Presenter of the National Book Awards

2009 National Book Award Finalist Nonfiction
Interview with Greg Grandin

Greg Grandin

Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford’s Forgotten Jungle City

Metropolitan Books, a division of Henry Holt and Company

 

Interview Conducted by Meehan Crist


Photo credit: Manu Goswami

Meehan Crist: When did you decide to write this book, and why?

Greg Grandin: I kept reading references to Fordlandia in different places – mostly histories of the Amazon – and was struck that there wasn’t a full-length history of it. The late Warren Dean, for instance, a pioneer in environmental history, dedicated a chapter to Fordlandia in his wonderful, Brazil And The Struggle For Rubber. And my doctoral adviser at Yale, Emilia da Costa Viotti— to whom I dedicated Fordlandia —often mentioned the episode, and once even suggested that I write my dissertation on the topic. The story is usually mentioned in passing, as an example of arrogance, but it had not been explored at length. There is the novel Fordlandia, written by Eduardo Sguiglia, an Argentine author. I read somewhere that Sguiglia had set out to write a non-fiction account, but the evocative nature of the tale led him to fictionalize the story. It’s a great novel, but I thought perhaps that this was one of those cases where history could be stranger than fiction.

MC: What questions drove you as worked on Fordlandia? In other words, what was it that you hoped to better understand by writing it?

GG: The main one was ‘Why?’ The initial reason for obtaining a tract of land the size of a small American state in the middle of the Amazon was to grow rubber in order to bypass a proposed British latex cartel. But by the time the project got underway, the economic logic had changed. The price of latex had collapsed and the British had given up on its plans for a cartel. Yet Ford ignored advice and went forward anyway. And the more the project failed on its own terms – that is, to produce industrial latex—the more he plowed money into it. And the more it failed, the more Ford and company officials justified it in idealistic terms, as a civilizational mission.

MC: What was the most unexpected thing you learned in the course of writing Fordlandia?

GG: The easy way to tell the story of Fordlandia would have been as one in a long line of tales—from El Dorado to Fitzcarraldo, to the making of Fitzcarraldo for that matter—whereby the jungle seduces man to impose his will, only to expose that will as impotent. In many of these stories, the Amazon is depicted in metaphysical or existential terms, as either evil incarnate or a mirror that reveals the puniness of man’s ambitions. But in researching the book, it became clear that the men and women Ford sent down to the Amazon—along with Ford himself—were immune to these kind of musings. They approached their work in the rainforest with a clapboard Midwestern literalness. If they projected anything onto the jungle, it was nostalgia, nostalgia for an America that their own company was central in dispatching. And by the time Ford set out to overlay Americana on Amazonia, he had spent a good many years and a large part of his great fortune trying to reform American capitalism at home, to put the genie he himself had unleashed back into the bottle. So in telling the tale, I tried to avoid a facile lampooning -- even if this was an exceptionally outlandish example of a gone-awry attempt to export America. I found myself trying to get at its deeper meaning. Fordlandia is, of course, a parable of arrogance. But the arrogance was not that Ford thought he could conquer the Amazon but rather that the force of industrial capitalism, once released, could be contained.

MC: Are there any books you held in your peripheral vision as models while you worked?

GG: Not a book, but an essay. Fifty years ago, Harvard historian Perry Miller published his famous “Errand into the Wilderness,” in which he tried to explain why English Puritans lit out for the New World to begin with, as opposed to, say, going to Holland. Miller’s answer is that they went not just to escape the corruption of Europe but to complete the Protestant reformation of Christendom that had stalled in Europe. In an imagined empty land, free of corrupt institutions, they would “start de novo.” Miller said that the Puritans weren’t escaping to America, but rather looking to give the faithful back in England a “working model” of a purer community. In other words, central from the start to the American experience was “deep disquietude,” a feeling that “something had gone wrong”—not just with the Protestant redemption of Europe but subsequently with the failure to achieve perfection in America, to erect a pure community in New England. A similar impatience led to the founding of Fordlandia, a sense that something was not quite right at home, where both the Ford industrial method and the Ford car were unsettling social relations. And this is what makes its history more of a quintessentially American story, much more than other company towns founded by US corporations in Latin America. Ford’s frustrations with domestic politics and culture were legion, as were his hatreds. Yet churning beneath it all was the fact that the industrial power he helped unleash was undermining the world he hoped to restore.

MC: What was the most difficult decision you had to make while writing Fordlandia, and why was it so hard?

GG: I found that one of the biggest challenges in telling a story like this was to try to strike a balance between capturing the enormity—and folly—of the task Ford set out for himself while at the same time not giving into the temptation to try to rewrite Heart of Darkness. That is, to err on the side of understatement. One reviewer noted that the book struck a tone “about midway between Joseph Conrad and Evelyn Waugh,” which is where I was about aiming, a hair’s more toward Waugh.

MC: What is one moment from the process of working on this book that you’ll never forget?

GG: It was a great thrill, after a day heading up the Tapajós River on a slow-moving riverboat, to round what seemed like the thousandth river bend and come upon the Ford water tower bursting out of the jungle canopy. The Amazon is one of the most ecologically diverse places in the world, yet the sensation one has—especially traveling up the middle of a river as broad as the Tapajós—is often of tedium, passing the same sloping, green river banks, turning one bend after another to find nothing. And then all of sudden, there is this enormous steel structure—a dramatic welcome to the ruins that are now Fordlandia. The white cursive Ford logo has long ago been washed off by the rains, but it remains one of the tallest structures anywhere nearby.

MC: As our country navigates this moment of great transition, in which a fledgling administration attempts to redefine our relationship to the rest of the world, what lessons does Fordlandia offer?

GG: Until recently, stories told about the Amazon tended to emphasize its invincibility, its ability to easily beat back the many efforts to conquer or domesticate it. But that, of course, has changed, and today it is the rainforest that now seems fragile. We’ve lost 20 percent of it over the last two decades and the rate of deforestation is accelerating exponentially. Fordlandia—which boasted of the most modern sawmill in all of Latin America and burned large swaths of the jungle to plant rubber—captures this devastation, and in the epilogue I discuss the forest’s many threats. The loss of this ecosystem will have an incalculable effect on the planet’s climate. But the history of Fordlandia also suggests a different kind of loss, not just of deforestation but also of deindustrialization. The ruins of the town are today a museum, a testament to an earlier moment when Americanism meant not just economic growth, but growth with some degree of equity, in which profits were understood to be dependent on good pay. “High wages,” Ford liked to say, “to create large markets.” The history of Fordlandia charts the move toward a global economy in which profit is no longer dependent on decent salaries. So when one tours the remains of Fordlandia, it shouldn’t be a surprise that they seem not very exotic, in a “land-of-the-lost” kind of way. They seem in fact quite familiar, similar to any number of depressed or abandoned industrial towns in the US. As I write in the introduction, there is an uncanny resemblance between Fordlandia’s rusting water tower, broken-glassed sawmill, empty power plant, and abandoned houses, and the husks of the same structures in Iron Mountain, a depressed industrial city in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula that also used to be a Ford town.


Meehan Crist is reviews editor at The Believer. She holds an MFA from
Columbia University, and her work has recently appeared in publications such
as The Believer and Lapham's Quarterly. Her nonfiction book, Everything
After
, is forthcoming from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.