The Greater America: An Epic Journey Through a Vibrant New Country

The Greater America

In 1905, Ralph Paine's editor asked him to "get out among the real Americans" and report back on what he found in the mysterious nation that was bursting into life beyond the Mississippi River. The veteran war correspondent covered 15,000 miles on his quest, and over the course of a year wrote twenty-three articles for Outing magazine, which published them as The Greater America.

"To read the book is to get a new appreciation of the greatness of America, the greatness of her present and the possibilities of her future" — That was the reaction in 1907 when Ralph Paine published his dispatches from his travels around and through a West that was fast losing its wildness.

Paine talked to homesteaders in sod huts, to the people building towns and laying railroads across the empty prairie, to cowboys making their last roundup on the once-open range, to lumberjacks who scorned any tree less than six feet through, to prospectors and sailors and confidence tricksters. He rode trains and horses, a pilot schooner, a stage coach, and a desert jalopy, taking copious notes wherever he found himself. The result, in the words of another admirer, was a book to make a man hold his head high, to step high, to throw out his chest."

That was important in 1907, when the United States was suffering growing pains, with a president who believed in American greatness while the "muckrakers" ranted about the evils of capitalism as seen from New York and Washington. All this will seem very familiar to Americans in 2017.

Paine's classic has now been edited and brought up to date by Daniel Ford, a prize-winning historian and author.

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The author

Ralph Paine was born in Illinois in 1871 but grew up in Florida. He finished high school at fifteen and went off to New Haven, Connecticut, to get a "classical" diploma from what is now Hillhouse High School. He entered Yale in the fall of 1889 but soon ran out of money. Retreating to home, he worked as a twelve-dollar-a-week reporter for the Florida Times-Union, a job that gave him money enough to return to college and the means to support himself while there.

Back in New Haven as a powerful nineteen-year-old, he played football and rowed for the Yale crew. After a game or a race, while his friends partied, he went to the telegraph office and dispatched "two or three thousand words" to his private syndicate of twenty newspapers, each paying a few dollars for an exclusive in its circulation area. Thus he financed his college education, with enough left over to help support his father and younger sister.

Graduating in 1894, Paine worked for the Philadelphia Press. Searching for adventure, he joined a gun-running expedition to Cuba, carrying a sword he was supposed to deliver to General Máximo Gómez of the rebel forces. He failed in that, but did succeed in being sought as a pirate for a battle in which his filibustering vessel shelled a Spanish gunboat.

Paine loved the excitement, and he returned to Cuba during the Spanish-American War. Two years later, he rode with the China Relief Expedition to Beijing, with the foreign troops sent to rescue civilians and diplomats trapped by the Boxer Rebellion.

Then, in 1903, he made two life-altering decisions: he married the love of his life, and he quit journalism to become a free-lance writer of books, stories, and magazine articles. The family lived in Forest Hill, New Jersey, convenient to New York publishers, though in time they moved to Massachusetts and finally to a salt-water farm in New Hampshire.

By my reckoning, Paine wrote forty-three books from 1904 to 1925, when he died of a heart attack while on jury duty. His output included novels, an autobiography, maritime history, adventure stories for boys, and the occasional ghostwritten book. (The first of those was Working with the Hands, which he wrote in collaboration with Booker T. Washington.)

One of his principal outlets was Outing magazine. This was the heyday of the "muckrakers" who specialized in exposing real and fancied ills of American life. Outing was a countervailing force, a handsome monthly combining elements of National Geographic, Field & Stream, Popular Mechanics, and Boys' Life. It preferred to celebrate the glories of an ever-expanding United States.

In September 1905, the editor made Paine an offer he couldn't refuse, to go on the magazine's pay-roll at $100 a week. The job: to "get among the real Americans," an assignment that resulted in twenty-one articles and finally this book, which the company published in May 1907.

Paine's output was prodigious. At one point he was working on no fewer than eight books, which many authors would call the work of a lifetime. More than once he finished a novel in a single month. His monumental The Ships and Sailors of Old Salem, 240,000 words and 693 oversized pages, took him just three months. His income averaged $6,000 a year, or about $155,000 today.

A typical chapter, article, or short story run to 3,000 words. That was a convenient day's work for him, two-finger-typing on a massive Remington with seven rows of keys, on a table fashioned from two equally massive slabs of wood, spiked one to the other in the shape of a T. If he needed ten hours to finish the day's work, that's what he devoted to the task, including most Sundays and at least one Christmas Day;

In 1968, I married Ralph Paine's granddaughter, and as a fond husband I read his books in chronological order. Of them all, The Greater America was my favorite. Sally and I tried to revive it, but we couldn't find a publisher willing to take a chance on it. Now, more than a century after the book was published, and with a president who promised to Make America Great Again, seems an ideal time for it to make a fresh appearance. What, after all, does a Greater America look like?

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