From Immigrant to Inventor

by Michael Pupin. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1923. 8vo. Illustrated. xii+396 pp. $4.00.
THIS is an autobiographical account of the transformation of a Serbian peasant into an American professor of electro-mechanics. It falls into three main divisions. The first comprises the author’s childhood, his early struggles, his emigration to America, and his experiences as a greenhorn. The second covers the period of his studies at Columbia, Cambridge, and Berlin. The third describes his later academic and scientific career.
The first part is unquestionably better than the other two — so much so that we cannot but wish that it might have stood by itself. The reason for this difference may be difficult to explain, but it is easy to illustrate. The first part, for example, describes a peasant boy of Banal setting out for Prague in quest of learning, clad in ‘a long yellow overcoat of sheepskin trimmed with black wool,’and carrying a roast goose in a multicolored woolen bag. The second part depicts a graduate student of physics, ‘clad in a rowingshirt with blue-and-white Columbia stripes and thin tennis-trousers,’rowing on Lake Lucerne, contemplating the Alps and meditating upon William Tell. In the third part we meet a famous inventor at the Wissahickon Horse-Show, dressed — presumably — in a more conventional costume. He wins a blue ribbon against the stable of ‘millionaire Widener,’ and chats familiarly with ‘Reginald Rives, one of the social leaders of New York.’
These are all pictures of Michael Pupin, in the several stages of his metamorphosis; but the imagination of the reader dwells more fondly on the first than on the second and third. Perhaps it is because our sympathies are more easily aroused by hardship and struggle than by success. Perhaps it is because we require that either the scene or the seeing eye shall reveal something of novelty. Banat interests us because it is strange, and America interests us as seen through the eyes of a stranger; but when the scene is familiar and the eyes have become very much like our own, then art seems to add nothing to reality.
Or is it that, whether because he is respectable and successful, or because he is American, there is something unalluring about a thoroughly respectable and unquestionably successful American?
In any case, after reading the latter part of the book, and despite its lively account of the development of scientific research in America, we turn back gratefully to its earlier chapters. The boy in the sheepskin overcoat, having been robbed of his roast goose by a band of theological students on their way to Karlovici, was warned by an observant but neutral by stander that ‘in a world of strangers von must always keep one eye on what you have and with the other eye look out for things that you do not have.’ That which this boy coveted was education and liberty, symbolized by the St. Sava of his native country, and by the Franklin and Lincoln of far-off America. To this Promised Land he found his way at the age of sixteen, and with five cents in his pocket. How he struggled to seize the proverbial but elusive ‘opportunity,’ how he fraternized with Bilharz. a classical scholar employed by the New England Cracker factory in Cortland Street, how, with the aid of the Cooper Union and casual friends, he converted opportunity into attainment and realized his boyhood dreams, is a story well worth the reading, and a substantial contribution to the meaning of America.