three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
42-Sept-Oct-2009
By: 
Greg Grandin
user_rating: 
0

The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford's Forgotten Jungle City

A-FordlandiaNew York University history professor Greg Grandin's previous work (Empire's Workshop, The Last Colonial Massacre, The Blood of Guatemala) draws on his expertise in Latin American history. In Fordlandia, Grandin explores the conflict between capitalism-the irresistible force-and the Amazon jungle-one of nature's most inscrutable places.

The Topic: The known history: Henry Ford became the world's richest man by perfecting the car assembly line in the first couple of decades of the 20th century. The obscure history: in 1927, in order to satisfy the increasing demand for rubber, Ford decided to corner the latex market by developing a colony in the Brazilian Amazon. The result, a settlement called Fordlandia, was the size of Connecticut. Meant to reflect and even export American ideas and ideals-including golf courses, indoor plumbing, innocuous social events, and, of course, the ubiquitous Model T-Fordlandia instead became a forum for Ford's eccentric and often questionable mandates that inevitably placed its inhabitants in competition with the fearsome, unforgiving Amazon jungle. Guess who won.
Metropolitan Books. 416 pages. $27.50. ISBN: 9780805082364

Boston Globe 4 of 5 Stars
"[I]t is a chronicle of arrogance and broken dreams, which is not exactly how we think of Ford and, perhaps more poignant, not the way he regarded himself. ... [A] gripping story of high hopes and deep failure, a saga that in some ways is a morality tale for the American century, when scores of efforts to plant our values and harvest foreign dollars brought disappointment, sometimes even despair." David M. Shribman

Minneapolis Star Tribune 4 of 5 Stars
"It's a foregone conclusion that Fordlandia doesn't work. And yet Grandin makes a wonderful story of the attempt." Ellen Akins

NY Times Book Review 4 of 5 Stars
"Fordlandia was a commercial enterprise, intended to extract raw material for the production of motor cars, but it was framed as a civilizing mission, an attempt to build the ideal American society within the Amazon. As described in this fascinating account, it was also the reflection of one man's personality-arrogant, brilliant and very odd." Ben Macintyre

Seattle Times 4 of 5 Stars
"As business history, [Fordlandia's] story is fabulous. Grandin tells it with sympathy-for the Brazilians chafing under the dictates of Henry Ford, and for the forlorn Americans, swatting flies, dreaming of Michigan and wondering what on Earth they were doing in the Amazon." Bruce Ramsey

St. Petersburg Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"As I read it, [Grandin's] tale is ... one of stupidity and blundering by powerful men who valued loyalty above competence. And that, it seems to me, is a story with peculiar relevance to America in the 21st century." David L. Beck

Washington Post 3.5 of 5 Stars
"A thoroughly researched account of Ford's ill-fated Amazonian rubber plantation. ... As jungle adventures go, it's not exactly Aguirre, the Wrath of God, but the story of Fordlandia implies similar lessons: Looking for a shining city in the middle of the jungle is probably a bad idea." Aaron Leitko

San Francisco Chronicle 3 of 5 Stars
"Grandin's story faces the problem that Henry Ford never visited Fordlandia. The story jumps back and forth between Michigan and the Amazon-where, however, none of the characters were as colorful as Henry." Brian Ladd

Critical Summary

Grandin has discovered an undervalued gem in the story of Fordlandia. The historian balances his narrative nicely between the sometimes comical aspects of empire building in the middle of a wilderness (Paul Theroux's Mosquito Coast comes to mind) and the deadly serious flaws and oversights of such an ill-fated social experiment. The story is as much about the larger question of American values and a country's headlong ambition as it is about Ford's need for latex. Grandin has proven himself a keen researcher and reporter on various episodes in Latin American history-even if, according to a couple of critics, his retelling of Fordlandia's story is not always a rollicking, cohesive adventure. Nonetheless, Fordlandia is a readable, fascinating account of an obscure bit of history and a penetrating profile of an arrogant man.