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The People's Tycoon: Henry Ford and the American Centuryby Steven Watts
Synopses & Reviews
Henry Ford, a major architect of modern America, has lived on in the imagination of his fellow citizens as an enduring figure of fascination, an inimitable individual, a controversial personality, and a social visionary from the moment his Model T brought the automobile to the masses and triggered the consumer revolution. But never before has his outsized genius been brought to life so vividly as by Steven Watts in this major new biography. Watts, the author of the much acclaimed The Magic Kingdom: Walt Disney and the American Way of Life, has produced a superbly researched study of a man who was a bundle of contradictions.
Ford was the entrepreneur who first made the automobile affordable but who grew skeptical of consumerism's corrosive impact on moral values, an employer who insisted on a living wage for his workers but stridently opposed unions, who established the assembly line but worried about its effect on the work ethic, who welcomed African Americans to his company in the age of Jim Crow but was a rabid anti-Semite. He was the private man who had a warm, loving marriage while siring a son with a mistress; a father who drove his heir, Edsel, so relentlessly that it contributed to his early death; a folksy social philosopher and at one time, perhaps, the most popular figure in America, who treated his workers so harshly that they turned against him; creator of the largest, most sophisticated factory in the world who preferred spending time in his elaborate re-creation of a nineteenth-century village; and the greatest businessman of his age who haplessly lost control of his own company in his declining years.
Watts poignantly shows us how a Michigan farm boy from modest circumstances emerged as one of America's richest men and one of its first mass-culture celebrities, one who became a folk hero to millions of ordinary citizens because of his support of high wages and material abundance for everyday workers and yet also excited the admiration of figures as diverse as Vladimir Lenin and Adolf Hitler, John D. Rockefeller and Woodrow Wilson.
Disclosing the man behind the myth and situating his achievements and controversies firmly within the context of early twentieth-century America, Watts has given us a comprehensive, illuminating biography of an American icon.
"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 (18631947) 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.' Agent, Ronald Goldfarb. (Aug.)" Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"...Watts' book concentrates on Ford himself, taking us back and then forward through time with each supporting character we encounter. His penchant for completeness makes for a book that should be savored over time." Booklist
"Watts provides a sophisticated analysis and helps readers understand both Ford and the culture within which he thrived. An exceptional biography of an exceptional man; highly recommended." Library Journal
"In a captivating and exhaustively researched biography of the automaker, historian Steven Watts calls Ford the psyche of a nation as it lurched from a simple rural past to an industrial and materialistic future." Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
"Indeed, the implicit claim of Watts's admirable book is almost inarguable ? that it's impossible to understand 20th-century America without knowing the story of Henry Ford.... Steven Watts is intelligent, thorough and engaging..." New York Times
"In his exhaustive and original undertaking, Watts untangles alternating influences that made such an improbable character out of Ford....The fascinating result may change the way Henry Ford is remembered." San Francisco Chronicle
"By a slow accumulation of detail, The People's Tycoon builds up a dazzling social panorama, highlighting both the triumphs of American ingenuity and the discontents of its consumer society. As history, it is anything but bunk." Baltimore Sun
"Watts is a laudably fluent writer — one wishes that more biographies with this book's intellectual richness also shared their clarity of prose..." Newsday
"In Watts' capable hands, Henry Ford is not only a fascinating, world-shaping historical character, he also reflects our own enduring, conflicted desires and dangerous dreams." Chicago Tribune
"This is a thoroughly researched biography that blends the arcane with the bold; the known with the heretofore little noticed." Boston Globe
Book News Annotation:
Watts (history, U. of Missouri) sees in Ford's life one of the great stories, and one of the great mysteries, of modern American history. The crotchety automaker was loved by everyday citizens; listened to by Lenin, Hitler, and Woodrow Wilson; and derided by intellectuals, cosmopolitans, and opinion shapers. His unique relationship with America, Watts says, was shaped by the wrenching cultural transformation of his age as the emergence of consumer capitalism, mass culture, bureaucracy, and the corporate state created the century's most powerful nation. Watts' thoughtful and readable biography works to capture Ford's complex personality and uncover the sources of his public stature.
Annotation ©2005 Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
In this major new biography of one of the architects of modern America, Steven Watts shows readers an entrepreneur whose affordable car triggered the consumer revolution, but who, in his private life and public pronouncements, rejected consumerism.
A major biography of one of the architects of modern America. A Michigan farm boy who grew up to become the country's richest man, Henry Ford, a source of ongoing fascination and inspiration, has remained, as well, a controversial figure. In this superbly researched and written life, Steven Watts shows us entrepreneur whose affordable car triggered the consumer revolution, but who, in his private life and public pronouncements, rejected consumerism. An employer who insisted on a living wage for his employees but stridently opposed unions; who invented work ethic; who made his company welcoming to African Americans at a time when Jim Crow still ruled, but was a rabid anti-Semite. The private man who had a warm, loving marriage while siring a son with a mistress and driving his heir, Edsel, so relentlessly that it contributed to his early death. Ford was the most popular man in America at one time, while, in his own factories, his harsh treatment of workers turned them against him. His annual camping trips with Thomas Edison, Harvey Firestone, and John Burroughs were front-page news, but he retained the rural values he learned as a boy. He was the greatest entrepreneur of his time but in his final years haplessly lost control of his company. Disclosing the man behind the myth and situating his achievements and incongruities firmly within the context of early 20th-century America, Watts has given us a comprehensive, Illuminating biography of an American icon.
About the Author
Steven Watts is a professor of history at the University of Missouri and the author of The Magic Kingdom: Walt Disney and the American Way of Life. He lives in Columbia, Missouri.
Table of Contents
PROLOGUE: The Legend of Henry Ford
PART ONE: The Road to Fame
One — Farm Boy
PART TWO: The Miracle Maker
Seven — Consumer
PART THREE: The Flivver King
Thirteen — Legend
PART FOUR: The Long Twilight
Twenty — Antiquarian
EPILOGUE: The Sage of Dearborn
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