September 25, 2017

Where rubber leaves the road

car pulled from river

After hitting three deer and driving twice into a ditch during whiteouts last winter, I can commiserate with the driver of this car. It’s been a tough year. The driver and his son weren’t killed or even seriously injured after their car flipped down the hill, giving new meaning for going down to the river to pray. The picture of the car reminds me of a line in The Fate of the Edsel, a great story in Business Adventures by John Brooks. A reviewer of the Edsel wrote that he couldn’t help but wonder what “this salami” would really do with more road adhesion. If the Edsel kept its rubber on the road, John Brooks never would have written Fate of the Edsel and Business Adventures might not have Warren Buffett and Bill Gates proclaiming it the best business book of all time.

Where the rubber leaves the road is where the story turns interesting. No one was taking pictures of the cars that stayed in their lane. Ford executives blamed the Russians for launching sputnik at the same time of the Edsel launch. A semanticist, writing a nasty review of the Edsel for A Review of General Semantics in 1958, compared automobiles to words “as important symbols in American cultures,” then asked why buy the Edsel when you can get Playboy for 50 cents. By the late 1950s, even the Russians thought they were getting the better of this American salami.

The Edsel was considered a symbol of the times in America- “clumsy, powerful, dowdy, gauche, well meaning.” So what if some of the advertising failed the reality  principle. Sometimes a sledgehammer, not a tooth pick touch, was required for operating all the fancy dashboard gadgets. Hundreds of names were considered for the car. Overruling the market research, executives preferred to suck up to the boss and named the car for Edsel Ford.

But it was in 1957 that more powerful words became symbols. The words were written by a poet in Russia and nearly published in Ann Arbor, home of the Ford executive plotting the Edsel. The University of Michigan initially acquired the rights to the manuscript, to the horror of the CIA. Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago was smuggled out of Russia and the CIA wanted the manuscript published in Europe, without any evidence of American or CIA involvement in the publication. After much pressure from the CIA, the University of Michigan relinquished the rights. Doctor Zhivago was published in Italy in November of 1957 and earned Pasternak the Nobel Prize. Surviving two world wars, revolution, Lenin and Stalin, Pasternak wrote the poem Hamlet with the famous line “life is no stroll through a field.” In The Zhivago Affair, written by Peter Finn and Petra Couvee,  Stalin in 1932  makes a toast to a group of writers meeting at the home of Maxim Gorky- “The production of souls is more important than the production of tanks.” Stalin demanded Russian writers use their words as engineers on the assembly line- massing producing souls to Stalin’s specification like the Ford executives poured over details of the Edsel.

It was this “loss of faith in the value of one’s own opinion” that Pasternak risked his life in writing Doctor Zhivago. It was why the CIA’s Soviet Division, many of them with backgrounds in literature, believed in the power of words and turned “priests, athletes, students, businessmen, tourists, soldiers, musicians, and diplomats” into book publicists for Pasternak. All levels of society were targeted. Russian truck drivers had Doctor Zhivago thrust into their hands. The mass production of souls went down with the Edsel.

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