Kendall (Associate Fellow/Trumbull College, Yale Univ.; The Forgotten Founding Father: Noah Webster’s Obsession and the Creation of an American Culture, 2010, etc.) returns with a collection of minibiographies of obsessive personalities who transformed American life.
The author begins with Steve Jobs (whom he calls “a tad mad”), then moves on to some other “fragmented individuals” to see where they came from, how they functioned and how they contributed. And what a motley crew: Thomas Jefferson, Henry Heinz, Melvil Dewey, Alfred Kinsey, Charles Lindbergh, Estée Lauder and Ted Williams. Kendall immediately notes the difference between obsessive compulsive disorder and obsessive compulsive personality disorder; his subjects are among those with the latter, though the two disorders are “cousins.” Throughout, the author’s diction fluctuates between the clinical and the conversational. Instances of the latter include Kinsey was a “neatnik,” Ted Williams, “an emotional basket case.” Readers will delight in the weirdness that the author has unearthed. Jefferson was an obsessive organizer and tinkerer; Heinz insisted on absolute cleanliness; Dewey was in love with numbers—and with nubile librarians; Kinsey had orgies in his house at Indiana University; Lindbergh had four separate families (several in Germany); Lauder could not keep her hands off people’s faces and was secretive about her background; Ted Williams did well in high school typing class and was guilty of “nonstop nonsensical chatter.” Kendall ends with some conventional comments about how we should admire what’s admirable about these folks—and that America has benefitted and will benefit from the obsessives among us. Based on the evidence here? Probably not a good idea to marry one.
Do we care if a professionally successful person is a psychological mess? Not, it seems, if we get out of it a great smartphone or a well-organized library. Kendall delivers a mostly engaging history of a handful of America’s “obsessive innovators.”