Review of Polar Literature

Book Review:

What America was like when Cook was at the Pole:
America 1908: The Dawn of Flight, the Race
to the Pole, The Invention of the Model T and the
Making of a Modern Nation.

By Jim Rasenberger

291 pages, 44 illustrations, New York: Schribner

ISBN 10 0-7432-8077-6

America, 1908: The Dawn of Flight, the Race to the Pole, the Invention of the Model T and the Making of a Modern Nation

I first encountered Jim Rasenberger as the author of a book called High Steel: the Daring Men Who Built the World’s Greatest Skyline. Those who have marveled at the majesty of the skyline of Manhattan from the harbor or on the approach to the city’s airports know of this image. I was part of a steel heritage study in Western Pennsylvania some two decades ago which reconstructed the origins of that “high steel” in the blast furnaces and rolling mills of Pittsburgh, Homestead, Braddock and other onetime citadels of an industry then at its apex.

Then the while-hot steel beams and rods and connectors would be stacked on sidings of the Pennsylvania Railroad, and soon shipped to their destinations in New York City.  The iron workers and other skilled tradesmen who put these products of the structural mills to form would report that the steel would still be warm when they were bolted together dozens of stories above the streets below.

Today we take for granted the skyscrapers that were the center of wonder of a new century. The technology seems primitive to us today, but one hundred years ago it was, according to writer Jim Rasenberger, “a ride through the highs and lows of a spectacular, pivotal year in American history.” 

The subtitle to his book America, 1908 tells it all: The Dawn of Flight, the Race to the Pole the Invention of the Model T and the Making of a Modern Nation. Rasenberger, a contributing editor of Vanity Fair, traces the 366 days of that leap year and interspersed throughout are Orville and Wilbur Wright, Henry Ford, Theodore Roosevelt, Frederick Cook and Robert Peary. 

A reviewer for Reed Business comments that “history does not fit neatly into 12-month segments, and Rasenberger frequently has to reach for benchmarks. Yes, during 1908, Henry Ford introduced the Model-T the first affordable automobile. However he’d actually invented the horseless buggy years before. These quibbles aside, what a difference a century makes, and how easy the confidence of 1908 looks by contrast with today. The imperially ambitious Theodore Roosevelt was president, and the world seemed ripe for redemption through American innovation, exploration and colonization. All righteous patriots applauded as TR dispatched his Great White Fleet on a Friendship Cruise round the world, to show off American might. Yet, as Rasenberger shows, a different reality lurked behind the red, white and blue banners. That same year anarchist Selig Silverstein exploded a bomb in New York City, and throughout the South blacks died at the ends of nooses hoisted by lynch mobs. Rasenberger renders 1908 as a series of snap shots, and his camera never blinks.”

Rasenberger has done his research, He notes that on the day that Cook and his two Inuit companions “ended their quest at the North Pole, another quest of a very different sort was beginning three thousand miles to the south” when Orville Wright boarded a train for the long journey to the Outer Banks, North Carolina to launch the age of flight. 

Cook’s commentary is throughout the book including chapter headings. The author had reference to the reprint edition of My Attainment of the Pole but for some reason did not cite his vindication by contemporary and latter-day explorers. Still, as books says, “as the earth turned toward the sun on the first morning of 1908, human flight remained, for most Americans, in the realm of myth and dream. But before the darkness fell on New Year’s Eve at the end of the year, the Wright bothers would be worldwide celebrities, heralded as the first people in all of human history to conquer the sky. 

“It was a time of seemingly boundless innovation everything was bigger, better, fast, and greater than ever before, In New York and Chicago, banks of high-speed elevators zipped through vertical shafts in the tallest building on earth. Pneumatic tubes whisked mail between far flung post offices in minutes. Women cleaned their homes with amazing new devices called vacuums. And as American engineers cut a fifty mile canal through the Isthmus of Panama the very air buzzed with the imagined potential of new technology, including a “portable wireless telephone” that would someday allow people to talk while they walked. 

“Meanwhile, the New York Giants battled the Chicago Cubs in one of the most thrilling seasons in baseball history, and a reluctant William Howard Taft was elected twenty-seventh president of the United States. By turns gripping and humorous, shocking, and delightful, Jim Rasenberger’s America, 1908 brings to life our nation as it was one hundred years ago, at a moment of delirious optimism and pride, a time when Americans believed that even the most intractable problems would soon be solved and that the future was bound to be better than the past.” 

“What will the year 2008 bring us?” pondered the New York World on New Year’s Day of 1908. “What marvels of development await the youth of tomorrow?” As Thomas Edison said later that year, “Anything, everything, is possible.”

 “Shedding new light on stories we thought we knew and telling fresh stories we can’t believe we’ve never heard, America, 1908 is a rousing chronicle of a country on the brink of greatness - and a timely, thought-provoking glimpse at a younger America, even as we wonder what awaits in the century ahead.”
- R. W. G.

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Copyright 2007 - The Frederick A. Cook Society