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Reviewed by:
  • Lightning Man: The Accursed Life of Samuel F. B. Morse, and: The Creation of the Media: Political Origins of Modern Communications
  • Richard R. John (bio)
Lightning Man: The Accursed Life of Samuel F. B. Morse. By Kenneth Silverman. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003. Pp. 512. Cloth, $35.00.)
The Creation of the Media: Political Origins of Modern Communications. By Paul Starr. (New York: Basic Books, 2004. Pp. 484. Cloth, $27.50; Paper, $16.95.)

Neither Kenneth Silverman nor Paul Starr was trained as a professional historian, yet both have written rich and revealing books that, in different ways, deepen our understanding of the multifaceted relationship of culture and communications in the early republic.

Silverman, an emeritus English professor at New York University, is a prolific biographer who received the Pulitzer Prize in 1985 for his Life and Times of Cotton Mather. In Lightning Man, Silverman recounts the trials and tribulations of painter and telegraph promoter Samuel F. B. Morse. Silverman's Morse was a Christian patriot driven by an almost obsessive need to burnish his reputation as a public benefactor. Fame is a fickle mistress, and Morse lived in perpetual dread she had played him false. It was primarily for this reason that Silverman believes Morse's life to be, as his subtitle announces, "accursed." Morse's quest was particularly quixotic, because Morse's greatest claim to fame—his successful demonstration of the possibilities of the electromagnetic telegraph, the first electrical communications medium—owed less to his originality as a scientist, the work Morse valued most, than to his "dogged entrepreneurship," the work he valued least (322).

Silverman evaluates Morse's life primarily against Morse's own exacting standards, and mostly avoids retrospective judgments, which for Silverman is the essential distinction between the domains of the biographer [End Page 192] and the historian. Like the David Hackett Fischer of Paul Revere's Ride, Silverman is temperamentally predisposed to underplay such potentially embarrassing anomalies in the historical record as Morse's cranky politics. Morse wrote extensively on Catholic immigration, of which he disapproved, and on slavery, of which he did not. Indeed, Morse's antiabolitionism was so intense that he publicly condemned the Emancipation Proclamation. While Silverman by no means ignores Morse's editorial pronouncements, other, less sympathetic, biographers might well have given them more play. Even so, Silverman has mined the archives so exhaustively that his narrative will be of interest to historians of American business, politics, and art. Particularly welcome is Silverman's detailed analysis of the early telegraph industry, a topic to which, in contrast to Morse's earlier biographers, he devotes over half his pages. Like Donald B. Cole's Jackson Man (2004), which includes several chapters on the business career of Morse's agent Amos Kendall, Lightning Man provides a fresh vantage point on one of the most mythologized, and least studied, business enterprises of the day.

While Silverman anchors his narrative in the past, Starr looks to the future. A Princeton sociologist who founded and for several years coedited the liberal journal The American Prospect, Starr is best known among historians as the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Social Transformation of American Medicine (1982), a touchstone in the Clinton-era debate over national health care.

In Creation of the Media, Starr's theme is the enduring innovativeness of the communications media in the United States in the epoch between the colonial era and the Second World War. Starr's definition of the media is capacious: It embraces not only channels of communication such as the mail, the telegraph, and radio but also the institutions that facilitated the movement of information, such as the Post Office Department, Western Union, and RCA. The "persistent advantage" of the United States in the realm of communications, Starr believes, can be traced to its "politically based comparative advantage" (3). To illustrate his thesis, Starr makes numerous transnational comparisons between the regulatory regime in the United States and its counterparts in Britain, Germany, and France.

Creation relies almost entirely on published sources, as one would expect in a work of this kind. Yet Starr has read widely and well in several disciplines, including recent scholarship by historians...


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pp. 192-196
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