Like many European visitors to the US, Andro Linklater was fascinated by the shape of the place, particularly the coherent patterns of uniform grids - of city blocks, farms and roads - that overlay most of the country. In Measuring America , he tries to figure out who, or what, shaped this unique land pattern. Beginning with Congressional authorisation of the survey and sale of the land west of the Ohio River in 1785, he follows the men behind the acquisition, survey and sale of the vast western lands beyond the Appalachian Mountains.
These were brilliant men, such as Edmund Gunter, the 17th-century Welshman who perfected the 22-yard surveying chain; persistent men, such as Rufus Putnam, who became surveyor-general of the US in 1796; and erudite men, such as Thomas Jefferson, who had a hand in most matters of measurement, and who unsuccessfully argued for the democratisation of landholding.
Yet the book is more than this. With a sweeping transatlantic eye, Linklater also tells a grand tale of the emergence of the science of surveying, of the European struggle to impose uniformity in measurements, and of the slow triumph of the metric system. He ranges widely in time, from the English enclosure movement to the dispossession of indigenous peoples throughout the British Empire in the 19th century. It is, above all, the extraordinary story of the power of measurement.
This is a tale worth telling, but Linklater sometimes stumbles, losing his way amid inflated rhetoric. In a fit of hyperbole, he states early in the book that the significance of the grid system was that it "released" into the "western wilderness" the idea that "the land might be owned, like a horse or a house". Surely that idea needed no help from Gunter's chains and links. And, in emphasising the force of personalities over practice and policies, Native Americans are reduced to shadowy scalpers who get in the way of the real heroes - the surveyors and speculators.
Indeed, while Linklater seems painfully aware of the human costs associated with the exercise of control over measurement, he seems unable to subvert his essentially triumphalist narrative. Thus, in his quest to explain the shape of America, he almost inadvertently manages to romanticise the dispossession of the Native American and revel in the acumen of corrupt federal officials buying depreciated land warrants from needy military veterans, while sustaining the myth that America was a society in which land ownership was "horizontal rather than vertical".
That he does so in such a compelling fashion is testimony to the often unspoken tension between the insistent hopefulness of the American Dream and its more depressing reality.
Michael A. McDonnell is lecturer in Atlantic history, Sydney University, Australia.
Measuring America: How the United States Was Shaped by the Greatest Land Sale in History
Author - Andro Linklater
Publisher - HarperCollins
Pages - 312
Price - £7.99
ISBN - 0 00 710888 5