New Walker Title Takes the Measure of America

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Andro Linklater, English author of Measuring America: How the Greatest Land Sale in History Shaped the United States (Walker), a November/December Book Sense 76 pick, is continuing a long and worthy tradition, going back at least as far as de Toucqueville, of Europeans showing their American cousins the truth and relevance of what's under their very noses.

Or, in this case, beneath our feet.

Linklater, a former teacher and journalist and the author of eight previous books (including the cowritten The Code of Love), lived in the U.S. between 1968 and 1972 and was intrigued then by the pattern of squares formed by the American landscape when seen from above by airplane.

"It's most clear once you get to the Midwest," Linklater said recently by telephone from England, "where you see this terrific plaidwork of farm fields. It's extraordinary once you realize that the lines of the squares are going due north-south and due east-west. And I remember one particular flight, coming into O'Hare Airport, suddenly realizing that the urban development was also running north-south-east-west -- that the squares were continuing on, into the outskirts of Chicago. It just was very striking. Because if you then take the flight on, into London, you see the same kind of farming, in a way; but the fields are every kind of shape except the square."

Linklater, now living in a still-rural part of Kent where his address in part reads "Old Farm, Cow Lane," a few years ago found himself thinking once more about the States' patchwork-patterned countryside.

"About three or four years ago," he explained, "over here in Britain, it was [decided] that our traditional weights and measures -- the old gallons and yards and bushels -- would no longer be legally binding. And it just sort of struck me as weird that the U.S., the most advanced society under the sun, should then be the last society under the sun still using these traditional measures, which derive really from Anglo-Saxon measures."

Researching the subject, Linklater found that U.S. adherence to this tradition went back to the 18th century, when Thomas Jefferson was about to launch an ambitious mapping of the American territories.

After the War of Independence, said Linklater, the States had enormous debts: "They were almost bankrupt. And the one capital resource they had was the land west of the Appalachians, which they had acquired from the British. And if you're going to realize value from land, you have to measure it out. Jefferson suggested they survey it in squares, and that their miles should be decimal miles. There was a terrific wrangle, lasting almost ten years, and finally they decided, No, we're going to measure out the public land survey in feet and yards and acres, using this really archaic unit of measurement: the chain, which is 22 yards long."

Hence the gridwork of squares still seen from the air -- a visible remnant, across three million square miles, of the United States Public Land Survey: an undertaking the enthusiastic Linklater terms "the biggest man-made construct on earth.... I think it's the most exciting thing under the sun."

The Survey is one of several matters explored in Measuring America, Linklater's absorbing account of how "the American Customary System" of measure and its proponents came to shape the contours and history of the continent.

"The consequence," Linklater said, "is that it creates a new society. Up to 1785, every society in history distributes its land on a vertical basis: The most powerful have the most land, and those who've got no power at all have no land at all; and land is the prime source of wealth. Suddenly, in the course of the United States Public Land Survey, you get a society created where anyone can own it! It's as though land is being distributed horizontally. It's available on credit, on deferred terms. After 1862 and the Homestead Act, you don't even have to buy it, just occupy and improve it for five years and pay $15 to register it, and it's yours. And what you see is the beginning of capitalism and the beginning of democracy; I mean, there it is!"

Linklater discovered there was as yet no book about these matters and determined to write his own. After 18 months of initial research, he did a chapter-outline proposal which was taken to the Frankfurt Book Fair two years ago. HarperCollins of London quickly bought U.K. rights to Linklater's unwritten work. The interest of several American publishers, including Walker, led to an auction for U.S. publication.

"I spoke to the people who had put in the bids," Linklater said, "and I just sort of liked [Walker head] George Gibson's take on it, very much. So, though his wasn't the highest bid, I went with him, because I liked the way he understood the consequences of drawing this imaginary line in the wilderness leading to the creation of property. And it's that kind of social-cultural thing that I'm writing about, as much as the actual technicalities."

Linklater was, of course, aware of the success Walker had had ("a phenomenon") with Dava Sobel's Longitude. The author half-joked now, "My only justification for writing this book is that Dava Sobel came over to Britain and told us how we had invented longitude -- so I'm justified in going over to the U.S. and saying, 'Look: This is how you divided up the land.'"

With his book presold, Linklater did another nine months' research, including six weeks spent following the original surveyor's line throughout the States. "The thing I like very much about this project," he said, "is it isn't invisible history. Once you start looking for it, it is there.

And it's everywhere!"

One of his favorite moments, said Linklater, took place six thousand feet up in the California Sierras, in the company of a Bureau of Land Management surveyor checking a line first traced in the 1870s. "We found one of the marks the (early) surveyors had put in, blazed into a tree. They cut in the number of the square; and there we found it, in this now-huge yellow pinyon pine. You can still see it. And that absolutely makes the hair stand up on the back of your head! Because there you are, touching the original invisible line...."

Andro Linklater will be bringing his great enthusiasm for America's contours back to the U.S. for a book tour in January of next year.

Meanwhile, he has a different way of explaining Measuring America to England. He hearkens back to that archaic chain, 22 yards long, with which Jefferson's Public Land Survey was begun: "As it happens, a chain is exactly the length of a cricket pitch. So when I tell British audiences about this, I say: 'Look! This is the secret: The U.S. is measured out in cricket pitches.'" --Tom Nolan