[This is a shortened version of the “Author’s Note” at the end of the novel, which (among other things) gives a fuller account of the non-archival sources that helped me to write the book.]
The New Men began when I was researching how changing economic and technological conditions of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century altered the ways in which people understood—down in the bones—what it mean to be a person and how that understanding played itself out in the fiction written during that period. I was poking into the explosion of neurasthenia diagnoses at the end of the nineteenth century when I stumbled across Ford’s Five Dollar Day and the Sociological Department tasked to enforce it. I knew then that the subject was rich and important, but I also knew that I was getting a Ph.D. in American literature and had a lot essays to write. So I put the Five Dollar Day on a back burner.
Still, as I continued researching the period, the Five Dollar Day kept intruding on my thoughts and demanding that I look into it further. So eventually I made a pilgrimage to Dearborn, Michigan, slept on an air mattress in a rented room, and made a nuisance of myself in archives for a month, particularly the Benson Ford Archives. At the time I justified the project to myself as a practical undertaking that would lead to academic articles – possibly on the very question that had appealed to me at the time – how does becoming the right kind of worker for an assembly line both require and demand that someone become a new kind of person altogether? What was Ford Motor Company teaching its workers? What was the assembly line teaching them? What did they learn from streets transformed first by trolley cars, then by automobiles? What did all of that mean while European streets and meadows alike were becoming assembly lines of death, dismemberment, and madness?
I pored over blueprints of the various Ford plants, descriptions of its increasingly international business empire, over schematics of the line, Model T drivers manuals and advertising, over the surviving records of Sociological/Educational, of Service, of Espionage, and of the American Protective League. I read operatives’ reports, employees’ memos, letters, and telegrams, newspaper articles about Ford Motor Company or Henry Ford that Ford employees found interesting or worrisome. I lingered over lengthy transcripts of oral histories from Ford employees from the period.
And I eventually realized that it was too big for an article. That, in fact, it was too big and powerful and complex for me to do justice to as anything but a novel. So I spent some more months researching it, and then sat down to write. And rewrite. And rewrite some more until the era and the characters started to take on the vibrancy that they deserved.
My editor insists that at least some readers would enjoy having at least some sense of how much of this historical fiction is history and how much is fiction. She’s probably right. Even so, I flinch at trying to clarify that. As I write this, it has been almost exactly a hundred years since Ford Motor Company launched the Five Dollar Day. I believe that all those who had anything to do with it are dead, many of them for generations. At such a remove, even proper “I’ve got a research grant, a sabbatical, and six thousand footnotes” history is partly fictional – inferences drawn, causality ascribed, events pruned, teased free, and arranged to make a point. And The New Men isn’t that kind of history. I was driven by a powerful sense that this was a fascinating and important chapter in American history, and I felt an ethical and – more importantly – a literary duty to get it right. But “getting it right” with historical fiction is a complicated and somewhat self-contradictory goal. My first drafts were, well, boring because they were all archive and no life. So I had to inject life by rethinking my characters and their stories, by getting how it felt to live the history when it was the present. So although a great deal of The New Men is factually accurate (often painstakingly so) and intended to reflect accurately how people at the time thought and were able to think – and although I’m proud of that accuracy – I still didn’t hesitate to tweak, omit, or imagine details, events, and characters where doing so made the novel come to life. I did my best to avoid anachronisms and impossibilities, so there aren’t fighter jets or knights errant anywhere in the manuscript. But if the novel demanded that a historical event happen Tuesday at two o’clock in the afternoon, I didn’t lose sleep if historically it happened Wednesday at two-thirty.
Because this is a work of fiction, even the characters based on historical figures are ultimately works of fiction. Certainly, there were historical figures with the same names as many of the novel’s characters – for example, Henry Ford and Samuel S. Marquis. And when the character has the same name as his or her historical source, I tried to be faithful to what I’d managed to learn about that person’s biography and personality. Even so, in many cases I had to draw inferences about–or simply imagine–how that person would react to fictional characters in fictional circumstances.
Other characters have some connection to actual historical figures but are so far removed from those figures that I changed their names to prevent any confusion. And, of course, some of the characters I simply made up. History is generally more creative than I am and has at least as cruel a sense of irony, but sometimes it simply refuses to provide a decent love interest or a wryly amusing supporting character.