UTOPIAS

Book Review: Fordlandia by Greg Grandin

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Sunday, July 19, 2009

FORDLANDIA

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

By Greg Grandin

Metropolitan. 432 pp. $27.50

Had Henry Ford stumbled into El Dorado, the Amazon's legendary golden city, he probably wouldn't have had much use for it. First of all, he was already rich. Furthermore, Ford's idea of a jungle city was a tad more austere. Or at least that's the argument that Greg Grandin puts forth in "Fordlandia," a thoroughly researched account of Ford's ill-fated Amazonian rubber plantation.

In 1928 Ford purchased a large tract of Brazilian jungle, hoping to establish a rubber plantation to supply his car company with latex. Things quickly went awry, however, as his dreams of industrial efficiency were pummeled to death by woes both ecological (disease, drought, deadly snakes) and social (local laborers bristled at a Ford-imposed lifestyle that was heavy on soy and temperance). When the plantation was shuttered in 1945, it had failed to produce a single drop of latex for a Ford vehicle.

But Grandin posits that Ford clung to his jungle kingdom mainly as a social experiment, hoping to construct a utopia complete with New England-style cottages and a golf course. "Ford, the man who in the early 1910s helped unleash the power of industrialism to revolutionize human relations, spent most of the rest of his life trying to put the genie back in the bottle," the author writes. 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


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