Redrawing the New York-Comics Relationship

Subjective Ramblings and Peripheral Thoughts from the Edges of a Comics Studies Project

Book Review: William Langewiesche’s “American Ground”

Journalist William Langewiesche’s 2002 American Ground: Unbuilding the World Trade Center is a unique piece of 9/11 literature. Soon after the attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, Langewiesche secured unrestricted access to the scene and proceeded to cover it extensively until the recovery and clean-up process was complete in May, 2002.

The resulting story, told in three (over)long chapters, is insightful.* The opening portion of the book is dedicated to a detailed account of the series of events of that morning, from the hijackers boarding the planes to the planes crashing into the Twin Towers and the towers subsequent collapse. The rest of the book is largely devoted to the search for survivors and the process of clearing the rubble. Langewiesche’s portrait is mainly dedicated to construction workers, engineers, and city functionaries, rather than the firefighters and policemen who were presented as the main figures on the scene in most other media. Having had unique access, he also gives readers a glimpse of what lay beneath the surface of the rubble.

This gives a different kind of insight into life at Ground Zero. But American Ground provides another type of insight that has likewise not been forthcoming from other quarters. Running as a red thread throughout the book, but becoming especially pronounced in the final chapter, is a sense of tribalism dividing firemen, cops, and construction workers that led to harsh words and at times even to violent clashes.

While Langewiesche can be said to have created something akin to a narrative of engineering and construction heroes, the end product has a critical edge to it that is invaluable. This book is recommended as a companion for anyone who wants to try and understand what life was like on the ground at the epicenter of an event that has exerted a powerful influence on a global scale for just over fourteen years now.

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* Each of the chapters is around 70 pages long, without any subheadings to help reorient the reader or signal a shift from one person or focus to another.

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