The Accursed Life of Samuel F. B. Morse
By Kenneth Silverman
(Knopf, Hardcover, 9780375401282, 512pp.)
Publication Date: October 21, 2003
Other Editions of This Title: Paperback
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In this brilliantly conceived and written biography, Pulitzer Prize–winning Kenneth Silverman gives us the long and amazing life of the man eulogized by the New York Herald in 1872 as “perhaps the most illustrious American of his age.”
Silverman presents Samuel Morse in all his complexity. There is the gifted and prolific painter (more than three hundred portraits and larger historical canvases) and pioneer photographer, who gave the first lectures on art in America, became the first Professor of Fine Arts at an American college (New York University), and founded the National Academy of Design. There is the republican idealist, prominent in antebellum politics, who ran for Congress and for mayor of New York. But most important, there is the inventor of the American electromagnetic telegraph, which earned Morse the name Lightning Man and brought him the fame he sought.
In these pages, we witness the evolution of the great invention from its inception as an idea to its introduction to the world—an event that astonished Morse’s contemporaries and was considered the supreme expression of the country’s inventive genius. We see how it transformed commerce, journalism, transportation, military affairs, diplomacy, and the very shape of daily life, ushering in the modern era of communication.
But we discover as well that Morse viewed his existence as accursed rather than illustrious, his every achievement seeming to end in loss and defeat: his most ambitious canvases went unsold; his beloved republic imploded into civil war, making it unlivable for him; and the commercial success of the telegraph engulfed him in lawsuits challenging the originality and ownership of his invention.
Lightning Man is the first biography of Samuel F. B. Morse in sixty years. It is a revelation of the life of a fascinating and profoundly troubled American genius.
Born and raised in Manhattan, Kenneth Silverman is Professor Emeritus of English at New York University. His other books include Timothy Dwight, A Cultural History of the American Revolution, The Life and Times of Cotton Mather, Edgar A. Poe: Mournful and Never-ending Remembrance, and Houdini!!!: The Career of Ehrich Weiss. He is the winner of the Bancroft Prize in American History, the Pulitzer Prize for Biography, the Edgar Award of the Mystery Writers of America, and the Christopher Literary Award of the Society of American Magicians.
“An exhilaratingly vivid, historically balanced biography of Samuel F. B. Morse . . . Silverman’s well-paced, character-driven storytelling brings Morse’s raw, emotional persona to life.”
–James A. Buczynski, Library Journal
“Superb . . . Its thorough research, measured scholarship, and wonderful prose serve to illuminate brilliantly the Lightning Man’s eight decades of struggle, inner turmoil and genius. It is not easy to depict–sympathetically yet realistically–so flawed and complex a character. And yet Mr. Silverman has.
–Edward J. Renehan, Jr., The Wall Street Journal
“Now told brilliantly by Silverman . . . a life of great scope, with heroic heights and tragic lows.”
–Henry Petroski, Los Angeles Times
“[A] vivid portrait . . . Painstakingly researched, gracefully and soberly told.”
–Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“A superbly rendered life of the painter, sculptor, and photographer best known as the inventor of the electromagnetic telegraph . . . A first-rate, well-balanced blend of personal and cultural history.”
–Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“Silverman has proved himself a masterful biographer . . . [His] great talent lies in the way he refrains from expostulating directly, allowing Morse’s habits and actions to speak through his own words. . . Set in his times, the man in full arises in Silverman’s exemplary biography.”
–Gilbert Taylor, Booklist (starred and boxed review)