Book Review

‘America’s Obsessives’ by Joshua Kendall

Joshua Kendall says he admires the ways his subjects solved problems.
Rachel Youdelman
Joshua Kendall says he admires the ways his subjects solved problems.

When a friend predicted that someone would soon write his biography, sex researcher Alfred Kinsey proclaimed, “Nonsense! The progress of science depends upon knowledge. It has nothing to do with personalities.” According to journalist Joshua Kendall, Kinsey could never acknowledge that “validation for his particular sexual tastes” and his obsessive-compulsive personality disorder were the principal drivers of his scholarly work.

In “America’s Obsessives,” Kendall, the author of biographies of lexicographer Noah Webster and Peter Mark Roget, the creator of Roget’s Thesaurus, provides case studies of seven super achievers — Thomas Jefferson, H.J. Heinz, Melvil Dewey, Charles Lindbergh, Estée Lauder, Ted Williams, and Kinsey — each of whom, he argues, was afflicted with obsessive-compulsive personality disorder. The unremitting internal pressures they placed on themselves, he asserts, were responsible for their “extraordinary external achievements.”

Kendall is a gifted storyteller and his book is full of fascinating details about numbers fetishes, fear of germs, and sexual promiscuity. Heinz, he indicates, was cursed — and blessed — with all of these traits. Thinking about an effective and enduring slogan for his pickles as he was riding Manhattan’s Third Avenue El, for example, Heinz spotted an ad for “21 styles of shoes,” pondered the psychological influence and “alluring significance to people of all ages and races” of the number seven, jumped off the train and headed to a lithography shop, where he had cards printed showing a green pickle and “57 Varieties” next to it. Lindbergh, Kendall reveals, was a serial adulterer. Living with his wife and children in Darien, Conn., for only a few months a year, he had three German mistresses, with whom he fathered seven children in the 1950s and ’60s, and a lengthy affair with a Pan American Airline stewardess.


Each of his super achievers, Kendall demonstrates, “was several fully realized Shakespearean characters all rolled into one.” Less persuasive is his claim that he has identified a unique American character trait that built a nation. And, alas, “America’s Obsessives” is a primer on the pitfalls of pop psychology.

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Kendall isn’t entirely successful in distinguishing between OCPD and obsessive-compulsive disorder. The former, he writes, involves things one can’t stop thinking about, while the latter concerns things one can’t stop doing. He acknowledges, however, that the “content of the thoughts and actions can be similar in the two disorders.” He does not adequately explain, moreover, when and how preoccupation with detail, orderliness, and control becomes a “disorder.”

Armed with a thesis in search of corroborating evidence, Kendall is much too quick to diagnose his subjects. Thomas Jefferson did, indeed, record the temperature every day in his account book, but so did almost every other diarist in his day. Kendall cites no evidence for his contention that Jefferson’s view of religious freedom had “its source” in alienation against his childhood Anglican tutors. His suggestion that Jefferson’s choice of Sally Hemmings for his mistress “is entirely consistent with [his] character disorder” cries out for some discussion of the pervasiveness of sexual intercourse between owners and their slaves in the United States. Skepticism is the appropriate response as well to Kendall’s claims that Heinz’s “addiction to making quotidian life easier” for his mother led him to develop mass-produced processed food; Dewey’s “desire to bring more women into the library business was rooted in part out of his own out-of-control sexual desire”; “equality was anathema” to Lauder, “as a good obsessive”; and of Williams, a devoted fisherman, his “closest bonds were with his flies.”

Kendall says he admires the ways in which his obsessive innovators solved problems and the attributes they brought to their crafts. In “these tense economic times,” he writes, “America could certainly benefit from a new generation of obsessive innovators.” It’s clear, however, that he doesn’t approve of how the men and woman he has put on the couch lived their lives. His book reminds us as well of Oscar Wilde’s warning that “biography lends to death a new terror.”

Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.