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Edmund Morris died this past May of a stroke at the age of 78, having written the final sentence of “Edison” several months before. Composing in longhand and obsessed with the craft of writing — he considered 300 well-chosen words a day to be his productive limit — Morris was known for taking his time. His magisterial trilogy of Theodore Roosevelt, published over a span of three decades, won him a Pulitzer Prize for Volume 1. His next project, “Dutch,” a 14-year journey into the mind of Ronald Reagan, earned him something perhaps more coveted than a Pulitzer: a $3 million advance. Given free run of the White House and unparalleled access to Reagan himself, Morris came down with a severe case of writer’s block. He couldn’t get a handle on the president, whom he found inscrutable and “simply boring.” To liven things up, Morris added a handful of fictional characters (the lead one named “Edmund Morris”) to stand by Reagan’s side and tell his story in a more memorable way. The reviews weren’t kind.
Thomas Edison presents few such problems. A figure of astonishing brilliance and manic productivity, he cared so little for the feelings of other people (save the big investors who bankrolled his ventures) that he saw no reason to keep anything bottled up inside. His archive runs to five million pages, including the pocket notebooks he carried everywhere to record the ideas that came in torrents, and the brutally frank letters he wrote about the failures of immediate family members he otherwise studiously ignored. Were it left solely to Edison, he would have locked himself away in his lab, emerging every few months to announce yet another miraculous discovery. “His need to invent,” Morris says, “was as compulsive as lust.”
For some unexplained reason, Morris decided to write this saga in reverse, beginning with Edison’s final years and working backward to his birth in small-town Ohio in 1847. It’s the biographical equivalent of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” though Fitzgerald had the good sense to make it a short story, while Morris’s “Edison” comes in at just under 800 pages, including footnotes. Some readers may see the device as gimmickry, following in the questionable footsteps of Dutch. At a minimum, it takes some getting used to, because we’re never quite certain how one event builds upon another or whether a character who appears early in the book (but late in Edison’s life) is central to the story. This leads to a lot of flipping back and forth through the chapters, with a heavy reliance on the index to keep things straight.
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Here is a direct link to the complete review.
David Oshinsky is an American historian. He is the director of the Division of Medical Humanities at NYU School of Medicine and a professor in the Department of History at New York University.