Excerpt from Page 47

Published April 23, 2017


Most accounts of Elias Howe and his sewing machine are well suited for schoolchildren, who may learn through them the traditional story of success in the land of opportunity. They begin with the humble farm life of Howe’s childhood, where poverty and rural simplicity instill in him the appropriate Yankee values. Then they describe the pivotal moment when young Elias overhears a capitalist promise riches to anyone who will invent a sewing machine, and he resolves that he will invent one himself. Years of experiments and frustration follow, but when he is near despair, the solution suddenly comes to him in a dream. The machine is patented, but a long struggle with adversity follows. The next scenes prominently feature the ailing but ever-faithful wife and the children dressed in rags, who show their thrift and stoicism in many situations of picturesque poverty. After mistreatment by an unprincipled villain, heart-rending tragedies, and coincidences heavy with irony, the inventor is finally vindicated, and rewarded with fabulous wealth. He now amuses himself with anonymous acts of charity and patriotism. Through it all, the significant moments are punctuated by memorable aphorisms, and the moral is firmly pointed out to us–that in a democracy, virtue (defined as thrift, industry, and perseverance) is rewarded in the end by public recognition, and lots and lots of money.

Much of this story is verifiable fact, and thus indisputable. But why does the aura of stage melodrama and pulp fiction cling to the Howe story, wherever it appears? The reason is that Howe himself, a lively teller of anecdotes, gave the story its basic form, and he molded it to fit the stereotypes given in popular literature of the time. Inventors were the heroes of the age, and from reading the newspaper everybody knew what they were like and how they made inventions. Howe did not want to diminish his glory by failing the expectations of his audience, so he selected, shaped, and occasionally embellished the facts of his life to make it fit the standard pattern. He presented himself as the conventional hero of American folklore, whose experiences were similar to those of other inventors.

Distinguishing truth from myth is therefore the central problem of telling his story. If the true story gives a less flattering portrait, it is one with much greater depth and complexity, both in the character of the protagonist and the process of invention.