Every so often I discover books that use the elements to frame their stories. Having just returned from a trip to the USA, I was drawn to a book titled ‘The Men Who United the States’. The author, Simon Winchester, uses wood, earth, water, fire and metal as the basis of the five ‘Parts’ in the book. This framework is loosely based on Wu Xing, the fivefold conceptual scheme that is found throughout traditional Chinese thought.
The book focuses on the founding of the 50 states of America, spanning a period of around 250 years and broadly moving from the east to the west of the country. Part 1 of the book covers the period 1785 – 1805 ‘when America’s story was dominated by wood’. It starts in the garden of Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson, the third President of the United States. The link to Wood is that Jefferson had a lifelong fascination with trees and that at the time America had large areas of forest. The link to the foundation of the USA was Jefferson’s belief that American colonists should have the right to buy and sell land, borrow against its value, and pay taxes on it. This strong belief led to the Land Ordinance of 1785, a piece of legislation that laid down the rules for how the ‘new’ American countryside was to be described, divided and eventually distributed. The fact that Native Americans had lived on these lands for thousands of years appears to have been of no consequence.
Winchester has drawn together many interesting stories such as the one about Jefferson. The other Parts of the book cover the periods 1809 – 1901 (Earth), 1803 – 1900 (Water), 1811 – 1956 (Fire) and 1835 – tomorrow (Metal). One of the reasons for using the elemental framework was because the author felt it was difficult to tell the story chronologically. At times however it seems like some of the material has been forced into one of the five elements. As noted by the author, during his research for the book, the words wood, earth, water, fire and metal became like a mantra – a phrase repeated over and over again. Once you start looking for these connections, they are more easily found.
The choice of the Chinese framework to organise the book is unusual. Most of the western books I’ve seen that use the elements as a framework have chosen the classic Greek elements of fire, water, earth and wind. Sometimes spirit/ether is added. Winchester became aware of the importance of the elements to eastern cultures while travelling their in the 1970s. While their importance is in no doubt, I have to question his statement that the most commonly selected elements from India eastward are the five he used. As readers of this blog are aware, the Five Great Elements of India, and those of Buddhism, do not include metal and wood. Readers would also be aware that Wu Xing is much more than a list of physical elements.
While it has some rough edges, overall I found the elemental organisation of the book worked reasonably well. Some reviewers agree, saying that the book’s cleverness lies in its organisation, others don’t. Either way, the use of the elements provides a new perspective on the making and joining together of the States. It is also a fitting memorial to the author’s Japanese mother-in-law Mrs Akiko Sato – the last thing she wrote before she died were the five elements used in the book.