Two New York University historians’ books were among the New York Times’ “100 Notable Books of 2009,” a list published in the December 6 New York Times Book Review: Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits, a biography of photographer Dorothea Lange, by Linda Gordon, and Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford’s Forgotten Jungle City, which chronicles Henry Ford’s attempt to create an American company town in the Brazilian Amazon, by Greg Grandin.
Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits (Norton) charts Lange’s journey from polio-ridden child to wife and mother, to San Francisco portrait photographer, to chronicler of the Great Depression and World War II. Behind the lens, Gordon finds a complex individual-driven, but exquisitely sensitive, passionate and businesslike, who was demanding of herself and others, but a generous mentor and devoted friend.
“Lange was by no means the saintly, self-effacing personality that many had assumed, extrapolating from her photography,” Gordon says. “On the contrary: she was driven by ambition, sometimes irritable, often demanding-yet uncommonly sensitive and generous. In short, a personality of intensity and complexity and, therefore, a particularly fascinating subject.”
Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford’s Forgotten Jungle City (Metropolitan Books), a National Book Award Finalist in the nonfiction category, recounts Ford’s attempt to turn a tract of land twice the size of Delaware into a rubber plantation. But the venture was more than that. Drawing parallels with English Puritans seeking to complete the Protestant reformation by coming to the New World, Grandin writes that “what made Fordlandia more quintessentially American was the way frustrated idealism was built into its conception.”
Fordlandia, Grandin concludes, was Henry Ford’s worldview put into practice. The author cites the observations of journalist Walter Lippmann to make his case.
“Lippmann identified in Henry Ford, for all his peculiarity, a common strain of ‘primitive Americanism,’ ” Grandin writes. “For Lippmann, Ford represented the essence of Americanism not just because he embodied a confidence born of money but also because he reflected ‘our touching belief that the world is like ourselves.’ ‘Why shouldn’t success in Detroit,’ Lippmann asked, ‘assure success in front of Baghdad?’ ”