America as Second Creation
Technology and Narratives of New Beginnings
384 pp., 6 x 9 in, 26 illus.
- Published: September 17, 2004
- Published: April 25, 2003
An exploration of the dialogue that emerged after 1776 between different visions of what it meant to use new technologies to transform the land.
After 1776, the former American colonies began to reimagine themselves as a unified, self-created community. Technologies had an important role in the resulting national narratives, and a few technologies assumed particular prominence. Among these were the axe, the mill, the canal, the railroad, and the irrigation dam. In this book David Nye explores the stories that clustered around these technologies. In doing so, he rediscovers an American story of origins, with America conceived as a second creation built in harmony with God's first creation.
While mainstream Americans constructed technological foundation stories to explain their place in the New World, however, marginalized groups told other stories of destruction and loss. Native Americans protested the loss of their forests, fishermen resisted the construction of dams, and early environmentalists feared the exhaustionof resources. A water mill could be viewed as the kernel of a new community or as a new way to exploit labor. If passengers comprehended railways as part of a larger narrative about American expansion and progress, many farmers attacked railroad land grants. To explore these contradictions, Nye devotes alternating chapters to narratives of second creation and to narratives of those who rejected it.Nye draws on popular literature, speeches, advertisements, paintings, and many other media to create a history of American foundation stories. He shows how these stories were revised periodically, as social and economic conditions changed, without ever erasing the earlier stories entirely. The image of the isolated frontier family carving a homestead out of the wilderness with an axe persists to this day, alongside later images and narratives. In the book's conclusion, Nye considers the relation between these earlier stories and such later American developments as the conservation movement, narratives of environmental recovery, and the idealization of wilderness.
The axe, the mill, the canal, and the railroad: From the grid to ecofeminism, David Nye's America as Second Creation offers a new, far-ranging, and detail-rich account of the changing technological foundation stories that have accompanied and helped shape US culture, and of the counternarratives that have challenged the dominant ideology.
Werner Sollors, Harvard University, and author of Beyond Ethnicity: Consent and Descent in American Culture
A superb analysis of cultural icons too often mentioned or cited but almost never analyzed.
John Stilgoe, Harvard University
America as Second Creation is a thought-provoking, readable and vital addition to the literature of American studies.
America as Second Creation brilliantly reworks Leo Marx's Machine in the Garden thesis in the light of four decades of scholarship on technology, environment, and American culture. David Nye's dissection of America's foundation narratives—and their simultaneously elaborated counter-narratives—is masterly. Log cabin, mill, canal and railroad, irrigation, and river regulation: he shows how each technology has been mythologized to account for the triumph, or disaster, of American social and environmental making. Leo Marx's machine has been reassembled, his garden re-fertilized, their shared story re-energized.
Denis Cosgrove, Alexander von Humboldt Professor of Geography, University of California, Los Angeles
Mr. Nye [is] a remarkable chronicler of how technological change has impressed itself on the American character.
The New York Times
Pathbreaking, richly researched—one cannot read America as Second Creation without seeing our history, and our present-day problems, with fresh eyes. Nye brilliantly deconstructs the long standing American belief that technology, from the humble woodsman's axe and water-powered mill to the transcontinental railroads and gigantic irrigation projects, wrought a 'second creation' and improved on God's original handiwork.
Joseph J. Corn, Department of History, Stanford University
Well imagined, meticulously researched, handsomely illustrated, and scrupulously fair.