By Edmund Morris
800 pp., Random House
Biography as literature lost one of its modern masters when Edmund Morris died in May. His magnum opus on Theodore Roosevelt, begun in the 1970s and completed a decade ago, made a forceful impression with its intimate, puckish embrace of the extraordinary TR, its immersion in detail and period context, its narrative pulse and verbal filigree. In this new biography, unexpectedly published posthumously, Morris deploys those extraordinary talents again to sculpt a staggeringly grand likeness of the American genius Thomas Alva Edison.
In the late 19th century, the unschooled Edison was the mastermind of then-unimaginable, even magical, technologies that revolutionized society in his lifetime and ours: to name just the most transformative, the incandescent lightbulb and the electrification of cities; the phonograph record and the machine to play it; the motion picture and the way to screen it. Edison’s volcanic brain and relentless drive spawned most of the conveniences we take for granted and the world of screens we inhabit today.
There were many hundreds of inventions, and hundreds more Edison didn’t have time to complete or never thought through. (And Morris loved lists, curating them with expertise and wit.) “On a single day, when he was 40 and full of innovative fire, he had jotted down 112 ideas for ‘new things,’ among them a mechanical cotton picker, a snow compressor, an electrical piano, artificial silk, a platinum-wire ice slicer, a system of penetrative photography (presaging radiology by 12 years), and a product unlikely to occur to anyone else, except perhaps Lewis Carroll: ‘Ink for the Blind.’ ”
That Edison was almost entirely deaf from the age of 12 made his determination to capture and broadcast sound all the more poignant. (Another deaf genius, Ludwig von Beethoven, is the subject of Morris’s slender penultimate biography.) Edison’s auditory challenges make for merry portraiture. The inventor liked to explain that he could hear music perfectly well by holding a stick in his teeth with the other end pressed against an acoustic speaker’s diaphragm. He once interrupted Sergei Rachmaninoff, who was auditioning (!) for a contract with Edison Records, after he heard him play a few bars. “Who told you you were a piano player? You’re a pounder!” roared Edison at the greatest pianist of his time.
From his first teenage days as a railroad telegrapher and newspaper publisher, Edison exhibited “the traits that distinguished him as an inventor — contrary thinking, obstinate repetition, daydreaming, delight in difficulty,” Morris writes. All his life he was given to intense periods of noodling, forswearing meals, sleeping at his desk, testing and retesting his ideas, and shepherding his favored brainchildren to manufacture, marketability and profit. His wives and real children paid the price.
As befits an American giant, Edison was not merely a scientific savant. He was an engineer and a businessman, too, a sui generis forerunner of the billionaire wizards of Silicon Valley, where this biography might be keenly appreciated. Half of this sizable volume is the chronicle of a gifted but clumsy corporate tycoon who lost many millions “in a career remarkable for profligate spending and wasted opportunities.”
Yet his frequent failures and constant frustrations, in Morris’s judgment, had their roots in the very qualities that made him prevail over his rivals, of whom there were many: “an impatient willingness, compulsion even, to take enormous risks,” “his certainty that any idea, no matter how revolutionary, was realizable through sheer doggedness of experiment,” “his habit of excitedly publicizing breakthroughs in advance, and his contempt for speculators, which did not stop him from betting on himself,” Morris writes. “Budgeting was as alien to him as football.”
With the kind of relish and study that would exhaust most biographers, Morris evidently set himself the task of understanding and mentally replicating every one of Edison’s scientific and engineering schemes. You can tell he is really into the material in such explanatory passages as this (relatively brief) one about “the chemical properties of raw rubber” as a sound-recording medium: “He knew how to vulcanize it by the Peachey process of double saturation with sulfur dioxide and hydrogen sulfide. And how to chlorinate it by predissolving crepe chunks in benzol. He could melt rubber in naphthalene and analyze it down to its most residual particles of manganese and copper.” Such rapture can sometimes go on for paragraphs — a tacit invitation to skim, with polite respect, as one might the whale tutorials in “Moby-Dick.”
With the same energy and boundless curiosity Morris wades into every patent dispute, corporate merger, partnership and estrangement and lawsuit that preoccupied Edison when he was not in the laboratory, or, as could happen, off fishing for a few days with the boys or taking his family on a lavish, weeks-long vacation.
What kind of man was Edison? At the peak of his powers, in his 30s, it depended on whom you asked. “To his employees, [he was] an Ubermensch; to his financial backers, an uncontrollable fantasist, half-genius, half-fool; to rivals, a publicity whore of no especial originality; to his wife and children, increasingly a stranger; to Patent Office examiners, a tireless nuisance, filing sixty applications in 1880 alone.” And more than 1,000 in his lifetime.
“Edison” has a structural distinction that begs for attention. In its creative audacity, it can’t help but recall the late biographer’s 14-year detour, in the midst of writing the three-volume Roosevelt trilogy, to write President Ronald Reagan’s authorized biography. When Reagan came to power in 1980, Morris was the toast of the literary world for “The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt,” which won the South Africa-raised author, a former advertising copywriter with no academic pedigree, the Pulitzer Prize before he turned 40. The Reagan entourage offered Morris what looked like a presidential biographer’s dream: full access to the president — and full independence in the finished product.
The deal was irresistible, perhaps, but it had sad consequences. One was a desperate book, when it finally appeared in 1999, and an intellectual defeat for its author; unable to plumb the void he found at the heart of his subject, Morris was driven to wild invention and near-reverie to cope. The other consequence was the delay in the completion of the Roosevelt trilogy. But complete it Morris did with “Theodore Rex” (2001) and “Colonel Roosevelt” (2010), both fulfilling the great promise of the first volume.
The literary streak in Morris’s narrative approaches gave us both the errant excess of “Dutch,” the Reagan book, and what, held in just enough check, makes the Roosevelt books so sublime. This almost mischievous stripe turns up instantly in “Edison.” Many a biography (or novel for that matter) begins with a funeral and then goes back to the beginning. This is the first one I can remember that tells a life story backward, from end to beginning, marching decade by decade from Edison’s death in 1931 to his birth in 1847.
This ludic approach makes for some awkward challenges for the reader, who meets Edison as an old man, his children as adults and his second wife before his first. In rewind, the renown and refinement and proliferation of Edison’s inventions long precede the thrilling eureka moments, plucky self-promotion and youthful ferment. To compensate, Morris gives us plenty of clues so that we’re not entirely in the dark, so to speak. But the effect is unnecessarily dizzying.
The biographer is not here to speak for himself, but one can surmise his attraction to a narrative arc that builds slowly to the peak — that is, to Edison’s yeastiest years of invention in the 1870s and 1880s. Written conventionally, the climax would have come too soon. Fortunately, both Edison and Morris were eccentric and brilliant enough to make even a life told in reverse a compelling experience.
Charles Trueheart is a contributing editor at the American Scholar.