Several years into an accounting career, Eric Rutkow ’98 was feeling restless, so he headed to South America. A subsequent year of travel led to the publication of his most recent book, The Longest Line on the Map: The United States, the Pan-American Highway, and the Quest to Link the Americas (Scribner 2019).
“A lot of that time I was traveling on the Pan American Highway by car, from the top of Peru down to Santiago, Chile,” he recalls.
Rutkow says the road intrigued him because it didn’t fit his understanding of Latin American history.
“When you find something that doesn’t quite fit the story you know, that’s what makes it interesting,” he says. “I started researching, thinking I would write about a twenty-year development project. But the story kept getting bigger and bigger…eventually I appreciated that it wasn’t about building a highway. It was a bigger drama and it was the quest to link the Americas.”
Rutkow says two central conflicts factor into the story of the highway’s development, one being the quintessential story of man versus nature.
“There are sections where they are doing big overland surveys that were reported as big successes, but turns out they were huge disasters,” he ways.
The second force at play was politics – man versus man. From the will to get the road finished to international relations issues, the Mexican revolution, and a coup in Guatemala in 1954, the journey to complete the road was fraught with conflict.
A focus of Rutkow’s research is the “why” behind building the road in the first place. Noting that the movement to construct modern roads was a principal factor in advancing American society – linking people, goods and services – Rutkow’s book explores the vision of roads as connectors between cultures and commerce, and explores the highway as an effort to help unite the Americas.
Given the current domestic political discourse over building a wall along American’s southern border, Rutkow says his book also examines the role U.S. presidents played in linking the Americas.
“You can really see the nature of what infrastructure means hemispherically, and how that has shifted from connection to division purposes,” he says.
A writer, lawyer and historian, Rutkow previously taught at Yale University, where he received his Ph.D., and recently joined the faculty of the University of Central Florida as an assistant professor of history. At Lawrenceville he was involved in orchestra and was president of the jazz band.
“There’s no question that Lawrenceville helped nurture a sense of independence for me from a very young age,” Rutkow says. “Lawrenceville was influential in shaping my character.”
His first book, American Canopy: Trees, Forests, and the Making of a Nation (Scribner 2012), received the Association of American Publisher’s PROSE award for U.S. history, was named one of the top 12 books of the year by Smithsonian magazine, and was selected for Oprah’s online book club.
“Lawrenceville has a pretty important role in a number of the stories of American Canopy,” Rutkow says, citing his references to Frederick Law Olmsted, who designed New York’s Central Park and Lawrenceville’s original campus, and Aldo Leopold, Class of 1905.
“The trees on Lawrenceville’s campus are pretty ridiculous – some of the nicest trees anywhere,” he says. “It wasn’t something I was all that conscious of, but now that I go back I’m really into it.”
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