America’s Obsessives

Thomas Jefferson was presumably very busy during his two terms as America’s third president, yet he found time to maintain a long and detailed list of produce available in the nation’s capital, which he gave this unwieldy title: “A statement of the vegetable market in Washington, during a period of 8 years, wherein the earliest and last appearance of each article is noted.” So assiduous was Jefferson in recording all of his expenditures, no matter how minute, that one of his earliest biographers, the first to gain access to his papers, expressed astonishment at the Founding Father’s concern with “the merest seeming trifles.”
As Joshua Kendall demonstrates in America’s Obsessives: The Compulsive Energy that Built a Nation, Jefferson was not the only American innovator with a passion for making lists. Melvil Dewey, inventor of the Dewey Decimal System, recorded his measurements in his diary (“My expiratory capacity is 273 cubic inches, chest 38 in passive, full 39 in, arm 12.75 in, fore arm 11.25 in”), confessing that the lists “make me feel more safe and certain.” Aviator Charles Lindbergh maintained to-do lists and inventories of all of his belongings with a frenzied zeal, even forcing his poor wife to keep a running catalog of every single item owned by their large family. Meanwhile, ketchup mogul Henry Heinz, who, like Dewey, carefully tracked his measurements in his diary, was so fanatical about logging the dimensions of all things, from his family members to Egypt’s Pillar of Pompey (“measures over 13 feet at the base”), that he declared that “every man should carry a tape measure with him.”
Kendall, who has previously written biographies of Noah Webster and the creator of Roget’s Thesaurus, divides the book into profiles of seven “obsessive innovators” he has diagnosed as suffering from obsessive-compulsive personality disorder (which he takes care to distinguish from obsessive-compulsive disorder: unlike OCD, OCPD “typically improves rather than impairs normal functioning”). In addition to Jefferson, Dewey, Lindbergh, and Heinz, we have sexologist Alfred Kinsey, baseball great Ted Williams, and the lone woman in the bunch, cosmetics magnate Estée Lauder.
With OCPD thought to be a response to a difficult childhood, Kendall looks for evidence of abuse, neglect, illness, and general dysfunction in his subjects’ early years. While he doesn’t come up empty-handed, some of the trauma is generic enough (Heinz and Dewey were raised by “domineering women”) that its contribution to their later achievements seems partial at best. Unfortunately, the author is at times forced to make debatable assumptions where the historical record is incomplete. In the section on the ketchup titan, for instance, he writes, “While Heinz later referred to few specific early interactions with his mother, his behavior toward children offers a useful approximation of his own early experiences, as he presumably did unto others just as his mother had done unto him.”
These forays into psychological speculation are the weakest part of what is overall a fun, provocative book. While the overarching conceit is intriguing, though, Kendall doesn’t say much about its scope. How likely are obsessives to become great innovators? Do most innovators exhibit obsessive traits? In the end, it’s not the big idea here but the details of these seven well-known Americans’ quirks that really make the pages fly. Living in Paris while serving as minister to France before his presidency, Jefferson expressed frustration to a Virginia friend that no one was sending him letters filled with the minutiae that he craved. “I can persuade nobody to believe that the small facts which they see passing daily under their eyes are precious to me at this distance; much more interesting to the heart than events of higher rank,” he wrote. Funnily enough, his words can be applied to the book as a whole. As Jefferson urged his friend, “Continue then to give me facts, little facts.”