Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Andrew Carnegie

Another biography that I finished during the Christmas break was historian David Nasaw's massive Andrew Carnegie (Penguin, 2006). Tipping the scales at barely over 800 pages, Nasaw gives a thorough look at the little man who dominated the steel industry in the period of America we know as the Gilded Age. And while the thoroughness of the book would appear to leave little room for criticism, I left the book not quite sure what to make of Carnegie.

Starting with Carnegie's birth in 1835 in Dunfermline, Scotland, to a linen weaver, Nasaw deftly charts the rise of this "Star Spangled Scotchman." From the time Carnegie's family emigrates to Pittsburgh when the boy was 14, Andrew was on the make--hustling from one job to the next and investing his money in companies headed by friends and guided by insider information, Carnegie would eventually be a millionaire by the time he was 35.

The key moment in his business career was when he put his "eggs in one basket," moving nearly all his capital to founding Carnegie Steel. In order to protect his steel company, Carnegie ruthlessly set out to acquire everything needed for production, including H. C. Frick Coke, and to bully others into cooperating with him, including the Pennsylvania Railroad. He was civic booster and cheerleader when he needed to be, but he was also a hard-edged business man who knew how to make others fall into line. He gained the respect of financial men on both sides of the Atlantic for the way he would carefully invest his own money and enthusiastically booster for other people's money.

Nasaw describes Carnegie's rise to financial independence well, moving the reader quickly through the first two hundred pages. Unfortunately, by the time Andrew is nearly 50, the book bogs down--it takes six hundred pages to move from 1881 to Carnegie's death in 1919. This is not to say that there isn't insight in these pages--there is: Carnegie's fairly consistent defense of international peace strategies; his attempt to develop himself into a man of letters; his support and influence in the Republican Party; his determination to carry out his "Gospel of Wealth" ideals, and especially his part in the 1892 Homestead debacle. But surely this section of Carnegie's life could have been handled in half the page amount, resulting in a crisper and more focused story.

Because he drowned the reader in the details of Carnegie's life (sections felt more like a travelogue than anything else), Nasaw missed a point to tease out aspects of his subject's personality. Though he noted Carnegie's insecurity or somewhat neurotic behavior at points, I never felt that Nasaw made those character qualities central to "Carnegie the Man." But if there was ever someone who appeared clearly to suffer from "little man's syndrome," it was Carnegie. Not only did he come close to five feet tall, but his constant name-dropping, attempts to influence national and world events, and almost messianic view of his importance to world peace all suggested a person deeply uncomfortable with himself. Yet Nasaw never really probes down into Carnegie's heart to see what is there, perhaps because he got lost in the detailed and overlong narrative.

One of the findings that particularly interested me was Carnegie's religious views. Raised in a family that had little use for their native Church of Scotland, Carnegie attended a Swedenborgian enclave for a while as a teenager. But until he makes the acquaintance of Hebert Spencer, he wrestles to find a philosophy that articulates his own very secular beliefs. Spencer, the apostle of "Positivism," gives Carnegie the social evolutionary hope in progress that allows him to justify his own personal success and to view the world through rose-colored glasses. When the Great War is unleashed in 1914, Carnegie's faith is crushed, he lapses into an emotional breakdown and essentially stops communicating with the world until his death in 1919. In this regard, Carnegie's "faith" is actually fairly typical; as historian Charles Cashdollar has demonstrated, most theologians found positivism to be the key intellectual challenge of the period. What we may not have as good a handle on is how Spencer's positivism translated for the man on the street, producing either the optimism of Carnegie (or Henry Ward Beecher, for that matter) or the pessimism of Mark Twain.

Still, there is probably no better introduction to Andrew Carnegie's life that Nasaw's monumental work. While a briefer (around five or six hundred pages) book would have strengthened the whole immeasurably, I found this to be a worthwhile investment of time.

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