Simon & Schuster
Hardcover (also available as an e-book, an audiobook, and on audio CD), 978-1-5011-5930-5, 320 pgs., $28
July 9, 2019
Pilots and sailors know that in a boundless expanse such as the sky or the sea, you have to choose a deliberate focal point, or crucial details will remain indistinguishable to the naked eye.
That’s the strategy behind Jeff Guinn’s The Vagabonds—it’s not about Edison, and it’s not about Ford; rather, this is a richly detailed view of their friendship, set against the backdrop of the early twentieth century. There are a dozen ways this strategy could go wrong—but it doesn’t. In fact, Vagabonds is a cohesive, richly detailed historical narrative that you get to live rather than just read.
The first thing I turn to in a nonfiction book is the reference section in the back to know if I can trust what I read up front. The plentiful factual details are there, and Guinn reports that he actually drove the route the Edison-Ford-Firestone party took on each of their road trips. Most importantly, Guinn resists the inclination to summarize and pronounce conclusions, the downfall of many historical accounts, in favor of an objective telling of detailed, factually supported research through which he achieves the ideal balance of a comprehensive narrative with a nearly invisible narrator. The end result is a vivid and fascinating reader experience.
The narrative opens in the early part of the twentieth century against the backdrop of industrialization and modernization that catapulted both Edison and his younger admirer Ford to national prominence as leaders, innovators, and social icons. The end result is a volatile interaction between not only the two inventors, but also their relationship and the wider perspective of America embracing not only the two innovators, but also their innovations. This is America waking up to modernization in both thinking and culture.
There are many startling revelations in the book, but again Guinn doesn’t preach or judge. Rather, the reader discovers the peculiar cultural biases—most startling, in Ford’s case, was his antisemitic strategies and Nazi recognition of his antisemitism by Hitler—and socio-political efforts by both men. There’s no modern context by which any of this could be judged, and Guinn wisely doesn’t try. Instead, the reader is fully immersed in the twentieth-century animas of America navigating the crises of two world wars and multiple financial disasters.
Ford and Edison each leveraged their cultural and political ethos not only to sell their products, but also their heartfelt visions for a better America. The hindsight of a century allows the reader a unique, fascinating perspective of a crucial period in American history. I would go so far as to say Guinn has created an essential companion reader for any American history course examining the early twentieth century.
Guinn’s style is smooth and easily readable, engaging and quietly self-effacing. The Vagabonds is an innovative, captivating, close-up experience that puts the reader in the driver’s seat—literally, with Ford and Edison aboard—on multiple, intriguing, often surprising road trips through not only American history, culture, and politics, but also the lives of two key twentieth century figures. I hated to see it end.
Jeff Guinn is an award-winning former investigative journalist, former books editor for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, and the bestselling author of numerous books, including Go Down Together: The True Untold Story of Bonnie and Clyde; The Last Gunfight: The Real Story of the Shootout at the O.K. Corral—And How It Changed the West; Manson: The Life and Times of Charles Manson; and The Road to Jonestown: Jim Jones and Peoples Temple. Guinn lives in Fort Worth, Texas.