Henry Ford and the American Century

By Steven Watts

Knopf. 614 pp. $30

Driven by a vision that a new technology could revolutionize the way Americans lived, he built a corporate empire that long reigned over the commercial marketplace and remade the culture of the workplace. He eschewed the imprimatur of formal education, trusting instead in his native brilliance. In time, he became the wealthiest man in America, enriching his region's economy and endowing wide-ranging philanthropic initiatives. A household name, he became a folk hero of sorts, a popular symbol of the new era that his ingenuity had helped create. Bill Gates? No, Henry Ford.

Steven Watts's new biography of Ford, The People's Tycoon, may have added relevance in the era of Gates, exploring as it does how a talented tinkerer with a knack for business and publicity managed to capitalize on -- and, in the process, recast -- American society. In telling this engrossing story of a man and his corporation, Watts charts the growth of the Ford Motor Company from a shed out back of Ford's modest Detroit home to the state-of-the-art River Rouge plant. He demonstrates that it took a team of talented individuals to create a billion-dollar company, that signature innovations like the assembly line and the Five-Dollar Day did not spring full-blown from Ford's head but evolved gradually over time and through borrowing ideas from fellow inventors, and that Ford's stubborn insistence on manufacturing one affordable, "universal car" for all consumers was as responsible for the company's devastating decline in the 1930s as for its meteoric rise in the 1910s. Through it all, the key to Ford's success, according to Watts, was his prescient understanding that the health of his company -- and the larger American economy -- rested on consumers spending, not saving, their money. "Buy a Ford and Spend the Difference!" was the slogan Ford himself penned to sell the Model T.

This is not an old-fashioned biography to curl up with and figure out what made Henry tick -- that is ensured by Watts's lack of intimate sources and his ambition to use Ford to retell the history of the first half of the 20th century. The growing importance of consumption and leisure, the shift from rural to urban living, the explosion of advertising, the rationalization of the work process, the rise of the political movements of Populism and Progressivism -- Watts links all these critically important and well-known historical developments to his man. The result, however, falls short of Watts's goal of demonstrating that Ford was a prophetic "maker of modern America" who "comforted millions of his fellow citizens as he eased them through the dislocations created by breathtaking historical change." Because Watts uses Ford's experience to confirm what other historians have said about the 20th century more generally, he never makes clear whether Ford mainly rode the wave of the larger changes underway or served as a powerful agent himself in transforming America. Watts is generally convincing that Ford enjoyed great popularity with the American public. But to be conclusive, his claim that Ford had a "unique relationship with America" would need more evidence of what Americans thought.

Less confusing and more engaging are Watts's discussions of Ford's idiosyncratic efforts to build his company and the limited areas where Watts has the sources to probe the man's private emotions and behavior. The scrutiny of Ford's relationship with his mistress and probable mother of a love child, his troubled relations with his sole legitimate child, Edsel, and the tragedy of his last years when his diminished faculties frustrated his obsession with control -- these have little connection to larger historical trends. Yet these are the most gripping sections of the book.

Watts's biography is the latest contribution to what has become a minor industry launched with Ford's own ghost-written My Life and Work (1922) and the published memoirs of his close lieutenants. A comprehensive trilogy about Ford and the company by Columbia University's Allan Nevins and Frank Ernest Hill (1954, 1957, 1962) brought scholarly legitimacy to the subject, and new additions to the Ford canon have appeared every few years since. The most recent contributions marked the company's centennial in 2003 and probed the darker side of Ford's legacy, such as his anti-Semitism and union-busting. Watts's book makes good use of this multitude of narrower studies, successfully digesting a mass of material written over the last century.

The People's Tycoon shows how an ordinary man built an extraordinary corporation, even though it fails to get inside Ford's psyche or to deliver on the more ambitious project of demonstrating "how Henry Ford created the American Century." Still, what Watts has accomplished is enough. The cult of the celebrity entrepreneur like Bill Gates -- or Steve Jobs or Martha Stewart -- remains very much with us, spinning mystical webs that enthrall rather than analyze how personality, brainpower, organizational skill, self-promotion, collaboration and timing have combined to produce American tycoons. Steven Watts's judicious exploration of the feats and foibles of Henry Ford provides a timely and compelling model of how to cut through the hype and tell the real story. *

Lizabeth Cohen is a professor of American studies at Harvard University. Her books include "Making a New Deal: Industrial Workers in Chicago, 1919-1939" and "A Consumers' Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America."

Auto industry pioneer Henry Ford poses in one of his designs in the early 1900s.