David Nasaw, who previously authored a well-received biography of William Randolph Hearst, has produced in this fine biography undoubtedly the most complete account of Andrew Carnegie that we will ever have. The book runs some 842 pages, including notes, and is based upon prodigious research into published and unpublished sources. The book reminds me very much of the stupendous biography of J. Pierpont Morgan by Jean Strouse, in that it is comprehensive and definitive. The author takes quite a balanced approach to Carnegie, which many other accounts of Gilded Age zillionaires fail to employ. He recognizes Carnegie's talents and philanthropic efforts, but also demonstrates that Carnegie often misled the public about his activities, and sometimes even engaged in self-delusion, especially about the Homestead Strike. Many dimensions of Carnegie with which I was not familiar are skillfully developed by the author, including his involvement in world peace and arbitration efforts, his career as a published author, and his efforts to become a key political advisor to TR, Taft and Wilson. Much like the Morgan volume, this book is also an outstanding business history of the late 19th-early 20th century period in the U.S., especially as regards the development of the steel industry and its eventual consolidation by Morgan into the U.S. Steel Corportation.
The fly in the ointment is that while the author's throughness is the book's greatest strength, it also becomes a major weakness. That is, it is simply too long by far. Sometimes one comes to believe that every letter exchanged between Carnegie and his leadership group, including Henry Clay Frick and Charles M. Schwab for example, has been reviewed by the author and recounted in the text. As a reference work on Carnegie, such inclusiveness is to be commended; but it makes for an overly long and detailed biography that becomes quite an undertaking to read. There can be too much of a good thing and more vigorous editing probably was in order. Nonetheless, it is only fair to say everything about or relating to Carnegie is somewhere within this extensive volume. An interesting cast of characters (in addition to those already mentioned) makes an appearance, including Kaiser Bill, Herbert Spencer, John Morley, various prime ministers, and John D. Rockefeller to name a few.
Carnegie thanks to Nasaw proves to be a much more interesting figure than being simply the "richest man in the world" who was determined to give it all away before his death. If you are interested in Carnegie or the business history of this period, this book is an invaluable resource. The text is supported by 42 pages of helpful notes and a valuable bibliography. The author's command of his subject is evident on every page. An invaluable resource on the man and his period.
on May 28, 2007
A mentor of mine once told me that 'to learn history, the only books you really need to read are great biographies'.
His point was, of course, that within the confines of a well written story of one life the reader unearths a much larger landscape of the times, events, and issues that surround the subject. Having just finished David Nasaw's excellent 'Andrew Carnegie' I think my teacher would be pleased and fully approve as the book meets any objective criteria of quality and excels on every level.
Here, we follow the figure of Andrew Carnegie from birth and each subsequent chapter of his full life. Carnegie's actions and thoughts are fascinating and Nasaw paints a masterful portrait of his subject. He uses a clear and concise tone to convey all of what is important and none of which that is not. You really feel like there is not a wasted word in the entire narrative.
Along the way we get in depth -but never tedious- lessons on issues as wide ranging as the immigrant experience to a particular brand of evolutionary philosophy to the history of labor to turn-of-the-century American foreign policy....Frankly, I was hooked from the beginning and thanks to the writing style and its intriguing subject the book's 800 pages fly by.
Another positive is the way Nasaw gives the reader credit for being intelligent enough to decipher the facts he provides and then let the reader form his or her own conclusions. I appreciated the linear narrative approach as well, as too many current biographies tend to 'do too much' and jump all over the place. That's not the case here as Nasaw never loses his compass and the reader benefits as a result.
'Andrew Carnegie' by David Nasaw is a book so full, so complete, so well done - and ultimately so wide ranging- that the reader is constantly entertained while absorbing vital information about one of the most important eras of American history and one of that period's most important public figures.
Five Stars. Read it.
801 pages of biography. This is what David Nasaw has produced--a massive biography of Andrew Carnegie. Well known as a philanthropist, he gave away much of his fortune. For instance, one accounting notes the following (page 801): ". . .at the time of his death, Carnegie had given away more than $350 million (in the tens of billions today). There remained but $20 million of stocks and bonds. . . . In the seventh paragraph of his last will and testament, Carnegie directed that it be bequeathed, in its entirety, to the Carnegie Corporation. And with this he accomplished the final, and to his mind, the most important goal he had set himself." In essence, he had given his entire fortune away.
This book provides cradle to grave coverage of Carnegie, beginning with his origins in Scotland. Early on, the family moved to the United States, settling in the Pittsburgh area. Carnegie's first job was in a cotton mill when he was thirteen. He was close to his mother then and throughout his life. He quickly moved to a position as a messenger with a telegraph company and then, in a stroke of fortune, become a telegraph operator in a company. Here, he began an association at a young age with Thomas Scott and J. Edgar Thomson of the Pennsylvania Railroad. By 17, he was working for the Pennsylvania Railroad and on his way.
The volume notes his small stature (barely five feet tall), but by 24, he was superintendent of the Pittsburgh Division of the rail company. Early on, he began to develop "rules for business" (e.g., see page 76). He was in a position to get involved over time with an oil company, with bridge building, with rail, coal, a bank, a grain elevator. And, of course, with iron and then steel. As he became successful, he and his mother enjoyed visiting the old family home in Scotland, Dunfermline.
He married quite late in life (after 50), but appears to have had a happy marriage; he also became a father later in life and appears to have done well in that role. By that time, he had withdrawn some from day to day running of his endeavors and spent much more time in New York and abroad than in Pittsburgh.
The book illustrates the ambitions of Carnegie to be more than an industrial baron. He wrote books, he hobnobbed with political leaders, authors, and scientists. He strove to be recognized as more than a wealthy individual. Nonetheless, he was a hard businessman. At one point, he took pride in developing "win-win" tactics with his employees; by the time of the Homestead strike, he had obviously moved in a different direction, as he supported a touch, hard-nosed attack on unions and employees.
Among his goals developed in the latter part of the 19th Century--to give away his rapidly developing fortune. He donated for development of libraries, he created an organization devoted to peace, he funded an organization aimed at advancing the sciences, he provided support for faculty and students at colleges, he endowed the Carnegie Corporation, he supported music, and so on.
In the end, this book, although very long, is well written, so that the pages fly by. Nasaw does a fair job portraying Carnegie, warts and all. He notes his tough stance against his own workers (after earlier having been praised as a friend of labor), his sometimes ostentatious efforts to become known as a man of letters, his desire to give world leaders a piece of his mind (irritating people like Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson in the process). In the end, despite his diminutive stature, he was a giant in American history.
on December 4, 2006
This is the first book I've read about a business icon where I can fully understand how they became successful. Most biographies gloss over details on how they made their first dollar and fail to reveal the true nature of their success. David Nasaw spares no expense in detailing Andrew Carnegie's early years of employment that resulted in his association with other future successful businessmen (where, in my opinion, he unabashedly road others' coattails). Through these contacts and "lucky" timing, Carnegie leveraged an uncanny ability to foresee future industry changes and forced his point of view upon the working class and business associates. All the while he cloak himself in the veil of future philanthropic endeavors to shield his questionable points of views and tactics.
In the end, I do believe Carnegie's motives were pure in his desire for diplomacy over warfare and his acquisition of wealth for future philanthropy. I must profess though, that by the end of the book I felt proud of what Carnegie achieved in business life (although not always agreed with his tactics) but felt sorry for his incomplete work in philanthropy. Carnegie is to be commended on establishing his charitable trusts that remain to this day and hope all successful people follow his model later in life to give all they have acquired back to the greater community.
This reviewer looks forward to other future publications by Nasaw as this book read swiftly (even at 800 pages) and enjoyably.
on February 2, 2014
David Nasaw's book on Andrew Carnegie was one of the more frustrating books I've read in a while. Unfortunately, the author never gives the reader a basic understanding of who Carnegie was and what motivated him, what themes are a constant in his life and help the reader feel like he knows the subject, like Ron Chernow does with Rockefeller. Instead of an analysis of Carnegie, we get a book report. In many sections I felt the writing lacked depth, particularly with respect to what was going on around Carnegie.
I'm somewhat ambivalent about Nasaw's frequent use of extended quotes from Andrew Carnegie. On one hand, what a better way to tell about Carnegie than using his own words, especially since since he speechified and wrote a lot, including an autobiography? On the other hand, the quotes quickly became tedious to read.
I'm not an expert on Andrew Carniegie, but I was let down when Nasaw didn't go into in any depth the long lasting and deep affect the Homestead strike had on the nation as a whole. The description of the event was interesting, but Nasaw totally missed the deep scar that it left on the nation for decades and decades to come.
I would also have appreciated a final chapter that tied Carnegie's whole life together, but instead, Carnegie dies and the book ends. There's no chapter on Carnegie's legacy nor any discussion of what happened to his daughter Margaret after he dies or even his multitudinous public institutions that he endowed.
The book was also very long, too long. Frankly, the only reason I plowed through it was that I had read extensively about many of the other titans during the Gilded Age and wanted to learn more about Carnegie. Joseph Kennedy seems like an interesting person, though after reading this book, I am very reluctant to read Nasaw's book on Kennedy.
Lastly, unlike the print version, the Kindle version did not include ANY photographs at all. The footnotes throughout the book also did not link up. Very frustrating.
on November 1, 2008
The first two hundred pages of this book were enthralling, the next two hundred tiring, and the last four hundred excruciating. As others here have stated this book is really a reference work, and I leave respecting it as such. My main complaint is the way it morphed.
I presume it's because, as Carnegie aged and his fame grew, the volume of text and documents associated with him grew even faster. And so the bulk of Nasaw's story is about his old age, which is less interesting and, I think, less important.
Of course, with less source material about his earlier life it's tough. Still, having read several biographies like this, here's my wish list...
Tell us more about the time period, and about the society and technology. Tell us about the shared cultural assumptions of the time. Tell us about the cities and the companies involved, give us more numbers and diagrams and photos.
Not the biographer's job perhaps, but it seems like these biographies consistently get lost in the trees.
on May 13, 2009
I picked up this book hoping to learn how Carnegie earned his fortunes. I was deeply disappointed. One couldn't help but get the sense that the author loath Andre Carnegie. There's scarcely little about Carnegie's business dealing. And there's almost no detail about the business' profits and earnings. Such details where obviously available to David Nasaw as their existence were mentioned several times in the books, yet the author had intentionally left them out. One would be hard pressed to understand how the one time richest man in the world achieved what he did.
A large portion of the book was devoted to Carnegie's aspiration on the world stage and politics, which he is of little consequence. Relatively small portion of the book is about Carnegie the industrialist and financier. This is likely because the author is a Professor of history and probably knows little about the economy.
As the book was written in strict chronological order, all of Carnegie's life events are interlaced. The constant switching back and forth makes the story line difficult to follow. In the end, I have learned nothing useful from the book. Given that Carnegie was one of the most successful industrialist in history, this is a pity. In the end, I think David Nasaw may simply the wrong man for the job.
on December 20, 2006
Andrew Carnegie arrived in the United States from his native Scotland in 1848 as an unschooled and aimless 13 year old, became immensely wealthy at 26, retired from full-time work at 37, revolutionized the structure and working methods of the American steel industry, pestered five or six Presidents with unwanted advice on how to do their jobs, and died at 84 as the head of a philanthropic empire that girdled the globe and is even today a presence in many different areas of society.
On the surface his life is the classic American rags-to-riches success story. David Nasaw, a history professor at the City University of New York, tells it with flavor and gusto in this blockbuster book --- but he also attempts the far more difficult task of explaining the man himself.
In many ways the man Carnegie was far more interesting than what he accomplished. His boundless self-confidence, charm and infectious optimism helped to bring him his millions every bit as much as did the wheeling and dealing of his business transactions. He started out as a bobbin boy in a Pittsburgh cotton mill, working his way up the economic ladder through a gift for befriending people who could do him good, and ended up dominating the American steel industry from his castle in Scotland.
All his life, he liked to portray himself as a former workingman, though his experience of that sort lasted only a teenage year or two. He kept publicly proclaiming sympathy for the laboring classes even as he depressed wages, broke unions, forcibly suppressed strikes and imposed longer working hours.
He developed a systematic rationalization for these tactics and put them into a book called THE GOSPEL OF WEALTH. It was his sacred duty, he felt, to amass the greatest possible wealth so he could eventually give it all away for the betterment of mankind.
Once he discovered to his surprise that shrewd investments could make a man wealthy, he disputed the idea that hard work was really a necessity for success in life.
He paid for 1,689 public libraries in the USA and over 800 in other countries. He bestowed money on schools that met his standards, on organizations working for world peace and on a long list of other projects. In all, Nasaw estimates, he gave away some $350 million, which would amount to many billions in today's terms. He reasoned that workers under his control had a duty to accept low wages so he could amass this fortune and use it to make the world a better place. It was reasoning that many found impossible to accept.
David Nasaw has unearthed more facts about Carnegie and his career than anyone else. He tries very hard not to take sides in judging Carnegie the man, allowing his many critics and detractors to have their say. We hear in these pages from people like Mark Twain, Theodore Roosevelt and Matthew Arnold, who knew him well but did not always judge him kindly. Among Carnegie's business associates there were many who admired him, but many others who fought him bitterly. He exasperated five Presidents with his unsolicited advice.
Nasaw emphasizes, among many other things, Carnegie's attraction to the evolutionary philosophy of the dour Englishman Herbert Spencer. It was inevitable, Spencer felt, that mankind and society would evolve upward through ever-higher stages of organization and intellect, until perfection was in sight. Carnegie took that idea one step further --- if a few unlucky souls had to suffer along the way, too bad. The intelligent managers and leaders --- the Andrew Carnegies of this world --- had a duty to keep this process going, and they deserved to be rewarded for their superior status.
At times this book can be hard going for the reader. Nasaw can get bogged down in the inevitably dull minutia of corporate finance and stock manipulation. But his writing is stylish and his authorial neutrality refreshing. Andrew Carnegie, inside his small-statured body, was a fascinating, annoying, jocular and ruthless fellow all at once. His legacy is still with us, and this book explains in detail how it all happened.
--- Reviewed by Robert Finn (Robertfinn@aol.com)
On Feb. 4, 1901, Andrew Carnegie sold his steel-making business for an unprecedented $400 million (worth about $120 billion now). With that sale, he became "The Richest Man in the World," according to J.P. Morgan, who bought Carnegie's company and used it as the basis of U.S. Steel. But if you want to learn how to become the richest person in your part of the world, that's not the purpose of this biography. Instead David Nasaw minutely depicts an authentic tragic comedy in more than 800 pages, the life of an impoverished, painfully short immigrant lad who succeeded during the Gilded Age of capitalism, becoming a robber baron, philanthropist and "peacenik." The author uncovers many of the secret operations Carnegie used to exploit his early employers and, later, his gullible investors. This account corrects biographies that omit Carnegie's shady railroad bonds and union busting. The author also explains how Carnegie used his wealth to become one of the world's greatest philanthropists, a significant legacy that endures through the institutions and libraries he endowed. We highly recommend this detailed history for its iconoclastic scholarship, profound soul-searching and fascinating portrait of a unique, contradictory person.
on April 29, 2010
The world owes Mr Nasaw a whole lot of thanks. Mostly for busting the myth (or myths) surrounding Carnegie's success. For years now, we've been told how he (and other men like him) had become rich, by simply applying 'the laws of success' and other self-help principles. Many a book indeed has featured anecdotes of how he made it good. Though the great Andrew Carnegie was no slouch, he was no saint either. He, just as some people whom you and I know at work, began his ascent by ingratiating himself with his superiors. And that, we learn from Mr Nasaw, opened up many doors for him. Later, with all that wealth and the clout that came with it, he was able to fashion his life story and legacy into something more kosher. Of course his philanthropy too, in many ways, negated whatever means by which he accumulated his riches.
I bought this book, hoping to copy a few pages from Carnegie's play book. Emulate the man so to speak. But then I was disappointed to learn (at least in Carnegie's case) that the road to super riches is not made of laws or precepts presented in self-help books. Rather great wealth is achieved by looking out for yourself, regardless of the repercussions to others. And to a lesser extent, that when you do become super rich, you can give it all away so that future generations will hail you as a hero of a man.