THE FIRE OF HIS GENIUS: Robert Fulton and the American Dream

Kirkpatrick Sale, Author . Free Press $24 (256p) ISBN 978-0-684-86715-1

The invention in 1807 of a commercially feasible steamboat (which Sale calls "an icon of American society") made possible the nation's expansion by opening first the Hudson, then ultimately the western waters, including the Mississippi River system and the Great Lakes. Staking out this moment of genius, Sale, a contributor to the Nation and author of nine previous books (Rebels Against the Future, etc.) offers a straightforward biography of the steamboat's inventor, Robert Fulton (1765–1815). The author foregoes imagined internal monologues, fictionalized conversations and psychologically driven personality analyses, sticking instead to the concrete historical record. Fulton is presented as a man of obsessions, whose "folly" was not the steamboat but naval weaponry, specifically a "torpedo" (what we would call a mine) and the water cannons and submarines used to deliver it. Fulton's various strategies to sell his torpedoes (which never worked)—first to the French to destroy the British Navy, then to the British to destroy the French and ultimately to the U.S.—combine Herculean gall, disingenuousness and unvarnished self-righteousness, providing an almost comedic effect. He married relatively late in life; his primary emotional attachment was a long ménage à trois, during a period when he lived abroad, with a rich, well-connected expatriate American couple. In the end, Fulton is depicted as possessing few likeable qualities, limited personal loyalties, no compunctions about living off the largesse of others and insatiable ambition. Sale's writing is direct but occasionally overdone (torpedoes are an "awful instrument of death" and people are "seething with anger" and "scathing in their scorn"). In view of Fulton's complexities, more emphasis on his psychology and less on the commercial legacies of his steamboat would have been worthwhile. (Sept. 11)

Forecast:The publisher spells out the obvious, that this is being sold as part of the tradition of The Professor and the Madman and Longitude—but it won't match their sales.

Reviewed on: 07/02/2001
Release date: 09/01/2001
Genre: Nonfiction
Paperback - 256 pages - 978-0-7432-2321-8
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