The Ultimate Road Trip

REVIEW: 'American Journey: On the Road with Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, and John Burroughs'

Thomas Edison, John Burroughs, and Henry Ford (Wikimedia Commons)
August 27, 2023

If you're planning a road trip, it's smart to include in your group someone who knows something about cars. This was even more true in the early days of motoring, when autos were less reliable than they are now. If your road trip is going to be a car-camping trip, during which you'll rely on various mechanical amenities for your cooking, sleeping, safety, and comfort, you'll be well advised to enlist a person with a knack for gadgetry. And if your route is through a part of the country noted for its natural beauty, you'll want to have with you someone who knows about flora and fauna.

In 1918, a dream team of road travel was assembled for a journey through the southern Appalachian mountains and foothills. The principals were Henry Ford, the creator of the Model T and the American automobile industry; Thomas Edison, the practical genius who invented the light bulb, phonograph, and other hallmarks of the modern age; and John Burroughs, the dean of American naturalists. The three men had come to know one another during previous years, and had taken shorter road trips to test this new version of American vacationing. They liked the experience and determined to go longer and farther.

Journeys have provided structure for stories since Odysseus required 10 years and 12,000 Homeric lines to travel the several hundred miles from Troy to Ithaca. Wes Davis, author of a previous book about partisan fighting during World War II, makes the most of the journey genre. Before recounting the big trip through Appalachia—a region he knows from having grown up there—he traces the earlier expeditions: through Vermont's Green Mountains and New York's Adirondacks, besides an excursion by rail to San Francisco for an international exposition.

Like Homer, Davis has more in mind than itinerary. His protagonists don't have to deal with angry and jealous gods, but they do contend with large themes of history, including the abiding struggle between past and future that the present always finds itself caught up in. Burroughs was the eldest of the three, having been born in 1837 and raised in the Catskills. With his long beard he looked and sometimes acted like his fictional neighbor Rip Van Winkle. Burroughs cut his intellectual teeth on Ralph Waldo Emerson and the New England transcendentalists.

Edison was a decade younger and, significantly, from Ohio. That breeding ground for Civil War generals and postwar presidents had America's future in its soil and in the bones of its residents. Edison first embraced the future in the telegraph industry, which he stormed during his teens, and then in electricity, of which he became the acknowledged master.

Ford was the youngster of the trio. He was born in Michigan amid the Civil War and came of age as America's industrial and capitalist revolutions were kicking into high gear. He fiddled with his father's farm equipment and caught the motoring spirit as horseless carriages were becoming the next big thing. Better than Edison, who was no slouch at monetizing good ideas, and infinitely better than Burroughs, who couldn't be bothered about money, Ford epitomized the marriage of inventiveness and acquisitiveness that has characterized the cutting edge of the American economy from the 19th century to the present.

Davis focuses on just a few years in three eventful lives. This approach exacts costs and yields benefits. The chief cost is that readers unfamiliar with the full lives of Burroughs, Edison, and Ford will have some difficulty appreciating what their friendship signaled to the country at large. If Al Gore were caught consorting with Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk on a regular basis, the surprise today would be hardly greater than what the contemporaries of Burroughs, Edison, and Ford experienced on reading in newspapers of the trio's road trips together.

The principal benefit of the episodic approach is to reveal aspects of the temperaments of the three that weren't well known at the time and have tended to be neglected by historians. Davis effectively and amusingly depicts Burroughs's initial resistance to automobiles, his tempting by the shiny new car Ford sent him, his acquired enthusiasm for speeding along familiar routes at speeds he hadn't imagined possible, and his ultimate retirement from driving after some frightening but luckily uneventful mishaps. "I often wish I had never seen a Ford car, or any other," Burroughs reflected. Yet still he felt what had pulled him in. "All such things create wants which we never knew before."

Davis conveys Edison's tactics for offsetting the hearing deficiency he'd experienced from youth. In conversations with one person he could manage well enough, but in meetings or at banquets the babble left him lost. Edison arranged for an assistant to convert others' comments into Morse code tapped to a receiver hidden beside Edison, who could decipher the dots and dashes on the fly. The one thing that gave him away was the occasional lag between the punchline of a joke and his hearty laugh.

Ford is Davis's most interesting character, because he is the most conflicted. In Ford the struggle between past and future was chronic. The farm boy from Michigan never entirely accepted his role as titan of industry. He relentlessly streamlined the production process of his automobiles, demanding more and more from his workers, yet he believed himself to be a friend of labor. And he was, at times. He boosted pay to the unheard-of rate of five dollars per day, bringing down on his head the wrath of other manufacturers who couldn't compete at that level. Ford's revolutionary concept was that his workers ought to be able to afford the product they made. Not only did this transform the auto industry, which had previously catered to the rich, but it laid the basis for the high-wage, high-productivity economy that catapulted America to national wealth and world power.

Like some other brilliantly successful entrepreneurs, Ford judged that his acumen in business would extrapolate to other fields. In an episode Davis might have done more with, not least since it took place during the period he covers, Ford tried to broker a peace between the European belligerents in World War I before the United States became involved. He engaged a ship to carry himself and other antiwar activists across the Atlantic; he and they presumed they could talk sense into the leaders of the warring countries. Instead they fell to fighting among themselves and the "Peace Ship" initiative proved a fiasco.

No wonder a road trip appealed to Ford on his return. Davis shows him acting like that farm boy again. Sitting around a campfire, Ford suddenly announced he could leap over the flames. He proceeded to do just that. "He was as nimble and lively as a boy of eighteen," recorded a member of the group that accompanied the trio. "All of his cares had been left behind."

The cares would catch up to Ford and the others. Life wins in the end. But for the duration of the trip, they kept life at a distance. That's what road trips are for.

Ford and friends had fun. We have fun too, as Davis takes us along for the ride.

American Journey: On the Road with Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, and John Burroughs
by Wes Davis
W.W. Norton, 384 pp., $30

H.W. Brands teaches history at the University of Texas at Austin. His latest book is The Last Campaign; his next book, to be published in November, is Founding Partisans. He can be followed on Twitter and on Substack.