Captain John Ericsson Analysis
Because this biography begins with an appealing glimpse of a young Swedish boy escaping his chores to try once again to deduce the secret of how geese fly, it reveals Burnett’s sympathies from its first page. Even when Burnett discloses how the young Ericsson’s preoccupations with his own thoughts, ideas, and activities rendered him oblivious to family griefs and problems, she excuses his seeming callousness on the grounds of his genius. Similarly, when Ericsson’s first engagement fails because his fiancée, wearying of the endless postponements, marries someone else, Burnett emphasizes that what Ericsson loves most truly is what only his work can provide: knowledge. Burnett does display some sympathy for nineteen-year-old Amelia Byam, who could scarcely have anticipated that the charming, brilliant, and eccentric man of thirty-three who courted her so assiduously would end up wedded to his work. Byam, already discouraged because she shared so little of her husband’s life, gave up completely on the marriage after accompanying him to the United States. Yet, while Byam returned to live out her life in England, Burnett stresses the fact that Ericsson continued to provide for her financially and to correspond with her regularly.
In an effort to make Ericsson and his genius, as well as his foibles, come alive for young readers, Burnett invents thoughts and conversations for Ericsson, his family, and various friends and associates, interspersed with actual excerpts from letters, telegrams, and recollections. This “aliveness” is leached away, however, in showers of Swedish names and titles, unfamiliar customs, and undefined relationships. Ericsson himself may be partially responsible for these vaguely defined relationships, as he destroyed all correspondence between himself and his estranged wife and evidently seldom revealed his emotions either in letters or in conversations.
Burnett’s portrait of Ericsson shifts in and out of focus, becoming sharply defined whenever she relates an anecdote. For example, the boy Ericsson builds a perfectly functioning miniature sawmill of scavenged odds and ends. At fourteen, while helping to survey the Göta Canal, young Ericsson supervises five hundred surveyors but must climb upon a stool to use measuring equipment. As a young recruit, he wins prizes for marksmanship while in the army and becomes an accomplished gymnast. In later life, the still-fit Ericsson angrily lifts and moves a 592-pound iron bar that two lazy factory workers insist is too heavy for them; on another occasion, he cracks a huge, poorly cast iron pipe with two mighty swings of a blacksmith’s hammer. Abandoning his intense labor for an evening, he empties his pockets of tools and stands on his head to please the children of a friend. Such anecdotes capture the interest of Burnett’s chosen young audience and enhance the pleasure of any audience.
The focus fades, perhaps unavoidably, when Burnett attempts to describe the political machinations and intrigues that frustrated Ericsson for most of his life. Much of the malice directed against his inventions seems unmotivated, almost careless—and perhaps it was. Even the adult reader faces a formidable task trying to sort out the faceless names and organizations that so frequently stymied Ericsson’s progress. Burnett includes literally scores of characters without providing sufficient detail to make them seem real. Foreign titles and cities, not explained or identified, are probably meaningless to most young readers and even to many adults.
What does appeal to the younger reader is Ericsson’s dogged persistence and his faith in the validity of his ideas and inventions: No petty politician or blind antagonist ever caused him to doubt either himself or his work. Another appeal for younger readers is Ericsson’s indefatigable energy, as his enthusiasm and his constant quest for answers make him seem perpetually young. Still another appeal is Ericsson’s sense of fair play: No matter how slanderous and inaccurate the accusations against him and no matter how flagrant the abuse of his trust, he never responded in kind.