America's Obsessives: The Compulsive Energy That Built a Nation
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When most of us think of Charles Lindbergh, we picture a dashing twenty-five-year-old aviator stepping out of the Spirit of St. Louis after completing his solo flight across the Atlantic. What we don't see is the awkward high school student, who preferred ogling new gadgets at the hardware store to watching girls walk by in their summer dresses. Sure, Lindbergh's unique mindset invented the pre-flight checklist, but his obsession with order also led him to demand that his wife and three German mistresses account for all their household expenditures in detailed ledgers.
Lucky Lindy is just one of several American icons whom Joshua Kendall puts on the psychologist's couch in AMERICA'S OBSESSIVES. In this fascinating look at the arc of American history through the lens of compulsive behavior, he shows how some of our nation's greatest achievements-from the Declaration of Independence to the invention of the iPhone-have roots in the disappointments and frustrations of early childhood.
Starting with the obsessive natures of some of Silicon Valley's titans, including Steve Jobs, Kendall moves on to profile seven iconic figures, such as founding father Thomas Jefferson, licentious librarian Melvil Dewey, condiment kingpin H. J. Heinz, slugger Ted Williams, and Estee Lauder. This last personality was so obsessed with touching other women's faces that she transformed her compulsion into a multibillion-dollar cosmetics corporation.
Entertaining and instructive, Kendall offers up a few scoops along the way: Little do most Americans know that Charles Lindbergh, under the alias Clark Kent, sired seven children with his three German "wives." As Lindbergh's daughter Reeve told Kendall, "Now I know why he was gone so much. I also understand why he was delighted when I was learning German."
following fall, the perpetually tongue-tied Jefferson fell into a “most melancholy fit” when she rejected his awkward proposal of marriage one evening at a dance. “When I had an opportunity of venting…[my thoughts],” he wrote to Page, “a few broken sentences, uttered in great disorder, and interrupted with pauses of uncommon length, were the too visible remarks of my strange confusion!” Not yet ready to give up, Jefferson tried again during a follow-up conversation. But rather than pleading his
off many executives from organizing their offices à la Dewey. But his linguistic innovations held more promise. As he also argued, simplified spelling combined with tighter prose could save corporate America considerable time and labor. Language was to be the focal point of Dewey’s after-dinner speech. He began by mentioning that he used to spell his name with an extra le before his own conversion forty years ago. According to Dewey’s estimate, 15 percent of the energy spent on typewriting
these tiny labels—no more than three-eighths of an inch by five-eighths—often left the boss “beam[ing]…[with] pleasure,” as one former student recalled. With all this data to crunch, Kinsey began publishing up a storm. In the 1920s, he came out with a half dozen major papers, which were followed by a six-hundred-page doorstop, The Gall Wasp Genus Cynips: A Study in the Origin of Species (1930). As the title indicates, Kinsey, whose belief system by then had shifted from Methodism to Darwinism,
mentioned that he had long been interested in developing artificial organs. At present, Carrel explained, the risk of infection precluded the insertion of a pump to replace the heart. But taken by Lindbergh’s curiosity, Carrel gave him a tour around his fifth-floor lab. Lindbergh got a chance to view up close the Frenchman’s most famous experiment, begun in January 1912, in which he kept tissue from a chick’s embryonic heart alive in a small flask. “These results showed that the permanent life
career stressed his main obsessions and compulsions—advocating for freedom and organizing knowledge—rather than the prominent offices he held—governor, secretary of state, and president. For comfort, Jefferson often turned to data sets rather than to other people. A man who had difficulty connecting, he was convinced that “the most effectual means of being secure against pain is to retire within ourselves, and to suffice for our own happiness.” A loner with few close friends, he felt