In a new effort to sum up the protean figure—a seven-year undertaking by the biographer Edmund Morris, who died in May—Edison emerges as a giant containing multitudes ... Morris's book is not built as a revisionist biography—more on its strange architecture in a moment—but it usefully demolishes several myths that have accreted around Edison’s legacy in recent years ... Now I have to tell you something about Morris’s biography: It goes backwards. Thomas Edison dies in the prologue, and toward the end, a young boy called Alva reads a book about electricity and is inspired ... If Morris perhaps felt his innovation would shed fresh light on a life marked by improvisatory creation rather than by structured, strictly cumulative accomplishments, he was mistaken. Nothing is gained by this approach, and much comprehension is lost ... Within the chapters, however, Edison is vibrantly alive, and though Morris doesn’t step back to emphasize this, Edison’s conjuring powers make him a mascot and a microcosm of his turn-of-the-century era.
For some unexplained reason, Morris decided to write this saga in reverse, beginning with Edison’s final years and working backward to his birth in small-town Ohio in 1847. It’s the biographical equivalent of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, though Fitzgerald had the good sense to make it a short story, while Morris’s Edison” comes in at just under 800 pages, including footnotes ... This leads to a lot of flipping back and forth through the chapters, with a heavy reliance on the index to keep things straight ... Few biographers, however, possess the narrative talents of Edmund Morris. His ability to set a scene, the words aligned in sweet rhythmic cadence, is damn near intoxicating ... For all his quirks, Morris reminds us, Edison never lost sight of the future. And that, perhaps, is the key takeaway from this elegant, loosely crafted, idiosyncratic book. No inventor did more to nudge the world toward modernity, and few had a better feel for what the next generation of inventors might pursue.
How many biographers does it take to change a light bulb? Who knows, but it takes only one to change a narrative. Every decade or so, for a century now, a new book about Edison has appeared, promising to explain his genius or, more recently, to explain it away ... The delight of Edmund Morris’s Edison is that, instead of arguing with earlier writers or debating the terms of genius, it focusses on the phenomenological impact of Edison’s work. He tries to return readers to the technological revolutions of the past, to capture how magical this wizard’s work really felt. He reminds us that there was a time when a five-second kinetoscopic record of a man sneezing was just about the most astonishing thing anyone had ever seen; people watched it over and over again, like a nineteenth-century TikTok ... Even if you make your peace with [the] reverse narration—which, to be honest, I did, partly because Edison feels so much like a time traveller—Edison is still a frustrating book. It contains little new material, good prose but far too much of it, and no novel argument or fresh angle to motivate such an exhaustive return to an already storied life ... Every person is elusive in one way or another, sometimes even unto herself, but it is possible to confront those inner mysteries in a biography without resorting to fabrications or gimmicks. It’s a lesson Morris could have learned from Edison: sometimes, what’s called for isn’t invention but perfection.