang up their wet clothes. To the left, the den of sin that sprang up on the island in the middle of the river, with all its brothels, drinking establishments, and uproarious humanity.

In the late twenties, Ford was persuaded to buy a tract of land in the Amazon jungle the size of the state of Tennessee. Rubber for his burgeoning automobile business was the one resource outside his control. That was the purported motive for Ford’s jungle adventure deep in the heart of the Amazon jungle, more than eighteen hours (still) up the longest river in the world.

In reality, Ford was fed up. He was a Nazi sympathizer who’d been forced to recant his anti-Semitism, and he was a fervent opponent of unions and collective bargaining: his representatives fired on a crowd of unemployed workers and killed some people. Ford felt pressed-in and constrained. The very forces of industrialism he’d released were killing his dream. He longed for a new frontier. The white picket fence, Protestant Baptist lifestyle was out there somewhere. So the Amazon adventure began.

But things didn’t unfold as Dearborn expected. The Amazon jungle fought back by sickening the new white overlords with disease and heat prostration. The front-line fighters battling the jungle growth died at startling rates from vipers, jaguars and disease. Not only could Ford not enforce Prohibition, some of his Dearborn managers succumbed and frequented the bottle and other vices available just past the picket fences.

The trees he tried to regiment succumbed to leaf blight, insects, and other scourges. The natives wouldn’t clear off the land he’d bought, so the company had to resort to nasty tactics, like eminent domain, force and intimidation, to drive off lingerers. An attempt to feed workers factory-style in a cafeteria line backfired and led to a bloody revolt and the ignomimous flight of the white overlords. Ford’s attempts to do good to the downtrodden Amazons and build a new American dream far away foundered in moral and literal slime.

Fordlandia is a fascinating story. How good intentions — at least good intentions in the eyes of Ford and his managers — turn into the worst of disasters makes a cautionary tale. Human nature is tough to overcome. People who believe they know what’s best for us more than we do ourselves often do the worst damage. And last cautionary moral? The old one. Pride goeth before a fall. The gods take down the inflated.

How well Fordlandia illustrates that one. Recommended for the thoughtful reader.

Copyright © 2011 by Danielle L. Parker

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