three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
17-July-Aug-2005
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The Erie Canal and the Making of a Great Nation

A-WeddingWatersSeventeen years from proposal to completion and stretching 363 miles from Buffalo to Albany with 83 locks and 18 aqueducts, the Erie Canal is one of the defining features of the American landscape. Simply put, the United States would not be what it is today without this technological marvel of its age. Bestselling author Peter L. Bernstein (Against the Gods: The Remarkable Story of Risk, 1996) frames the story of the canal’s construction against the larger picture of early 19th–century America. His account includes details about the staunch opposition, political machinations, ideological dreams, false starts, innovative financing, and grueling construction that characterized canal construction. Bernstein explains how this astounding engineering accomplishment changed the country by linking East and West and helped spur America’s industrial revolution.
W.W. Norton. 448 pages. $24.95.
ISBN: 0393052338

Hartford Courant 4 of 5 Stars
"In this latest work, Bernstein explains complicated subjects in digestible and delightful terms. What results is a brief history of the Erie Canal that’s neither too exhaustive nor too shallow."
Matthew Lubanko

Providence Journal 4 of 5 Stars
"He explains the economic and financial aspects of the project in a way that even I—usually baffled by these mysteries—could understand. ... Bernstein’s book also serves as a timely reminder that government is sometimes capable of great accomplishments beyond the reach of the private sector."
Mark Dunkelman

San Francisco Chronicle 4 of 5 Stars
"Bernstein’s economic analysis lucidly conveys the enormous impact of the Erie Canal and explains its crucial role in bringing about the industrial emergence of the young nation." Chuck Leddy

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"Bernstein resists the temptation to say, as so many authors and publishers now like to do, that that Erie Canal ‘changed the world,’ but it did. … [He] gives the story of the canal’s conception and construction all the drama it deserves, and … puts it into larger perspective." Jonathan Yardley

Chicago Tribune 3 of 5 Stars
"Bernstein is excellent at conveying the political obstacles connected with the canal. … However, writing from the present and taking the canal’s immense success for granted, [he] sometimes gives the canal’s enemies short shrift." Josh Ozersky

Seattle Times 2.5 of 5 Stars
"Bernstein does an admirable job of pulling together the disparate elements, but his story bogs down in details, backtracking, and tangents. This creates a plodding pace that fails to convey the excitement of the canal story and ultimately fails to meet Bernstein’s goal of showing the true importance of this historic waterway." David B. Williams

Critical Summary

Critics applauded Bernstein’s work for its wide scope, thorough approach, and readability. His economic insight is exemplary (the author is an economic consultant and writer), and the book’s narrative vitality is appealing. However, as absorbing and vibrant as many critics found the book, it had its share of detractors. Reviewers commonly cited the lack of sufficient illustrations and maps to help readers "visualize the physical challenges of building the canal, as well as explain how it actually worked" (Chicago Tribune). One even called the multitude of statistics Bernstein cites "staggering." Bottom line: This is a complex story with global implications and not enough pretty pictures, but "Bernstein does it full justice" (Washington Post).