Tuesday, May 7, 2013

I Invented the Modern Age by Richard Snow - Book Review

Richard Snow has written a love story; a love story between Henry Ford, the model T Ford, and the American people that changed the world and created the twentieth century. In I Invented the Modern World: The Rise of Henry Ford (Scribner, 2013, 384 pages, $30.00) Snow presents a narrative filled with Ford's ability, his monomania, his shortsightedness, his venality, his charm, and his genius. It reads like a novel, yet is clearly the result of careful and serious scholarship. Reading this book is essential for anyone seeking to gain a clear understanding of the twentieth century as well as the times we live in today.

Opening with a portrait of the elder Henry Ford accumulating memorabilia from his childhood to recreate what he imagines he remembers of the late nineteenth century at Greenfield Village, near Darborn, MI, the book quickly moves to Ford's childhood on the family farm. Born on July 30, 1863, just three days after the battle of Gettysburg, Ford's life spans from the height of the industrial revolution to the end of the greatest war the world has experienced. His world view, nurtured by the homilies of the McGuffey Readers, was formed in a time of simplicity and charm which became more easy and more complicated because of his creative engineering and organizational genius. The book spans his life and career from the time of his birth until the release of the Model A Ford in 1927. 

1910 Model T Ford

Early in life Ford showed a mechanical aptitude combined with a questing spirit and a tendency to view problems in a way that would provide new solutions. He was resistant to work on the family farm, always seeking ways to avoid it or make it easier. Even as a child he quickly learned to disassemble and reassemble mechanical things such as watches and steam engines. He chafed at farm work and left Dearborn for nearby Detroit when he was sixteen years old. He seems to have been an extremely likable young man, one whom others were eager to be associated with and complete tasks for. He quickly moved through several jobs, always learning as he moved. He was soon recognized for his mechanical skill and engineering prowess, attracting employers and investors willing to put money behind him. As his success increased, many of his early advocates lay scattered behind him, maneuvered out of being in any position to control him. With the founding of the Ford Motor Company in 1903, Ford gained complete control of his enterprise. 

Henry Ford 1919

Ford introduced the Model T Ford, after a number of prototypes, in 1908, producing and selling it for the next nineteen years with relatively few major changes. The model T became the first low cost, affordable automobile, creating a need for improved roads and access to the developing world for farmers and other rural people across the United States. This was made possible through his pioneering work in developing mass production on the production line, enabling him to constantly lower prices on his vehicles. He also instituted the $5.00 a day wage, holding that the people who made his cars should be able to afford to buy them. Ford's early social awareness and concern for working people, waned as his paternalistic management style was later challenged by industrial unions, to which he was bitterly opposed. He enforced his will at the great Rouge production plant using thugs and goons to discipline and terrorize workers. As Ford aged and became more successful he became immersed in poorly thought out schemes to end WW I and in bitter resentment of what he believed was a Jewish conspiracy of bankers and lawyers to destroy America. His spreading of the fraudulent Protocols of the Elders of Zion did his reputation irreparable harm. 

1925 Model T Ford

Ford was, at best, an elusive and difficult character to capture and understand. He seemed to have a variety of instincts functioning within him. His capacity for extreme cruelty emerged early through the practical jokes he delighted in. Later, he seemed capable of jettisoning even the most loyal lieutenants without a look backward. He expected absolute loyalty while only caring for his own and his company's advancement. He remained married to his wife Clara, whom he married in 1885, while apparently maintaining a mistress and an illegitimate (and never acknowledged) son for over thirty years. Many of those responsible for his success were left in the dust as he became the world's first billionaire. Ford's attachment to his greatest accomplishment, the Model T, kept the Tin Lizzie in production for a longer period than was good for his company, however his achievement of making the car available to people of all incomes changed the world in significant ways. Snow's fine biography catches these opposing forces and incongruities in his character with rare insight. This biography has the flow and narrative drive of a novel while clearly hitting all the right scholarly buttons. It is admiring and clear-eyed about Ford's flaws and defects at the same time. 

Richard Snow

Richard Snow was born in New York City and he graduated with a B.A. from Columbia College in 1970. He worked at American Heritage magazine for nearly four decades and was its editor-in-chief for seventeen years. He is the author of several books, among them two novels and a volume of poetry. Snow has served as a consultant for historical motion pictures—among them Glory—and has written for documentaries, including the Burns brothers’ Civil War, and Ric Burns’s award-winning PBS film Coney Island, whose screenplay he wrote. Most recently, he served as a consultant on Ken Burns’s World War II series, The War.

I Invented the Modern Age: The Rise of Henry Ford by Richard Ford (Scribner, 2013, 384 pages, $30.00) is available from all the usual sources at a substantial discount. For readers interested in the man, the age, industrial history, or the development of the automobile culture in America, this book is must reading. It was provided to me by the publisher through Net Galley as an electronic galley. I read it on a Kindle.