Book of the week
The Vagabonds: The Story of Henry Ford and Thomas Edison’s Ten-Year Road Trip
(Simon & Schuster, $28)
In publishing, as in the real world, “summer is the season of road trips,” said Rachel King in Fortune.com. Best-selling author Jeff Guinn has found a good one: a summer jaunt that Henry Ford and Thomas Edison took not once, but annually, during the first decade after the first Model T rolled off an assembly line. Tire magnate Harvey Firestone and naturalist John Burroughs often came along for the lengthy journeys, too, and the Vagabonds, as they called themselves, attracted reporters and photographers wherever they went. Their outings weren’t made just for pleasure, of course: “They were essentially advertising not only Ford cars but also a new national lifestyle.”
Guinn’s “amiable” but inconsequential book can become a bit repetitive, said Edward Kosner in The Wall Street Journal. Though the Ford-Edison caravan struck out for new territory during almost every summer from 1914 to 1925, the travelers’ routines didn’t greatly vary. Firestone handled the logistics—food, tents, staff, and keeping the wives comfortable. And though the three titans of industry were happy to let photographers capture them chopping logs and drinking water from a dipper, they “didn’t exactly rough it.” Once they could ride in Cadillacs and Packards, they did, and when the weather turned foul, they scurried for the closest luxury hotel. Guinn credits Ford with doing side-of-the-road vehicle repairs, and credits all three with helping ordinary Americans realize they could wander the country, exploring a vast landscape where many backroads weren’t paved and “motor courts” were still a novelty. But the book’s breezy tone leads Guinn to gloss over—and even excuse—Ford’s ugly side, which could fill a book on its own.
Guinn’s dismissal of Ford’s anti-Semitism as “typical of his times” is especially troubling, said Camila Flamiano Domonoske in NPR.org. He advances that argument even while recounting how the automobile magnate spent millions to buy and grow a newspaper that spread propaganda about an international Jewish conspiracy. What’s more, the book “describes friends and colleagues recoiling at the virulence of Ford’s anti-Semitic tirades.” Firestone once actually walked out on Ford and Edison after protesting a casual chat they were having about conspiring Jews. For its portrait of an America just learning how to motor and how to love their cars, The Vagabonds remains “well worth the read.” But this is the 21st century. “Can’t we admit that ‘great men’ are far more interesting with their baggage than without?” ■