From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. Performing the same magnificent feat for Henry Ford as he did for Walt Disney (in The Magic Kingdom
), historian Watts offers a magisterial and balanced biography of one of America's business legends. As a farm boy in Michigan, Ford (1863–1947) followed the beat of his own drum, avoiding hard work but watching farm machinery with fascination. He objected to wasting physical energy when a machine could accomplish the same task in less time, and spent much of his leisure taking watches apart and rebuilding them to learn about their mechanisms. Once he moved to Detroit, Ford worked as an engineer at the Edison Illuminating Company, where he quickly became famous for his ability to patch up engines. Then, in 1898, he invented the prototype of his Model A car, secured investors to set up a business and established the first unit of what would become the Ford Motor Company. Watts deftly traces Ford's rise to fame and the innovations, such as the "five-dollar" workday, which doubled factory workers' salaries, that he brought to the workplace, while a chapter titled "Bigot" delineates his notorious anti-Semitism. Watts also brilliantly reveals the contradictions of Ford's business philosophy and his personal and work life. While Ford thought of himself as a man of the people and strove to improve working conditions and wages in his factory, for example, he opposed unions. As Watts points out, Ford embodied both the promises and pitfalls of modern American democracy: "its devotion to opportunity, openness to new ideas, [and] lack of pretension" as well as its anti-intellectualism and "faith in the redemptive power of material goods."
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By the early nineteentwenties, half of all cars on the road were Ford Model Ts, and Henry Ford was one of the most widely quoted men in America. This sturdy biography credits Ford with having, more than anyone else, "created the American Century," spearheading a vast consumer revolution by his mastery of "the mechanisms of modern publicity." When his first attempts at auto production failed, Ford captivated the nation with a series of audacious publicity stunts. His maverick populism made him the first tycoon to be a hero to ordinary Americans, but it was a short step from his early tirades against East Coast bankers and intellectuals to the anti-Semitic crusades that now mar his legacy. Watts somewhat underplays recently discovered evidence of Ford's collaboration—through a German subsidiary—with the Nazi regime, preferring to concentrate on the man who embodied the maxim "To make a sensation, be one."
Copyright © 2005 The New Yorker