From Journal to Book
When the Journal turned up, and a hundred-and-fifty years of old letters, I began a journey of discovery, not only of former generations, most of whom I had seen once or twice, or not at all, but the Civil War and emancipation, women’s suffrage, the Depression, the World Wars. and of course the Panama Canal.
The side trips are as intriguing as the main events. Who would expect a port in Costa Rica to direct me to Fairbanks scales in Vermont? Or a tugboat to start me reading Mark Twain beyond Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn? Or a single sentence about a shipwreck to uncover three versions of the Sosostres story! I’ve learned how Frigatebirds sleep while flying and the importance of mangroves to planetary health, and how the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval originated.
The range of literature quoted in these letters illustrates the many directions I’ve traveled, and also the diversity of the writers’ interests:
Panama and Beyond, the blog (and soon book) featuring my grandfather’s letters and the journal he wrote on board ship when he left Panama.
I looked for the name “Hobby, William Richard,” in the index soon as my copy of The Path arrived. Then I realized Will Hobby was scarcely two years out of college when he landed in Panama and must have been one of dozens or hundreds of junior engineers employed on the canal. His letters and the journal contribute in a small way to “show the enormous variety of people involved.” They also introduce me to the grandfather of whom my only memory is a summertime visit when I was eight years.
David McCullough‘s book, relates the history of the Panama Canal from 1870 when Commander Thomas Selfridge in the steamship Nipsic cast off from Brooklyn Navy Yard, with Commander Edward Lull following four days later on a store-ship, The Guard, and a total company of nearly 100 men including surveyors, geologists, telegraphers, and physicians.
Their orders survey were to “survey every point of the [Panamanian] Isthmus” and to “ascertain the point at which to cut a canal from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean.”
McCullough carries the narrative through the opening of the canal on August 15, 1914. The pageantry, the seagoing parade from New York of over a hundred ships and dignitaries heading for the gala festival of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco, all of it was cancelled when, on August 3 (the same day a cement boat became the first oceangoing ship to go through the canal), the French premier was warned by the American ambassador that Germany would declare war within the hour. By August 15, the canal was back-page news and the official first passage was made only by The Ancon, an American cargo and passenger ship.
Although this book contains plenty of statistical and technical data, and extensive notes and references, its greatest attraction is the participants in the great enterprise. Mr. McCullough has achieved in this book, as in his other historical works, what he expressed in his preface:
“Primarily my interest has been in the participants themselves. Of great importance, I felt, was the need to show the enormous variety of people involved, and the skills and strengths called upon by such an undertaking, quite apart from technical competence. I wanted to see these people for what they were, as living, fallible, often highly courageous men and women caught up frequently by forces beyond their control or even their reckoning. I have tried to present the problems they faced as they saw them, to perceive what they did not know as well as what they did know at any given time… This book is their story.”