Saturday, January 28, 2012

FORDLANDIA by Greg Grandin ✰✰✰

Fordlandia was a long haul for me, but having said that, I would like to make one clear statement: Greg Grandin is a wonderful writer, and his talent carried me through this book.  My issues with the work stem from my general boredom with all things economic and philosophical-what made me think that reading a book about an attempt to build not only a rubber plantation, but also a transplanted model American town, in the middle of the Amazon would be appealing, I do not know.
The book, in my opinion, is somewhat misleadingly titled, as at least half of the book gives a history of Henry Ford.  Not only his business theories are explored, but also his experiments with social engineering.  Those two things were inescapably entwined for him, because if a worker agreed to work for Ford, who paid the best wages of the day, they also subjected themselves to having much of their personal lives overseen by him.  Ford’s company had a Sociological Department whose employees visited private homes of workers to verify that proscribed levels of hygiene, neatness, and nutrition were being met.  Workers could be fired if they were found to be frequenting bars, smoking, or participating in illicit conduct.  Think new industrial feudalism, and that about sums it up.  It brought to my mind the Vice and Virtue police in modern Islamic societies.
Exactly what lead Ford to go into Brazil and attempt to establish a rubber plantation is still open to speculation.  Some argue that he honestly thought that he could apply his industrialization process to agriculture.  Others say that it was more of a social experiment: could he take the bygone small town America (which his own organized mechanization was largely responsible for eradicating) that he pined for and re-create it in the middle of the Amazon.  
The way the plantation was run is nothing short of startling to a modern, North American reader.  Admittedly, some things were good in some ways.  He provided great medical care in the middle of the jungle, but his doctors refused to respect local customs.  Healthy meals were provided in the mess hall, but workers were forced to eat the American foods that were served there and pay for the privilege.  Perhaps the most incomprehensible aspect was housing.  Initially, palm walled huts with thatched roofs were built; these were nice homes to the indigenous workers, and they were pleased with them.  Ford disagreed.  At his order, Michigan style Cape Cod bungalows were built.  The concrete floors and the tin roofs combined to turn them into what a local priest called “galvanized iron bake ovens”.  Rather than Amazonian housing built for the climate, Henry Ford, who had never been to the Amazon, insisted that his American styled village must have American styled homes.  Another item that was controlled by Ford was entertainment.  A dance hall was built, but the steamy Latin dances were expressly forbidden; a dance instructor and acceptable music were shipped in from Michigan and the laborers learned to dance with the only contact between the partners being the touching fingertips of one hand, and the tips of the man’s left forefinger and thumb resting on the woman’s waist.  Movies were also provided, but were vetted first by Ford managers.  
Perhaps the most amazing thing about the quest to grow rubber trees was the refusal of Henry Ford to bring in any kind of agricultural experts.  Ford had a long standing aversion to experts, believing that any man could learn any task, and refused to believe that loggers sent from Michigan to the Amazon couldn’t figure it out.  Like I said-Ford had never been to the Amazon.  I love reading about entomology and botany, so I enjoyed this section of the book, but if bud and crown grafting (yes, they did eventually convince Henry that an expert was needed) make your eyes glaze over the way that the effect of various wage structures on the economy do mine, this might not be your favorite aspect of the work.
Other events which are covered in the book include the Great Depression, World War II shifts in production, the rise of the unions (and Ford’s relations with them), Ford company changes as Henry aged (remember I said he was a contradictory fellow), and the effect of various governments-both American and Brazilian-on the whole enterprise.
I knew very little about Henry Ford when I picked up this book.  His breaking down of production processes into thousands of orderly parts, performed in turn by individual workers is well know and was more or less the extent of my knowledge.  Reading this I came to realize what a complex, contradictory, and idealistic individual he truly was.  As I read through Greg Grandin’s superb ending to his tale, in which he does an excellent job summing up what happened both in Michigan and the Amazon after Ford’s death, what struck me most forcefully was that in the end those things which meant the most to Ford became the greatest ironies.  Only the immediate history of the company after Ford is covered, but a brief look at the economy and fate of the Amazonian region around Fordlandia covers up until publication of the book in 2009.  It was an excellent, but heart-wrenching conclusion to a very odd story.
Overall, a three, maybe three and a half star read for me.  I did enjoy it because I learned a tremendous amount about a subject of which I knew nothing, but there was a fair amount of economic theory, philosophy, and social engineering-all elements that do not combine to make for a higher ranking read for me personally.  If you are a reader who enjoys business history with an undeniably interesting twist, or who has no aversion to my issues and is fascinated by Ford and/or the Amazon, this work will likely rank much higher with you, as Grandin’s research and writing truly are outstanding.


  1. Interesting. You would think a smart man like Henry Ford would know when to seek assistance in areas that are obviously outside his normal areas of expertise. I agree, economic theory is not something I would pursue for pleasure reading, but this does sound like a very odd and interesting story. Great review!

  2. Thanks, Becky! It was an interesting read, in some measure because he was such an odd duck!