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Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford's Forgotten Jungle City [Hardcover]

Greg Grandin
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Book Description

June 9 2009

The stunning, never before told story of the quixotic attempt to recreate small-town America in the heart of the Amazon

In 1927, Henry Ford, the richest man in the world, bought a tract of land twice the size of Delaware in the Brazilian Amazon. His intention was to grow rubber, but the project rapidly evolved into a more ambitious bid to export America itself, along with its golf courses, ice-cream shops, bandstands, indoor plumbing, and Model Ts rolling down broad streets.

Fordlandia, as the settlement was called, quickly became the site of an epic clash. On one side was the car magnate, lean, austere, the man who reduced industrial production to its simplest motions; on the other, the Amazon, lush, extravagant, the most complex ecological system on the planet. Ford’s early success in imposing time clocks and square dances on the jungle soon collapsed, as indigenous workers, rejecting his midwestern Puritanism, turned the place into a ribald tropical boomtown. Fordlandia’s eventual demise as a rubber plantation foreshadowed the practices that today are laying waste to the rain forest.

More than a parable of one man’s arrogant attempt to force his will on the natural world, Fordlandia depicts a desperate quest to salvage the bygone America that the Ford factory system did much to dispatch. As Greg Grandin shows in this gripping and mordantly observed history, Ford’s great delusion was not that the Amazon could be tamed but that the forces of capitalism, once released, might yet be contained.

Fordlandia is a 2009 National Book Award Finalist for Nonfiction.


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From Amazon

Amazon Best of the Month, June 2009: Proving that truth can indeed be stranger than fiction, Fordlandia is the story of Henry Ford's ill-advised attempt to transform raw Brazilian rainforest into homespun slices of Americana. With sales of his Model-T booming, the automotive tycoon saw an opportunity to expand his reach further by exploiting a downtrodden Brazilian rubber industry. His vision, the laughably-named Amazonian outpost of Fordlandia, would become an enviable symbol of efficiency and mark the Ford Motor Company as a player on the global stage. Or so he thought. With thoughtful and meticulous research, author Greg Grandin explores the astounding oversights (no botanists were consulted to confirm the colony's agricultural viability) and painful arrogance (little thought was paid to how native Brazilians would react to an American way of life) that hamstrung the project from the start. Instead of ushering in a new era of commerce, Fordlandia became a cautionary tale of a dream destroyed by hubris. --Dave Callanan

Review

“Historian Greg Grandin has taken what heretofore seemed just such a marginal event. . . and turned it into a fascinating historical narrative that illuminates the auto industry’s contemporary crisis, the problems of globalization and the contradictions of contemporary consumerism. For all of that, this is not, however, history freighted with political pedantry. Grandin is one of blessedly expanding group of gifted American historians who assume that whatever moral the story of the past may yield, it must be a story well told. . . Fordlandia is precisely that—a genuinely readable history recounted with a novelist’s sense of pace and an eye for character. It’s a significant contribution to our understanding of ourselves and engrossingly enjoyable.”
—Timothy Rutten, The Los Angeles Times
 
"Haunting. . .  Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness resonates through every page of this book."
The New York Times Book Review
 
“Grandin, a distinguished historian of U.S. misadventures in Latin America, offers a fluently written, fair-minded guide to the Ford Motor Co.’s jungle escapades. In addition to his research in company records, he has ransacked the many Ford biographies to assemble a telling portrait of his central character.”
—Brian Ladd, San Francisco Chronicle
 
“Grandin offers the thoroughly remarkable story of Henry Ford’s attempt, from the 1920s through 1945, to transform part of Brazil’s Amazon River basin into a rubber plantation and eponymous American-style company town: Fordlandia. Grandin has found a fascinating vehicle to illuminate the many contradictions of Henry Ford. . . Readers may find it a cautionary tale for the 21st century.”
Publishers Weekly, starred review
 
“Excellent history. . . Fordlandia is keenly and emotionally observed and a potent record of the last hundred years of economic thinking and U.S./South American relations in the form of a blunt blow to the head.”
—M.E. Collins, The Chicago Sun-Times
 
“Written with a flair and deftness that one might expect to find in a well-crafted novel. . . he brings to life the rogues and cranks who animate this tale. . . Excellent.”
The American Conservative
“Fordlandia was, ultimately, the classic American parable of a failed Utopia, of soft dreams running aground on a hard world—which tends to make the most compelling tale of all. It’s such an engrossing story that one wonders why it has never been told before in book-length form. Grandin takes full command of a complicated narrative with numerous threads, and the story spills out in precisely the right tone—about midway between Joseph Conrad and Evelyn Waugh.”
The American Scholar
 
“An engaging and passionately written history. . . Grandin is alert to the tragedy and the unexpected moments of comedy in the story, which is at times reminiscent of both Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.”
—Paul Maliszewski, Wilson Quarterly
 
“Defines the old cliché that the truth is stranger than fiction. . . It is a masterful portrayal of capitalism and social paternalism unleashed to disastrous effect.”
—Nancy Bass Wyden, The Daily Beast
 
“Grandin’s account is an epic tale of a clash between cultures, values, men, and nature.”
—David Siegfried, Booklist
 
“Stranger than fiction but with power of a first-rate novel to probe for the deepest truths, Fordlandia is an extraordinary story of American hubris.  Out of the Amazon jungle, Greg Grandin brings us an unforgettable tale about the tragic limitations of a capitalist utopia.”
—Steve Fraser, author of Wall Street: America's Dream Palace
 
“Greg Grandin’s Fordlandia brings to light a fascinating but little known episode in the long history of Henry Ford and the Ford Motor Company. The auto magnate’s experiment with a vast rubber plantation in the Brazilian jungle involved not only economic and ecological issues of the greatest importance, but a cultural crusade to export the American Way of Life. Grandin’s penetrating, provocative analysis raises important questions about the complex impulses driving the global expansion of modern capitalism.”
—Steven Watts, author of The Peoples Tycoon: Henry Ford and the American Century
 
“Grandin places the Ford story within in a much broader social history of Amazonia, and rather than a saga of some novelty or the vanity of the rich, makes the resistance and the failure part of a larger Amazonian history rather than just the exotic ambitions of a man with too much money.”
—Susanna Hecht, Professor, School of Public Affairs and Institute of the Environment and co-author of Defenders of the Forest
 
“As a reader, I was fascinated by this account of Henry Ford’s short-lived rainforest Utopia, complete with golf course and square dances. As a writer, I envy Greg Grandin for finding such an intriguing subject—whose decline and fall has an eerie resonance at our own historical moment today.”
—Adam Hochschild, author of King Leopold’s Ghost
 
“Magic happens when a gifted historian and master storyteller finds a treasure trove of untapped materials to exploit. And Greg Grandin’s book on Fordlandia is simply magical. Here is the truly epic tale of American adventurers dispatched by Henry Ford in 1928 to conquer and civilize the Amazon by constructing an industrial/agricultural utopia the size of Tennessee. Among the dozens of reasons I will be recommending Fordlandia to friends, family, colleagues, and students is the scale and pace of the narrative, the remarkable cast of characters, the brilliantly detailed descriptions of the Brazilian jungle, and what may be the best portrait we have of Henry Ford in his final years as he struggles to recapture control of the mighty forces he has unleashed.”
—David Nasaw, the Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. Professor of History at the CUNY Graduate Center and author of Andrew Carnegie

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Customer Reviews

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Most helpful customer reviews
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A clash of cultures and ideas Feb. 24 2010
By Rodge TOP 50 REVIEWER
Format:Hardcover
This odd and difficult to fathom story, which is nevertheless true, shows Ford's attempt to bring small-town America to the Amazon and provide his factories with rubber in the process. Grandin's tale is well-written and fascinating, carrying the reader along to the conclusion. What surprised me was how long the place lasted, and how close Ford came to success in commercial terms, if not quite on the eccentric plane of preserving American utopia of old.

Like a good novel, the concluding portion casts what came before in a new light. What if Ford had succeeded, for all his faults and foibles? What if there was a seed of good in the plan? In the end, the tone becomes for wistful and ironic, rather than the condemnation and contempt one might expect.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Hubris, Arrogance, Bad Luck Sept. 3 2009
By Coach C TOP 500 REVIEWER
Format:Hardcover
In this fine example of history done right, Greg Grandin blends the writer's touch with the academic's rigor to produce a fantastic story about Henry Ford's own "Heart of Darkness" adventure in the Amazon jungle that had such high hopes but ended in an utter and drastic failure.

The book is primarily focused on Ford's desires on making his own rubber and transplanting his own utopian version of American life in the jungle. In my opinion, this was a good decision by Grandin, as the book would have become bloated had he included too much background information on Ford, fordism, and his many domestic ventures.

Fundamental to understanding the thinking behind "Fordlandia" is the progressive humanism of Ford and others who believed in their civilizing mission in uplifting the destitute through technology and innovation (ie. modernization ideology). Here, Grandin does a great job outlining how Ford had tried to do this in the Southern U.S. with the Muscle Shoals proposal which eventually FDR took up in the massive TVA electrification project.

Ultimately, Grandin argues that Fordlandia represented a "crystalline form of the utopianism that powered Fordism -- and by extension Americanism. It reveals the faith that a drive toward greater efficiency could be controlled and managed in such a way as to bring balance to the world and that technology itself, without the need for government planning, could sove whatever social problems arose from progress's advance." Grandin further concludes that the parable of Fordlandia is not just one of arrogance in that Ford thought he could tame the Amazon but but arrogance in that he believed that the forces of capitalism, once released, could still be contained.

In my own opinion, I think Grandin slightly overanalyzes.
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5.0 out of 5 stars A Foray into the Wilderness Oct. 14 2010
By Ian Gordon Malcomson HALL OF FAME TOP 50 REVIEWER
Format:Hardcover
"A fanatic is one who can't change his mind and won't change the subject." - Winston Churchill

In the 1920s, the very wealthy American automaker, Henry Ford, decided to set up his own guaranteed rubber supply for the future development of the Model A and the expansion of his many factories. Greg Grandin, a modern historian, offers us an incredibly gripping history about how Ford and his associates attempted to create their own rubber plantations in the heart of the Amazon in an attempt to breakaway from the grips of the powerful British-American cartel. Ford never liked to pay more for any commodity than he had to if it could be avoided. This book delves into the nitty-gritties of why and how Ford pursued this foolhardy quest to be successful where others before him had failed miserably. Information emerges in the story that strongly suggests that the embattled Ford, who usually kept his own counsels, saw himself as a champion of a kind of libertarian causes to take on the US government's efforts to control big business. To that end, he promoted what appeared to be radically innovative ideas that would transform the workplace, improve wages and restore dignity to the American working class. The problem with this scheme is that all these changes had to, in the end, be exclusively profitable for Henry Ford. His obsession with making this model Amazonian plantation work is yet another example of both the determination and the hubris of the man. Once he got an idea that potentially gave him the edge on his competitors, Ford doggedly stuck with it through thick and thin.
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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
By Donald Mitchell #1 HALL OF FAME TOP 50 REVIEWER
Format:Hardcover
"Pride goes before destruction,
And a haughty spirit before a fall." -- Proverbs 16:18 (NKJV)

Henry Ford prided himself on rationalizing the economic model of the assembly line by preparing, if necessary, to develop his own raw materials so that neither shortages nor costs would derail his search for ultimate efficiency. Like many before him and many since then, Ford found out the limits of his business concept the hard way . . . by seeing others develop better alternatives that undermined his company's success.

One of these concepts involved avoiding the risk of paying too much for rubber, an essential raw material for tires and components. Rubber originally came from wild harvesting in the Amazon before some seeds were taken to Southeast Asia where plantation operations revolutionized production and lowered costs. Ford dreamed of creating massive, industrial-style plantations in the Amazon. His only problem was that he didn't bother to check out the agricultural facts: It was a bad idea because rubber plants are very vulnerable to disease in the Amazon when planted close together. Employ the same idea in other parts of the world, as Firestone did in Africa, and it would have worked.

A series of other miscalculations and errors followed so that Fordlandia became an expensive social experiment into creating Midwestern-style living in the jungle. Historian Greg Grandin expands the story to provide a glimpse into Henry Ford's personal philosophies and management style.

The results of trying to establish Fordlandia and the later developments were bad for virtually everyone, the typical consequences of ill-considered ventures.

The book will tell you more than you could expect to learn on your own about this obscure Ford venture.
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