Fordlandia: novelistic history of Henry Ford's doomed midwestern town in the Amazon jungle

Greg Grandin's Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford's Forgotten Jungle City is the best kind of historical nonfiction: a thrilling, engrossing narrative about odd events that serve to illuminate the large and fascinating shifts of the world's values, politics, and economics.

In 1927, Henry Ford was basically conned into tapping the Brazilian Amazonian rainforest for latex. The Amazon was the birthplace of latex rubber, but had not been a substantial producer of industrial latex — plantations in UK and Dutch tropical colonies outproduced Brazil by a large margin, thanks, in part, to the absence of local parasites that plagued Amazon trees. Ford was convinced that the Brit-led charge to cartel-ize the rubber trade would send the cost of essential materials skyrocketing, and resolved to become independent of foreign powers for his rubber.

So he set off for the Amazon, armed with hubris, spite, madness, vision, utopianism and contempt for expertise. He resolved not merely to establish a rubber plantation in the heart of the jungle, but rather to establish a small, perfect midwestern town in the middle of the Amazon, a place where Fordism and its model villages, squeaky-clean abstinence, freedom from trade unionism, and emphasis of turning industrial workers into avid consumers of industrial goods would reign supreme.

For more than a decade, Ford's men did battle with the wilderness, with Brazil, and with Brazilians, striving to overcome Ford's distant edicts (a revolt was sparked, for example, on Ford's personal insistence that plantation workers be fed midwestern cooking at the mandatory mess-hall), internal Ford politics (the plantation was originally overseen by someone from Harry Bennett's notorious Social Department, a first-class thug and profiteer), and the Fordist contempt for expertise that caused them to eschew all botanical, parasitological, and agricultural advice.

Grandin's account of this battle is exquisitely researched and serves as a springboard for a moving and often thrilling account of the way that the world's ideology shifted because of (and in spite of) Ford's ideals and vision.

Grandin goes beyond the caricature of Ford as a union-busting anti-Semite villain and paints a subtler picture: a picture of a man who was, on the one hand, deeply committed to restoring human dignity to industrial society; and on the other, often found himself on the wrong side of the battle for liberty, dignity and freedom. Ford was the first industrialist to hire blacks at the same wage as whites, but his goons beat and chased black workers out of the model towns where the best Ford jobs were to be had. Ford was an anti-war activist who thought the worst day was when the beautiful word "machine" was married to the ugly word "gun," but he produced (and grew rich on) munitions and materiel in his factories.

Against this backdrop, we have the story of Fordlandia, an anachronistic and even sweet version of capitalist globalism: while today's globalists chase the lowest wages they can find around the globe to increase their profits by lowering their costs; Ford wanted to build an industrial Brazil where "savage" jungle tappers were turned into the same kind of industrial consumers that had both built and bought Model Ts in such number as to make him the richest man on the Earth (Ford also hated consumerism and materialism and his critique of Marxism was that the abundance capitalism would usher in would free workers from materialist anxiety and allow them to set aside their pursuit of their next meal or next year's model in favor of self-reliance and community).

Fordlandia reads like a novel, the characters lively and improbable, the events weird and often darkly hilarious. But it's history, and it's the kind of history that opens your mind and changed your perspective. It's a tremendous read, and highly recommended.

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