The late Edmund Morris, who wrote biographies of Ronald Reagan, Ludwig van Beethoven and Theodore Roosevelt — winning a Pulitzer Prize for the latter — approached his subjects with meticulous research and diamond-sharp prose. With his final, posthumous work, “Edison,” he successfully excavated once again a life-size figure from an outsized legend.
Just as a scientist begins with observed phenomena and works backward to explain it, Morris begins “Edison” at the end of the inventor’s life, concluding with the man in his 20s struggling to balance the demands of newfound celebrity with a need for solitude. This isn’t the first time Morris experimented with structure. He drew criticism by inserting himself as a fictional narrator in his biography of Reagan. But here the book’s unusual shape makes good plotting sense and builds anticipation: As Thomas Edison grows younger, readers grow closer to the moment he creates his most famous invention, the incandescent light bulb.
Morris portrays the months leading up to this moment with cinematic power, giving equal weight to the intriguing details of Edison’s experiments and to his emotional state as he emerged, at last, from an abyss of failures.
Edison is presented not only as a brilliant inventor but as an iconoclastic thinker who inspired the men who worked for him. Morris cites a speech given by an employee who at first resisted but then saw logic in Edison’s ideas about electricity, ideas that countered the prevailing thinking of the day: “How simple the result often is when the darkness of ignorance is lighted by the genius of one man.”
But “Edison” is not hagiography. On the contrary, he’s depicted as having had few friendships, two strained marriages, and estranged relationships with his three eldest children. He was closest, we learn, to his son Charles, who helped run his father’s conglomerate of enterprises, but even their relationship was marred by mistrust and irreconcilable business strategies. Edison, it seems, was terrible with money, nearly bankrupting his labs on more than one occasion.
Morris emphasizes the emotional toll the inventor’s volatility had on his family by quoting from wife Mina’s letters to her children. She often felt “utter uselessness” in her role as wife, abandoned by a husband who spent most nights in his laboratory. Excerpts from Edison’s journals suggest he was all but completely indifferent to her unhappiness: “Ask me nothing about women — I don’t understand them.”
Here and throughout the book, Morris wields archival materials like an expert storyteller. Instead of weighing down the plot, they elevate it by setting scenes and shedding light on the interior lives of those who knew Edison best. Pages from Edison’s journals are reproduced throughout so we can see his handwriting — as well as his drawings. One particularly amusing highlight is his “Magritte-like” rendering of Mina as “an airborne clock.”
Exhaustive in scope but paced like a novel, “Edison” is a definitive biography by one of the finest practitioners of the craft.
Amy Brady is the editor-in-chief of the Chicago Review of Books.
By: Edmund Morris.
Publisher: Random House, 783 pages, $38.