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Nov
25
Kirkpatrick Sale
Booknotes, Sunday, November 25, 2001
Kirkpatrick Sale discusses The Fire of His Genius: Robert Fulton and the American Dream.

None of the well-dressed crowd that gathered on the Hudson River side of Lower Manhattan on the hot afternoon of August 17, 1808, could have known the importance of the object they had come to see and, mostly, deride: Robert Fulton's new steamboat, the North River, the boat that is frequently—and wrongly—remembered as the Clermont. But, as Kirkpatrick Sale shows in this remarkable biography of Fulton, the North River's successful four-day round-trip to Albany proved a technology that would transform nineteenth-century America, open up the interior to huge waves of settlers, create and sustain industrial and plantation economies in the nation's heartland, and destroy the remaining Indian civilizations and most of the wild lands on which they depended. The North River's four-day trip introduced the machines and culture that marked the birth of the Industrial Revolution in America. The Fire of His Genius tells the story of the extraordinarily driven and ambitious inventor who brought all this about, probing into the undoubted genius of his mind but, too, laying bare the darker side of the man -- and the darker side of the American dream that inspired him. It depicts one of America's earliest heroes both at the pinnacle of creativity and success, fame, and fortune and in the depths of solitude, recklessness, and contentiousness that preceded his early death (Fulton spent much of his life defending patents for everything from rope-making machinery to submarines to proto-torpedoes that he attempted to sell, in succession, to the French, the British, and the American navies). All this is set against a brilliant portrait of a dynamic historical period filled with characters from Bonaparte to Jefferson, Cornelius Vanderbilt to Meriwether Lewis, Robert Livingston to Benjamin West, and events from the Lewis and Clark expedition to the War of 1812, the Louisiana Purchase to the bombing of Fort McHenry, the treasontrial of Aaron Burr to the "Great Removal" of American Indians. Here are the "taming" of America's rivers and the building of its great canals, the introduction to every body of water of Fulton's "large, noisy, showy, fast, brash, exciting, powerful, and audacious" machine that was the very embodiment of America. A biography that bears comparison to the best work of David McCullough, Dava Sobel, and Garry Wills, The Fire of His Genius is a remarkable achievement: an extraordinarily clear window into an extraordinary time told with deftness, zest, and unflagging verve. —from the publisher's website (timspalding)… (more)
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