American Journey by Wes Davis review

American Journey: On the Road with Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, and John Burroughs by Wes Davis falls short of examining the consequences that followed the wanderlust.

Henry Ford fishing with Harvey Firestone, George Christian and Thomas Edison, C. 1920. Library of Congress. Public Domain.

In 1918 the American industrialist Henry Ford undertook an auto-camping road trip in the Great Smoky Mountains at the border between North Carolina and Tennessee. The grand culmination of various shorter trips exploring rural America, his companions – as on the previous sojourns – were unlikely. Joining Ford was John Burroughs, an American naturalist who damned the automobile as the ‘scourge of nature’ and enjoyed an existence that was, in his words, ‘all vacation’. Having met in 1913, the pair’s obvious differences were meliorated by a shared admiration for the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, their friendship secured when Ford gave Burroughs a Model T so that he could ramble the countryside with newfound efficiency. Burroughs’ deep connection with nature, meanwhile, helped Ford better understand the agrarian past which he saw disappearing in the rearview mirror.

Ford’s friendship with Thomas Edison – the third passenger – had peaked at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in 1915. As the pair toured various stalls which promised a brave, industrialised future, they were drawn to a display which argued that these same forward-thinking goals might be achieved through the careful management of America’s vast natural resources. By the time the two celebrities pushed their way out of this garden exhibit, Ford’s ‘agrarian nostalgia’ and Edison’s deep curiosity for botanical science had reached boiling point. Both felt that they needed to return to ‘nature’s laboratory’, and fast, if they – and America – were to reach their – and its – true potential. Various road trips in pursuit of this quest followed.

In American Journey: On the Road with Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, and John Burroughs Wes Davis follows Ford, Edison and Burroughs as they plan their short escapes to the country, debate – and compromise – on their diverging opinions on the First World War, and navigate the ups-and-downs of business life. A fourth character, the tyre magnate Harvey Firestone, also appears halfway through the book, joining the trio (who had taken to calling themselves ‘the Vagabonds’) for their grand 1918 expedition, which Davis only arrives at in his penultimate chapter. 

Sadly, the book falls short in its analysis of the trips’ true significance. As Davis sees it, the trio understood their trips as an opportunity to uncover ‘their own deep, rural roots and reattach themselves to the nation’s rooted, agrarian past’. To this end, they would ‘rough it’ in tents along the sides of mountains and streams, fend for themselves on the bucolic backroads of rural America and wake every morning to birdsong, all in an attempt to better understand how industrial progress and agrarian origins might coexist in efficient harmony.

Ford and Edison eagerly donned the costume of celebrity itinerants. They regularly stopped at farms, not only to camp for the night, but also to ‘play farmer’, scything grass and chopping wood. So, too, did they enjoy conversing with their gentleman-naturalist, Burroughs, on the warble of a bird, taxonomy of a plant or a line from Emerson. They revelled in the constant gaggle of fans and pressmen who sought a quippy line or a quick photo. They drove brand-new Ford automobiles loaded with every piece of gear possible, were occasionally joined by a ride-along celebrity chef, and followed by a ‘small city’ of well-outfitted luxury tents. The tour more closely resembled a glamping trip than a backwoods bivouacking slog.

It was no coincidence that three filthy-rich moguls stepped away from their day jobs in 1918 to take a trip through the Appalachians, nor was it happenstance that they brought their naturalist sidekick along. Ford viewed the trips as a chance to dissect the natural world, much as he would a car’s engine. Every meandering river or lush forest was an opportunity for future exploitation: how might this water fuel a factory? Might these rubber plants help meet the endless need for automobile tyres? Firestone and Edison felt much the same. When they weren’t cheesing for the cameras, the industrialists scoured the countryside for natural advantages over their rivals, never mind their military foes in Europe. Ford and Firestone greedily worried that America’s involvement in the war might threaten rubber supplies at home.

For his part, Burroughs seemed to see the expeditions as a pleasant escape from all sorts of domestic problems. The naturalist left his wife on her deathbed to travel with his industrialist friends, a decision he and his rich companions passed off as necessary since Burroughs might not be able to survive ‘the tragedy unfolding at home’. Burroughs would eventually learn of his wife’s death while lounging on a yacht off the coast of Cuba. A life of vacation, indeed.

What, in the end, did these gentlemen-travellers learn from their wanderings? How to better exploit the natural world’s resources, no doubt: Ford, Edison and Firestone spent the following years in a blistering construction frenzy. Ford even managed to convert Burroughs into a defender of technology’s advantages through a never-ending conveyor belt of free cars and other opulent gifts. Despite Davis’ generous judgement, one has to wonder how effective the men’s expensive, time-consuming, and ultimately self-serving peregrinations proved in preserving the ‘pastoral and agrarian values’ upon which his analysis so relies.

The real force driving Ford and company’s cross-country expedition was thus not so much engrossing themselves in the ‘rustic magic’ of the American wilderness as it was cataloguing the natural world for their – and, they assured themselves, America’s – benefit. When seen as such, Ford, Edison and Firestone’s ‘light-hearted’ road trips served as covers for their ultimate goal: industrial exploitation of the American wilderness. Burroughs served as little more than their mascot; a feel-good follower who gave their ramblings an air of conservationist legitimacy.

  • American Journey: On the Road with Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, and John Burroughs
    Wes Davis
    W.W. Norton & Company, 384pp, £30
    Buy from (affiliate link)

Vaughn Scribner is Associate Professor in History at the University of Central Arkansas. Under Alien Skies: Environment, Suffering, and the Defeat of the British Military in Revolutionary America is forthcoming.