FORDLANDIA: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford’s Forgotten Jungle City. Greg Grandin. Metropolitan Books, $27.50.
In 1927, Henry Ford bought a Connecticut-sized piece of the Amazon and built an authentic American town in the Brazilian jungle, complete with electric lights and indoor plumbing. In Ford’s conception, Fordlandia would be an independent source of raw materials for his burgeoning auto empire, and a way to preserve the vanishing America of his Michigan childhood. His enormous wealth and willpower enabled him briefly to establish a utopia in the jungle, complete with golf courses, ice cream parlors, movie theaters and Victrolas. But these were succeeded by brothels, bars and disease. Like the Lincoln Zephyr in the photograph at right, stuck in Fordlandia mud, Ford’s experiment finally foundered in the wilderness, and in 1945 he sold the whole property back to Brazil.
In Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford’s Forgotten Jungle City, New York University historian Greg Grandin recounts the whole tale, from Ford’s first searches for an independent source of rubber to his culminating dream of a civilizing engine in the Amazon. One U.S. diplomat in Brazil, trying to explain why Ford was committed to a venture unlikely to be profitable, wrote to his superiors in the State Department that “Mr. Ford considers the project as a ‘work of civilization.’ . . . Nothing else will explain the lavish expenditure of money.”
The story of the jungle suburb is so outlandish that many writers would be tempted to reduce it to a fable—an ecological parable or a screed against imperialism—or to draw analogies to Joseph Conrad or El Dorado. But Fordlandia was a real, complex endeavor, and Grandin refuses to simplify its lessons. For him, ultimately, it’s a window into the curious character of Henry Ford, a self-made titan whose own factories had begun to cast a shadow across the America that had produced him. That his Amazon adventure failed shows the limits of what his hubris could accomplish, but that he embarked on the adventure at all reveals his tortured idealism, and that elevates Fordlandia to a quixotic tragedy.—Greg Ross