U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Book Review Commentary: Stross’ The Wizard Of Menlo Park

Since we can experiment with unusual things at USIH, I’m going to take a chance and comment on Tim Rutten’s review of Randall E. Stross’ new book, The Wizard of Menlo Park: How Thomas Alva Edison Invented the Modern World. The review was originally published on April 18 by the Chicago Tribune. Here goes:

– Rutten: “Americans disdain abstraction, but they adore practical genius. Hence the long and reverential infatuation with Thomas Edison.”

TL: How true is either statement? Do U.S. citizens “disdain abstraction” or “adore practical genius” any more than denizens of other countries? Is this a Eurocentric statement, written with regard to France and its purported love affair with abstract thought? Aren’t the “British” supposed to love practical thinking also?

If Thomas Edison represents our adoration of practical genius, what does our love affair with the ideals of our “Founding Fathers” symbolize? What of the admiration of Albert Einstein that’s long been a part of U.S. popular culture? In my own work on the history of the great books idea, I’ve found that, for various periods (i.e. the 1940s), denizens of the United States made a fad of setting up reading and discussion groups centered on the ‘great books.’ Even today people seem to admire the reading and discussion groups associated with, in my current home city, the One Book, One Chicago program. How does our purported love for the practical explain these phenomena?

– Rutten: “There is no shortage of Edison biographies, and at least 10 adult accounts of his life are in print, along with a nearly equal number of children’s versions.”

TL: I concur that the numbers of child’s biographies represents an attempt to foster particular values: inventiveness, practicality, applicability, resourcefulness, etc. But is this a reflection of what Americans in general demand, or what publishers/educators provide?

– Rutten: “Stross is a Stanford-trained historian, a professor of business who writes the New York Times’ Digital Domain column from Silicon Valley.”

TL: This should give us a clue about the book’s analytical focus: namely, business.

– Rutten: Stross’ “principal contribution to our understanding of Edison is to see in him a prototype for the businessman-celebrity hybrid that has become such an influential fixture of our time.”

TL: Fair enough, but does this prove that U.S. denizens abhor the abstract and adore the practical? It seems to prove what a number of cultural historians (i.e. Warren I. Susman) have told us years: we love celebrity and personality. This has been ongoing since the 1920s at least. But celebrity voyeurism has nothing to do with abstraction or practicality.

– Rutten: “As a journalist himself, Stross does a particularly adroit job of showing how Edison used his era’s nascent popular press and popularizing magazines to transform himself from tinkerer into inventor and sage.”

TL: Enter intellectual history. Stross appears to be arguing, in Rutten’s view, that Edison sought the image of a “sage.” If so, perhaps Edison himself has been instrumental in fostering the image that practicality matters more than abstraction in the U.S.? If the abstract/practical tug-of-war is real, then perhaps Edison helped create the false dichotomy in U.S. popular culture? If so, it would seem that Edison is someone to denigrated (somewhat) rather than celebrated.

– Rutten: “One of the book’s more interesting sections deals with the close relationship between Edison and Henry Ford, who once told reporters, ‘I think Mr. Edison is the greatest man in the world, and I guess everyone does.’ Edison reciprocated because he found in Ford a kindred spirit.”

TL: Henry Ford was certainly complicit in creating an “anti-intellectualism” in U.S. cultural life? I believe Hofstadter has shown this in more than one book. So perhaps Edison needs to be included, somewhat paradoxically, in accounts of U.S. anti-intellectualism?

– Rutten: “Edison kept another kind of score [in contrast to the wealth of Ford]. He registered a mind-boggling 1,093 patents. If the work that had gone into them often was done by his uncredited assistants — and Stross makes a convincing case that it was — the Wizard of Menlo Park had a keen sense of the patent score’s importance to his legend.”

TL: If so, isn’t Edison just a fraud? Isn’t “the wizard” label then the equivalent of perpetuating a myth?

So, in sum, Edison was a self-promoting celebrity, in cahoots with Henry Ford, who cheated his assistants out of patent recognition. This validates a negative, even devilish version of Edison’s “wizard” label.

But in returning to Rutten’s opening statement, Edison’s “attributes” – even if negatively viewed – have everything to do with his desires and little to do today’s overall tendencies in U.S. cultural life. Edison perhaps contributed to a potential tendency for the practical, but his fame isn’t proof that people in the U.S. always and everywhere avoid abstract thinking. – TL

2 Thoughts on this Post

  1. It appears that the reviewer is making a very similar claim to the one that I did in the opening paragraph of the Anderson piece on the book review page. I cannot speak for the Tribune writer, but I certainly did not invoke the claim of the American lack of interest in theoretical or intellectual matters with a great deal of argumentative rigor, because it seems so commonsensical. Tim, are you really claiming otherwise? Do you actually think that Americans respect intellectual pursuits in the same way that they do, say, athletic, artistic, or commercial ones? The way we allocate our time, money, attention, etc. doesn’t really suggest this to be the case.

  2. Mike, I sometimes think the “Commonsensical” is just what deserves our greatest argumentative rigor. And so:
    i.) are we driving an unnecessary wedge by trying to separate the abstract from the practical? Except at some rudimentary level, are these adjectives necessarily opposite? Imagine, for instance, how abstract must have seemed Franklin’s electricity demonstrations or Einstein’s curved spatial notions. Both have proven to be very practical kinds of knowledge, right? And if “reality” eventually turns out to be as complex as it seems it might, we would not want to have discounted abstract thinking as “impractical?”
    ii.) unless I misread, a big part of Tim’s argument is not an attempt to position Americans as somehow more Philosophical than other peoples, but to object to the tired and untested notion that Americans suffer from a comparative deficit of intellectual appetites. Yes, Pragmatism has deep roots in North America, and its underpinning premise is blatantly “practical.” But another school, America’s version of Transcendentalism, has a surprisingly close genetic genesis, and I have never heard Emerson described as “practical,” poetic perhaps, but practical? There are many American scholars working topics that could be considered “Continental” philosophy as well. Do we find Americans sitting around sipping Cafe Americano and discussing Phenomenology? Yes and No. But the question is, “Is there any evidence that Americans sit around talking LESS Philosophy than anywhere else?” And this is a question that would have to have empirical answers. A good start might be a study of the number of academic scholars employed in the humanities, a count of the related books published and sold in North America, a census of students taking philosophy courses.
    But have I misconstrued your position?

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