Century's Ebb

A blog on the life and work of John Dos Passos (1896-1970)

Like Kittens in the Limelight

On October 21, 1929, at an elaborate event organized by Henry Ford named “Light’s Golden Jubilee,” the 82 year-old inventor Thomas Alva Edison re-enacted at Dearborn, Michigan his invention of the working incandescent lamp fifty years previously.

In an issue of The New Republic in December of that year, Dos Passos reviewed biographies of Edison and Charles Proteus Steinmetz, and a memoir of “Forty Years with General Electric.”  He was scathing about the Dearborn event, which he described as a “charade”, and about the books (“You have to read these books to believe how muddle-headed, ill-written and flatly meaningless they can be”). Far more interesting to Dos Passos was the relationship between the lives and minds of the inventors and their deeper, long-term impact on human society, which he felt to be completely ignored by the authors of the books, by the celebrity subjects themselves and, despite superficial appearances, by those (including President Hoover) who came to Dearborn to pay homage to them.

Dos Passos’ review demonstrates how at the heart of his concerns were not only the impact of the industrial age and its technologies on actual lives, but also the generalized obliviousness of participants and audience alike to the implications of their activities:

“Thomas Edison…is one of the two or three individuals most responsible for the sort of world we live in today. It would be more exact to say that thousands of men of the Ford and the Edison type are its builders. […]

When you think Edison was partially or exclusively connected with putting on the market the stock ticker, the phonograph, the moving picture camera, the loud-speaker and microphone that make radio possible, electric locomotives, vacuum electric lamps, storage batteries, multiple transmission over the telegraph, cement burners, it becomes obvious that there is no aspect of our life not influenced by his work and by the work of men like him. Reading his life, you feel that he never for a moment allowed himself to envisage the importance of the changes in the organization of human life that his inventions were to bring about. And he would have resented it if anyone had suggested to him that his work would destroy homes, wreck morals, and help end the individual toiler’s world he was brought up in.”

Here we have one of the recurring themes of Dos Passos work – the destruction of the original self wrought by the labor and efforts of those who strive and achieve in their field or occupation.  This same self-destruction is found in the early deaths of  the “celebrities” Rudolph Valentino and Isadora Duncan, the two stars who figure among the biographies in U.S.A. in addition to, of course, Edison (“The Electrical Wizard”) and Steinmetz  (“Proteus”), a pair who, in the words  of Christensen (1982), are “complicit in their own exploitation.” In other words, whether or not they are aware of what is happening to them (and Dos Passos implies they either are not, or are not willing, to be so aware), their drive to discovery or achievement leads them to destroy the very world from which they originate.

Dos Passos continues:

“Henry Ford, less the mechanic and more the organizer, seems equally unconcerned with the results of his work in human terms. The newspaper accounts of the goings-on at Dearborn at the jubilee of the incandescent lamp, the press statements and the kittenish skipping-about in the limelight of all involved, make that appallingly clear. These men are like the sorcerer’s apprentice who loosed the goblins and the wonder-working broomsticks in his master’s shop and then forgot what the formula was to control them by.”

He then adds, apologetically-ironically, “I don’t mean to minimize their achievements, which are among the greatest in history.”

Dos Passos greatly prefers Steinmetz, the underdog and corporate pet who is something of an anomaly to his employers, General Electric, to those like Edison, Ford and Firestone who have “cashed in gigantically on the machine” and “have achieved a power and a success undreamed of by Tamerlane or Caesar.”

This is a signature Dos Passos moment, the conflation of power, money and success, alongside a lament for  a collective failure to appreciate those, like the more humble Steinmetz, who do not cash in, but are concerned about “the problem of the readjustment of human values  necessary to fit” the inventors’ world – which is the modern industrial world of the machine age.

“America has cashed in gigantically on the machine, has attained in these fifty years since the day when Edison…finally settled on the paper carbon filament for the electric light bulb, a degree  of wealth and prosperity absolutely new in history. Steinmetz was not of the temperament to cash in on anything.”

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