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An Invented Man

By Margaret Black

The Count of Concord: A Novel

By Nicholas Delbanco

 

Dalkey Archive, 478 pages, $15.95

It takes a writer of wit and exper ience to confect a chef d’oeuvre as splendid as The Count of Concord, a fictional biography of the real-life 18th-century scientist and inventor, Benjamin Thompson, better known as Count Rumford. But Nicholas Delbanco, author of more than a dozen novels and many nonfiction works, does so with deceptive ease.

Just who was Benjamin Thompson? Born in 1753 to a farming family in Woburn, Mass., Ben was curious, clever, and largely self-taught. At 19 he married a wealthy woman much his senior, thereby quickly rising into colonial prominence. He became a British spy early in the American Revolution and barely escaped to England. Once there, he assiduously courted those who might advance him, all the while exercising his considerable intellect on scientific experiments (gunpowder, for instance—one needed to keep it dry, contrary to popular understanding) and satisfying his prodigious sexual appetite.

After a brief stint fighting the rebellious Americans again, he returned to Europe, eventually making his way to Munich, where, for his social and military services, the Elector of Bavaria made him Count Rumford of the Holy Roman Empire. Rumford returned to England, where he helped establish the Royal Institution for the promotion of scientific education and research. Later he traveled to Paris. There he admired Napoleon and married, most unhappily, the widow of the famous chemist Lavoisier. Rumford died in 1814, funding in his will many scientific awards and a professorship at Harvard University.

So why, since Count Rumford is a household name in Europe even today, is he unknown here? It is almost certainly in part because he actively spied against our American heroes. And when he briefly returned to fight again against his fellow countrymen, British officer Thompson made a nasty name for himself in Huntington, Long Island, where he terrorized the inhabitants, tore down their church, burned all their wood, and used the community’s gravestones to bake the town’s bread.

In addition, Ben shamelessly lied and sucked up to the privileged in his ruthless scramble out of social obscurity. His unfailing curiosity and rigorous scientific methods might look to the future, but his social practice was ancient and vile. One intellectual friend of Ben’s youth, Loammi Baldwin, can stand for contrast. Loammi worked hard at his learning, fought for independence, served in public office, and eventually engineered America’s first canal; he fought for a new society in which merit counted, not birth. And that idea is still more preferable to most of us than Rumford’s mode of social self-improvement.

Author Delbanco, however, leaps joyfully into the corrupt world that Count Rumford navigates and subtly employs an 18th-century style reminiscent of the picaresque adventures of Tom Jones or Moll Flanders. Young Ben is bright, observant, and quickly comes to desire all the finer objects of life. He instantly perceives opportunities to improve his lot. That he enjoys philosophical speculation and careful experimentation merely makes him more attractive. The author’s wordplay in this book, and its many mischievous literary references, will have attentive readers scrambling to identify them all.

Although the narrative darkens, it never wavers from external description. Nowhere in Rumford’s tale do we find any soul-searching introspection. To make up for this lack, Delbanco introduces Sally Thompson, Rumford’s last living descendant (from an illegitimate branch). A 60-year-old widow, Sally “writes” the story we read, but she also occasionally speaks in her own voice to evaluate Rumford’s activities or comment about herself and her heritage.

The novel opens, for example, in 1814, with a stately description of Count Rumford driving into Paris to collect glass beakers and alembics that have been blown to his “secret and exact specifications.” His all-white coach, pulled by all-white horses, travels on specially made, extra-wide wheels (they make the trip more comfortable). Everyone gapes at him, and they urge their children to remember seeing this famous old man. “Or that, at any rate, is how I imagine it,” Sally states baldly in the next section. Then she admits that the streets she has him driving along didn’t exist at the time, and other details are wrong as well. “So my beautiful Prologue’s a fake.” Yet this, she thinks, is the way it should have been, and she writes because “my ancestor was famous, infamous, and is forgotten today; I herewith claim and reclaim him.”

We must therefore remember that, however straightforward the tale may sound, the person setting it down on paper is not entirely committed to the truth. Late in the book, Sally mentions a time when she supported herself by writing bodice-ripper novels, and this admission seems particularly pertinent to the many and complicated scenes of Rumford in sexual conjunction.

Rumford didn’t just screw around, however; he made lasting contributions both in scientific theory (he decisively disproved the caloric theory of heat, paving the way for the modern laws of thermodymanics) and in practical invention: He reconfigured fireplaces so that the heat came into the room, and the smoke went up the chimney; he invented the kitchen stove, the drip coffee pot, a roaster. In Munich he worked to improve the well-being of the poor, through better nutrition, housing, and paid work at state workshops.

Delbanco delights in making us pay attention to, even sympathize with, a most problematic protagonist, whose intellectual curiosity and generous invention constantly shine out through his ultimately tedious social maneuverings. As Sally says at the end, “What was missing in the man, I think, was any degree of awareness that he might be in the wrong—that saving grace, uncertainty, without which we as characters and as a nation are doomed.” Count Rumford is exceptionally fortunate in his artful “biographer.”


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