March 26, 2009


Bond of Union: Building the Erie Canal and the American Empire. By Gerard Koeppel. Da Capo. $27.95.

The House Always Wins: Create the Home you Love—without Busting Your Budget. By Marni Jameson. Da Capo. $15.95.

     A meticulously researched and exhaustive history of an infrastructure project about which almost no one cares anymore, journalist and historian Gerard Koeppel’s Bond of Union may end up being the last word on a story whose last word seemed to have been written long ago. It is no secret that the Erie Canal, completed in 1825, opened the inland portion of a young nation to trade from the Eastern Seaboard. It is no secret that the canal captured minds for generations, to the point that a famous folk song was sung for many years: “I’ve got a mule, her name is Sal – 15 miles on the Erie Canal,” and so on. And it is no secret that the coming of railroads not long after the Erie Canal’s completion doomed the several-times-reconfigured waterway to irrelevance, just as other canals – notably George Washington’s Chesapeake and Ohio Canal along the Potomac River – also fell into disrepair and disuse. There is little left of the Erie Canal nowadays, and attempts to turn remaining sections into tourist attractions in upstate New York have proved unsuccessful. But despite all this, Koeppel manages to tell a story that is at times fascinating, at times genuinely gripping, and at times surprisingly modern in the way it interweaves American politics with every bit of the planning and execution of a major construction project. Koeppel expands the usual role in the canal assigned to Jesse Hawley, who proposed the canal during his stint in debtor’s prison in 1807 and whose later fortunes, Koeppel shows, rose as the canal was built. Koeppel discusses the most important element of canal engineering – the discovery of waterproof cement – and gives full credit for a major role in the canal to civil engineer Benjamin Wright, whose own story has a series of twists and turns. But they are nothing compared with the intricacies of early-19th-century politics, which in this case involved the regional rivalry between South (with none other than Thomas Jefferson championing the idea of a westward push from Virginia) and North (the New York contingent, led by Governor De Witt Clinton). Within that grand regional rivalry – and who knows how the nation’s later fortunes would have fared if the South had first opened the way westward? – there was infighting galore in New York itself. Clinton’s power was steadily eroded, to such a point that he ended up remaining on the canal commission only through the sufferance of his enemies – and then eventually lost his post. The western terminus of the canal was a major battle of its own, with two new communities – Black Rock and Buffalo – both founded to serve in the role, although neither offered ideal conditions for boats carrying goods. When the canal was finally finished, there were the predictable political speeches praising the endeavor – James Madison wrote of the project as “a monument of Public Spirit conducted by enlightened Councils” – but there remained plenty of bad blood. Plenty of irony, too: Black Rock had destroyed the rock from which it took its name in building a harbor that never proved adequate; the location now holds the footings of the Peace Bridge between Buffalo and Canada. Students of the byways of American history will find Bond of Union a fascinating tale of a bygone era whose political echoes, if nothing else, still resonate today. But the book is no more likely to be of general interest to modern readers than the Erie Canal is to modern shippers.

     Most people think smaller nowadays, and especially in the current economic environment, when families are far more likely to contemplate creating a comfortable home for themselves than moving to another one, a book such as The House Always Wins offers comfort to the cocooning. Syndicated home-design columnist Marni Jameson provides both large-scale advice and small-scale information. Regarding carpet, for example, Jameson’s big-picture approach provides data on the five types of carpet and the uses to which each can be put, while her penchant for trivia brings forth the information that 90% of foot feel comes from padding, not carpet, and that an installer should use a power stretcher with poles rather than spikes to protect the carpet from damage. Although The House Always Wins starts with a section on buying a home, it will be most appealing to people who already own a house and are hoping to spruce it up, if not to sell it (difficult in the current market), then to enjoy it more for as long as they continue living in it. This is quite a densely packed book, and families that find home improvement overwhelming to contemplate may well find it more so, not less, after seeing all the elements that Jameson includes: wall treatments, flooring, counters, cabinets, furniture, art, collections, houseplants, home theaters, guest rooms, utility rooms, garages – not to mention designing and maintaining a yard, and planning and throwing parties. A house may be a smaller project than a state-spanning waterway, but it doesn’t feel that way to families involved in a home makeover; and a total home remodeling is probably not what most people are after nowadays anyway. The best way to use Jameson’s book is to decide what you really want (or really need) to do to make your home more livable, then focus on Jameson’s ideas and hints in that section alone – putting aside everything else until a later time that may or may not come. If your kids’ rooms are an area of concern, for example, go through Jameson’s seven-page chapter on the subject and get some ideas on choosing your battles, a color palette, the mood, a lead fabric – and, if necessary, choosing to keep the door to a child’s room closed. In small doses, Jameson’s relentlessly upbeat, chatty hints will reassure you that you are not alone and that home decorating and redecorating is by no means an impossible task. In larger chunks, though, Jameson can make the whole project – whatever it may be – start to seem beyond most people’s capabilities. The lesson here is to keep things as simple, small and targeted as possible.

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