“In 1929, after years of preparation, Ford opened to the public a large tourist park and museum built on 252 acres in Dearborn,” writes Steven Watts in his admirable new biography. “Visitors could inspect a display of Americana–antiques of every imaginable variety–painstakingly collected by Ford’s agents. In the enclosed buildings of the Henry Ford Museum, visitors saw an array of everyday goods from 18th- and 19th-century America: farm implements, railroad engines, furniture, cookware, wagons, woodstoves, and much, much more. Outside, in Greenfield Village, stood many architectural artifacts–a courthouse where Abraham Lincoln practiced law, Thomas Edison’s laboratories, the homes of Stephen Foster and Noah Webster, a Southern plantation house, the Wright Brothers’s bicycle shop, a gristmill, and a stagecoach tavern, to choose just a few examples–that had been purchased, carefully disassembled, and then rebuilt by Ford’s carpenters and craftsmen.”

This was more EuroDisney than Disneyland, a strange and didactic mass costumed as entertainment, dropped into a culture that felt it increasingly alien. The village’s main street mingled vintage-styled, small-town shops (“Village Blacksmith Shop”) with the shipped-in structures of engineering labs, as if insisting through the quiet fraud of juxtaposition that 19th-century values and mechanical progress necessarily went hand in hand. Ford called Greenfield Village “my Smithsonian Institute.” He hoped it would draw millions.

Like Hearst’s castle, Greenfield Village makes a telling monument, a marker of the nervous tension its maker felt between the 19th century and the 20th. The automaker had been a great–perhaps the great–booster of the emerging American middle class, setting his factory wages so high and pricing his Model T so low that millions more Americans could afford the markers of what had been luxury, and becoming a hero to the flowering progressive movement in the process.

To the extent that the United States is a literary experiment, this is the nub of it: What happens when you give great wealth and social power to a group that had not been born into it? Ford was disappointed by the early returns. World War I made it clear that modernity was moving away from the automaker’s version of Eden rather than back towards it. In the 1920s, it became evident to him that the new middle classes had little desire to return to Greenfield Village, and roughly zero interest in a sin-free, small-town, ballroom-dancing life, so Ford put his formidable cash and influence into trying to turn the whole damn thing back. This extended, frantic thrash against the current, the last 30 years of his life, served Ford’s memory poorly; he washed up, a bigoted lump, on the wrong side of history, a monument to the tragic reactionism of self-made men.

Ford’s life, in Watts’s telling, seems like it was lived to flesh out precisely this question–why is it that self-made men are often more committed reactionaries than the blue bloods? Coming up was easy for Ford, and so when other working class men and women didn’t match his success he blamed it, like thousands of scold-prone school principals since, on their lack of drive and disciplined purpose. Unburdened by the guilt of the born rich, Ford felt free to despise the laxity of the newly wealthy, and the evil of those institutions that encouraged it. Banks, dance halls, and car companies that sold vehicles on credit (not to mention, until reason broke through after decades, the Jews) fared poorly in Ford’s public speeches and writings, and in a neat and quick flip, the ultimate progressive grew deeply anti-modern.

Watts’s book is not very complicated, and its virtues and flaws both stem from the author’s decision to focus his work tightly on the sea change in Ford’s public disposition and image, first a progressive and then a reactionary. A biographical bulimic, Watts spits out huge chunks of Ford’s life without really digesting them. Beyond a little thin praise, we never get close to Clara, Ford’s wife of six decades. The first 40 years of the automaker’s life (most of his early career was spent as a troubleshooting engineer with a Detroit electrical utility) take up less than a fifth of the book. And Watts doesn’t even tackle what is perhaps the great sociological question of the early auto industry: Why Detroit? Even though that city had no apparent advantage in 1900, as small, innovative auto shops were popping up from Buffalo to Daytona Beach, it had become by 1910 the Silicon Valley of its day, and the mechanics who ran the city’s tinkering shops had turned into manufacturing legends, the Dodges, Oldses, and Fords. But Watts, whose interest lies elsewhere, doesn’t offer any explanation.

Perhaps most frustrating in so thick a book, Watts never offers a convincing portrait of his main character. In the introduction, he writes of Ford, “The genuine man remains elusive,” which is an irritating way to try to lure the reader into a 500-page biography. The result is a slightly soft, arms-length treatment, with ripped-from-the-headlines anecdotes–at times, it reads like the kind of newsmaker profile that Matt Lauer might do.

But none of this bothered me very much, because Watts has seized on the most important aspect of his subject’s life: Henry Ford’s complicated, difficult relationship with modern times.

In 1879, 16-year-old Henry Ford, son of an Irish immigrant turned Michigan farmer, left school and moved to Detroit. There he held down a series of mechanical apprenticeships before finally landing a steady gig as a mechanic in the central power plant of the Edison Illuminating Company while keeping up an active sideline in garage tinkering. He worked hard. He saved his earnings. He kept his work space and house fanatically clean. He was a church-going teetotaler, favored obscure Victorian-era folk dances and believed in the natural superiority of farms to cities–even in his workingman days, Ford managed to keep a country home. In the aftermath of the Civil War, the fetish of the Puritan work ethic was most present in the farming Midwest, not the commercial Atlantic coast, and Ford throughout his life talked about himself as an archetype of duty and prudence. Watts doesn’t appear to have had much of a choice in writing Ford as a sort of Peanuts character, vivid in two dimensions but without much depth–ever conscious of his public image, the automaker had long since done it for him.

Combative and headstrong, Ford started two automotive companies that failed before giving up on the production of cars for the popular market in order to build a single racecar. In 1905, on a crude oval at Lake St. Clair, Ford set the world record for groundspeed in his invention, in a race that would win him national celebrity. (Each racecar had two crewmen, a driver to operate the thing and a balancer to stand on the running board, letting his body billow out around curves to prevent the careening vehicle from tipping over; or Ford’s car was so hard to control that the automaker, who drove, had to cut the engine off entirely when he turned, flipping it back on during straight-aways.) The publicity that came from this great win presented his third venture, the Ford Motor Company, with a ready market: He had evidence backing his claim to be the world’s finest engineer.

But from the start, Ford was obsessed–to the point of antagonizing his partners and undermining his company’s profits–with building a car that the emerging middle class could afford. It took him 10 years and a fight over a patent held by a cartel of automakers that they claimed entitled them to 2 percent of Ford’s profits. But when, in 1908, he built the Model T, the “$500 car” he had long dreamed of, Ford changed the economics of auto-making forever. He changed too the middle class’ ability to afford luxury (cars had previously been items for the executives). He expanded the periphery of countless cities throughout the United States, as the great popularity of the Model T and the equally cheap models that Ford’s competitors grudgingly produced to compete meant that the middle class could move to what had been farmland, swelling walkable metropolises out to include suburbs. It was a pretty good decade.

One of the pleasant surprises of Watts’s book is the way he clarifies the political import of the assembly line. I had it my head that such factories were all dirty and brutal, representing a step back from pre-industrial times. Watts makes a convincing case that the assembly line, Ford’s great rediscovery (it came in 1914, after the Model T, and was the brainstorm of an unknown and unnamed foreman in Ford’s “flywheel magneto” department) made things better for workers, not worse: It permitted them to develop a precise mechanical expertise, gave them a cleaner and healthier work environment, and, most importantly, through the profit margins it made possible, generated more and better-paid jobs. A year after the first assembly line rolled out at Ford’s famous Highland Park plant, Ford committed the company to the Five Dollar Day–a signal national event at the time, and one that had even such muckraking lefties as Ida Tarbell (the investigative reporter who had written the definitive takedown of John D. Rockefeller) and John Reed all but nominating the great industrialist for sainthood. Ford believed, with great insight, that the viability of the consumer market would drive the economy, and so the benefits his company would win by giving thousands more people the means to buy Model Ts would more than offset the burden on the payroll. Ploys like this also made for good publicity. During the 1910s, Ford, who employed an army of public relations men to keep him and his company in the news, appeared in American newspapers more frequently than all but four other men: Charles Evans Hughes, William Jennings Bryan, Theodore Roosevelt, and Woodrow Wilson. In the 1920s, he placed second, behind only Calvin Coolidge.

From the beginning, Ford kept a near-neurotic watch over his charges, the workingmen his payrolls had turned into the financial rivals of clergymen and shop-keepers. With the mathematical messianism of the engineer, he established within his company a “sociological department,” a weird combination of beneficence and Big Brother, which sent investigators to each worker’s house to check up on its cleanliness, to ask neighbors about whether the worker drank, to poke into his finances to see how much he was saving, and to see what time he was in bed each night. If he failed more than one of these criteria, he would be offered aid–advice on child care, treatment for alcohol abuse. If he failed several, he was canned. Like the $500 dollar car and the Five Dollar Day, this new idea was the first of its kind; unlike those two historic innovations, no other industrialists copied it. Ford had to retire the program 10 years later, when the company was cutting costs, but it earned him a great deal of cred in reformist circles. “[Cars] are but the by-products of his real business,” declared the automaker’s closest advisor, the Rev. Samuel Marquis, “which is the making of men.”

But when World War I came, and the new gears of the modern world began to creak against one another, Ford reacted with alarm. In newspaper articles and speeches, he denounced the war as the work of an international Jewish banking conspiracy, and through the rest of his life harbored an occasionally aggressive brand of anti-Semitism. In 1915, his populist isolationism led him to underwrite the Peace Ship, a gaudy and absurd venture that sailed to Europe carrying as passengers the contemporary equivalent of The Huffington Post. (Ford had hoped to lead governors and political leaders on a continental peace campaign; instead, his mission was headlined by the head of the Anti-Smoking League.) In 1918, Ford ran as the Democratic nominee for the Senate from Michigan, but declared that campaigning and giving speeches were beneath him. He ran by issuing press releases, and arguing that America needed to return to its 19th century values and eschew forever foreign entanglements and wars. He lost to a Republican hack with the delightfully bumptious name of Truman H. Newberry. That same year, Ford ended up in court at the end of a ridiculous, two-year fight with The Chicago Tribune, whose support for defense of U.S. settlements against Pancho Villa’s raids along the Rio Grande the automaker opposed (Ford considered such action a violation of George Washington’s warning against foreign entanglements). He sued the paper for libel after it called him an “ignorant idealist.” The paper’s lawyer, Eliot G. Stevenson, proved the “ignorant” charge in court with gusto, getting Ford, at one point, to define “chili con carne” as “a large, mobile army.”

By the late 1920s, the puritanical bent which had served Ford so well as a public figure wasn’t doing his company any favors. Having long dominated sales, the Ford Motor Company now trailed General Motors and Chrysler in market share, in large part because of its founder’s stubborn refusal to allow customers to purchase cars on credit. This fervent puritanism made Ford into something of a national grump during the depression; he thought President Roosevelt was a scoundrel, that his public works program was socially disastrous, and that an economic recovery was lingering just around the corner. Ford, in his public speeches and writings, claimed southern European licentiousness was destroying American culture; he met with Hitler’s American fundraiser Kurt Ludecke and saw Jewish conspiracies everywhere. Ford even hated the post-war dance crazes and, writes Watts, “saw the revival of the waltz and the two-step as an antidote to the degeneration of modern American culture represented by jazz and lurid dances such as the Black Bottom and the Charleston.” He even managed to alienate his only son, named (get ready) Edsel, with his sneering, unjust conviction that the boy was sensitive and lazy. By the 1940s, Ford had become a national eccentric, levying campaigns to convince the public that it was healthier to drink warm water than cold and that wheat was a “divine and complete food.”

Even the circumstances of death served to show how out of touch the man had become. Henry Ford died in 1947, of a heart attack at his second home in Dearborn. The town, at the time, was being pummeled by a marauding flood that had cut off all communications with the outside world. In the midst of World War II, the defining moment of the 20th century, Ford happily sat on his farm and recalled the 19th. He had achieved in his death an epic kind of isolation.