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Carnegie ()

There were two sources of trepidation in reading and reviewing this book.  First, in keeping with the Brothers Judd full disclosure policy, I'm required to mention that my five year old son says he's going to marry Mr. Krass's daughter, a kindergarten classmate.  What father in his right mind is going to disrespect his son's future father-in-law?  Second, in the Preface to the book, it sounds almost like we're embarking on a vendetta:

    Like many men working in the hellish Carnegie mills, my great-grandfather William Danziger imbibed quantities of beer and liquor
    to soothe his pains and to make him feel alive again.  He didn't reach sixty years of age, while Carnegie lived to the ripe age of eighty-four.
    In the summer of 2001, I visited my great-grandfather's gravesite in a cemetery not far from his old frame house in Carnegie, Pennsylvania,
    a suburb of Pittsburgh.  I found a congested cemetery bordered by busy streets.  There was no peace there.  I also visited Andrew Carnegie's
    grave in the bucolic Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, near Tarrytown, New York.  Carnegie has a spacious corner lot, nestled among evergreens
    and fern.  It appears he has found a measure of peace.  The contrast of the two gravesites raises one of the poignant themes to be explored
    in reconstructing the complicated life of a titan who came to power in America's Gilded Age: the unequal distribution of wealth that marked
    that era in our history.

You just can't read that without warning flags going up about whether what is to follow can possibly be objective.  Everything about it, from Carnegie's "hellish" mills, which would presumably make him the Devil, right down to the word "distribution"--as if Mr. Danziger and Mr. Carnegie had merely been handed their respective lots in life--suggests that the muck rakes are poised.  So it is a great relief, as one reads on, to find that Mr. Krass has not only written a fair and balanced biography, but one where he seems to have allowed his study of Carnegie to gradually temper his initial judgment of the man.  This allows him to judge his subject harshly when Carnegie's dubious financial dealings and his treatment of employees and competitors require such, but to be generous in his assessments where Carnegie's personal achievements and public philanthropy are concerned.

This balancing act suits the subject well, because Carnegie's story is a mixture of darkness and light.  In fact, his life seems to combine a number of our touchstone myths.  As a poor immigrant from Scotland who rose to be one of the wealthiest men who's ever lived, he's almost something out of Horatio Alger.  This aspect of his tale is helped greatly by the way he taught himself Morse code, when he was a messenger as a boy, and stepped in
to operate the key at an important moment.  Once he becomes rich he undergoes a fascinating internal struggle, one as old as Man, as he wants on the one hand to do well for himself but on the other to do good in the world.  He, of course, did do very well, and stayed in business far longer than he ever told himself he would. But, as Mr. Krass shows, he also--almost singlehandedly--created the traditions and institutions of the private charitable foundation and, by his example, prodded men like John D. Rockefeller into giving away great portions of their wealth too.  According to Mr. Krass's numbers, Carnegie's fortune at its peak would have been worth over $100 billion in today's dollars (as compared to Bill Gates's measly $50 billion).  But, by the end of his life, Carnegie had given away a staggering $350,695,653.40 and had "just" $25 million remaining.  Finally, there's a hint, though underplayed here, of tragedy at the end of Carnegie's life.  One of the chief ways in which Carnegie had sought to expunge the guilt of his shady business dealings and the sometimes brutal manner in which he'd betrayed his own ideals about the relationship between capital and labor, when dealing with his employees, was to adopt the cause of world peace.  Beyond the libraries that bear his name, it is probably the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and his early advocacy of things like the League of Nations which best exemplify what became his "crusade" in life.  Yet, towards the end, even he came to support America's entry into WWI, a conflict among the "civilized" nations of the world that called into question the very possibility of establishing an enduring international peace.

Mr. Krass handles all these various storylines deftly, giving credit when it's due and dealing blame when Carnegie's worthy.  The one incident in Carnegie's career with which we're all probably familiar from old school days is the brutal suppression of the Homestead strike.  The chapter on that episode is really a model of fairness.  Mr. Krass acknowledges the business concerns that drove Carnegie and his partners and the increasing militancy of the labor movement, the combination of which made confrontation almost inevitable.  He carefully tracks the actions of both sides, noting how Carnegie's man, Henry Clay Frick, prepared the Homestead plant as a kind of fortress with Pinkerton guards, but also how the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers had genuinely become an obstacle to efficiency and had become prone to flex its muscle just because it could.  Additionally, he clears Carnegie of the charge that he intentionally fled the country when the strike was coming, showing that he was on a planned trip and didn't anticipate the clash to come.  Neither side comes off terribly well in what Mr. Krass rightly calls a tragedy.

Throughout it all, even when handling complex transactions and bewildering financial arrangements, Mr. Krass keeps the story moving, often balancing a chapter that's heavy on business with a subsequent one on Carnegie's personal life, as if he's giving the reader a short breather.  The result is a readable and often fascinating biography of a figure who it's all too easy to just lump in with the "robber barons" and dismiss as a predatory oligarch.  Instead, blemishes and all, Mr. Krass gives us a compelling portrait of a man who, though he may not always win our sympathy, does command our attention and, eventually, I think, a fair degree of admiration.


Grade: (A)


See also:

Book-related and General Links:
    -PETER KRASS Online
    -BOOKNOTES: Carnegie by Peter Krass  (C-SPAN, November 24, 2002)
    -CHAT: with Peter Krass (Washington Post Online, October 3, 2002)
    -PROFILE: Researching Carnegie's life forces author to alter some preconceptions (Bob Hoover, October 20, 2002, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)
    -PROFILE: Peter Krass '87 pens Carnegie biography (Lafayette Alumni News)
    -ARTICLE: Grandson of child at Carnegie Free Library dedication helps mark its centennial (Linda Wilson Fuoco, October 02, 2002, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)
    -ARCHIVES: "peter krass" (Find Articles)
    -REVIEW: of Carnegie by Peter Krass (Paul Johnson, Daily Telegraph)
    -REVIEW: of Carnegie by Peter Krass (Robert Gangewere, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)
    -REVIEW: of The Book of Business Wisdom By Peter Krass (Jack Carpenter, Book Page)

    -Andrew Carnegie: A Tribute (Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh)
    -Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
    -The American Experience: Andrew Carnegie
    -ARCHIVES: "andrew carnegie" (Find Articles)