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October 19 2019
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Thomas Edison with his first phonograph, developed as a result of his work on two other inventions: the telegraph and the telephone.

Edison by Edmund Morris

The lyric acuity that the late Edmund Morris brought to biography is on flickering, posthumous display in Edison, which has its 22-year-old subject shivering one night on a New Jersey train platform: “The cold he could stand with multiple layers of underwear, and the darkness he would one day do something about.”

Morris, who died on May 24, depicts a man of such ramshackle complexity that Thomas Edison seems to have sprung from Rube Goldberg’s drawing board rather than from his own perfectionist laboratory. When judging him to be “superbly balanced,” Morris is really talking about the equipoise of a volatile chemical compound: “a combination of twinkling charm and bruising imperiousness”; a man who enjoyed his deafness as insulation against the chattering of slower minds around him.

The inventor resembles one of the author’s previous subjects, Ronald Reagan, in having been “at once gregarious and distant,” and Morris never fully succeeds in netting the tricky beast. But his binoculars catch numerous fine sightings. As he says was the case with Frank Dyer, Edison’s lawyer and first biographer, Morris seems to have “venerated Edison without particularly liking him,” though he crucially allowed himself to be infected by Edison’s spells of excitement, the workaholic days and nights just before a hunch would burst into a eureka.

A man who enjoyed his deafness as insulation against the chattering of slower minds around him.

The phonograph, which Edison first conceived “as a business device” for dictation, remained his favorite among all the wonders he summoned to life. When Alexander Graham Bell called out “Mr. Watson—come here,” the Scotsman was conquering space, projecting his voice where it couldn’t have gone without the just-invented telephone. When Edison, in 1877, recited “Mary Had a Little Lamb” toward a “foil-wrapped cylinder” that preserved the words—potentially forever—he was vanquishing time. Morris thus notes “the almost occult nature of his invention.” In subsequent decades, Edison resisted taking his company into the world of radio, perhaps because that mechanism, like the telephone and telegraph before it, continued to battle mere distance instead of eternity.

One Percent Inspiration

Edison followed sound with light. Discovering, on August 2, 1880, that a strain of Japanese bamboo would burn inside a vacuum bulb for “nearly three and a half hours at the dazzling incandescence of 71 candles,” he joined a joyous conga line of associates in his Menlo Park, New Jersey lab “as they danced in serpentine fashion around the workbenches, then downstairs and out into the night, singing and cheering.” The engineering and political maneuvers it would soon take to light up Lower Manhattan—a sort of demonstration project for the rest of the world—are rendered by Morris with casual rapture. The reader learns that only days after Scientific American printed the design diagrams for Edison’s subterranean lighting station, “gas company workers were seen removing their globes from streetlamps around Pearl [Street] and trundling them away in wagons.”

The loveliness of such narrative moments counterbalances what results from Morris’s attempts, elsewhere, to extract a kind of poetic thrill from the specialized vocabularies of experimentation: “It was an infusible phenolic resin impregnated with a heterocyclic compound of ammonia and formaldehyde.” This apparent effort to spellbind through diction only ends with the reader’s eyes glazed over. Even so, Morris continues with such technical rhapsodies, sometimes letting the men in Edison’s story get lost in the machines, as if the biographer were perpetrating a kind of industrial accident.

When Edison recited “Mary Had a Little Lamb” toward a “foil-wrapped cylinder,” he was vanquishing time.

The business aspects of invention, never Edison’s forte, involved perilous cash flows, patent disputes, and anti-trust orders. But none of that could deter him from looking over every hill for some new chimera he could turn into practical fact. The synchronization of moving pictures and sound gave him a devil of a time; he coined the word “talkies” before he could get his Kinetophone to work right. The entertainment value of even silent films was immediately clear to everyone, but Edison always saw the future of movies in educational reels for the classroom. Were he around today, he’d be enthusing over online education and promoting robotic space probes over the clumsier manned variety.

As the first decades of the 20th century passed by, the whales he chased got bigger and whiter. His “compulsive interest” in iron mining—in extracting ore by means of magnetism—nearly bankrupted him, and in the years before his death, in 1931, an obsessive belief that “he would be able to coax rubber from plant tissue, as he had once coaxed music out of tinfoil,” effected little more than a trickle.

The Benjamin Button Approach

In his own final decades, Edmund Morris was obsessed with liberating the form of biography, elevating those who write it from a status as “gossips or drones” toward something like the one enjoyed by novelists and poets. In Dutch, his portrait of Reagan, Morris said he “wanted to show how many ways biography could be written, using all the techniques of creative literature (even screenplays and poetry)”—as well as fictional characters.

For his last biography he decided, with no prefatory explanation, to tell the story of Edison’s life backwards. That youthful railroad-platform scene quoted above doesn’t occur until page 611, in the second-to-last chapter. We get the geriatric rubber quest long before we get light bulbs and the phonograph; meet Edison’s second wife before his first; encounter the former’s—that is, the latter’s—responsible son in advance of seeing two wastrels from the earlier marriage. Maddening failures of exposition and resonance occur because of this structural experiment that Morris refuses to abandon: Nikola Tesla winds up being identified as “a phenomenally gifted young Serbian engineer” a hundred pages after we’ve already seen him tussling with Edison over fluorescence and X-rays. Years ago, in an essay, Morris proclaimed his admiration for the deathbed scene in Lytton Strachey’s Queen Victoria (1921), in which “seminal events and impressions that occurred in chronological order during the course of the biography are recapitulated in reverse”—a flourish that becomes unremarkable when one remembers that Strachey first allowed a reader to see the events in their actual sequence.

If the Reagan book ended up a daring fiasco—its superbly insightful passages getting lost in audience confusion and outrage—the ass-backwards strategy of Edison seems merely perverse, a pointless gesture of literary self-assertion that leaves form flummoxing function at every turn. In electrical matters Edison always favored direct current over the alternating variety; Morris’s constant reversals ultimately take down the whole grid and leave the reader in the dark. By the time of Dutch, his problem was his own giftedness, his need to compete as a figure of a magnitude comparable to that of his subjects. He ended up demonstrating that biography may be the only literary genre that can suffer from practitioners with too much talent.

Thomas Mallon is the author of several novels including, most recently, Landfall and Finale

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