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Freaks of Fortune: The Emerging World of Capitalism and Risk in America Hardcover – October 1, 2012

4.7 out of 5 stars 6 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Review

A most informative and imaginative study of the many roles played by risk and the attempts to offset it in American economic development. Levy's insights will substantially enrich our understanding of the American past. (Stanley L. Engerman, author of Slavery, Emancipation, and Freedom: Comparative Perspectives)

There is a brilliance of mind and story on every page of Levy's intriguing and innovative study of American capitalism. Risk taking and risk management illuminate the economic history of the United States in the nineteenth century and prompt invaluable reflection on our own risky financial times. (Walter Licht, author of Industrializing America: The Nineteenth Century)

Freaks of Fortune is a bold new synthesis of nineteenth-century U.S. history. It illuminates the transformation of fundamental ideas about property, personhood, liberty, and security as an agrarian market society became a modern industrial state. In showing how an omniscient God yielded authority to the emerging statistical science of probability, Levy casts unprecedented light on the culture of American capitalism, past and present. This is a powerful and important book. (Jackson Lears, author of Rebirth of a Nation: The Making of Modern America, 1877–1920)

A free-wheeling yet finely targeted history of capitalism and the modern financial industry, this study by Princeton historian Levy revolves around one specific concept--risk--while considering changing notions of liberty, justice, and human agency. Originally a mariners' term for the possibility of a ship's cargo being lost at sea, "risk" became a defining feature of American commercial life as the free market expanded and industrialization radically increased the pace of economic change...Levy's humane vision and his extensive knowledge of American law, economics, and politics turn what could have been a dry treatise into a fascinating portrait of a society in flux. The author sheds light on such topics as corporate profit-sharing and the ethical ramifications of futures trading, underscoring the extraordinary power of the "economic chance-world" to create and destroy. Happenstance has always played an enormous role in human life, and the book explores society's reaction to the realization that individuals are increasingly defined by the possibility that their station in life will dramatically rise or fall. (Publishers Weekly 2012-08-20)

Levy provides a fascinating glimpse into the history of financial risk. Looking at the years between the start of the 19th century and the beginning of the Great Depression, he outlines a shift in philosophy regarding risk and responsibility as workers became dependent on new financial systems. Insurance, savings accounts, and even mortgage-backed securities proliferated in an attempt to shift risk off the individual and onto a larger institution. (Elizabeth Nelson Library Journal 2012-10-15)

Levy sets himself the task of writing a history of economic and social risk in America in the 19th and early 20th centuries and, along the way, of showing that big government didn't just come from nowhere. It is an indispensable absorber, he suggests, of the shocks of the free market...Freaks of Fortune is a formidable work of scholarship--hats off to the author for the depth and breadth of his research. (James Grant Wall Street Journal 2012-11-02)

Engrossing account of the rise of the financial sector of the U.S. economy and the development of new tools for managing risk...Levy adds greatly to an understanding of risk in the American economy. (D. A. Coffin Choice 2013-04-01)

Brilliant. (Stephen Mihm The Nation 2013-04-23)

[Levy] not only tells a historical tale but also usefully illuminates the background to two first-magnitude issues confronting the American economy and American economic policy today: to what extent should the government, as opposed to private insurers, absorb the financial risks that we choose not to bear individually? ...And within the private sector, including not just private insurance companies but also for-profit firms in other industries, how do the rewards that firms' owners and senior managers receive relate to the risks that they are personally bearing? ...Anyone concerned with these important questions can usefully--and enjoyably--learn from Levy's fine-grained yet sweeping account...Corporate America has evolved a labor market that treats top executives differently from other people not just in the amount paid to them but in their exposure to downside risk. For three decades now, our society has been making the consequences of unemployment ever harsher for ordinary citizens. The theory, apparently, is that facing the disastrous consequences of losing one's job creates an incentive to work hard and well. At the same time, the theory applied to our top executives is that their incentive to good performance is not just the enormous upside potential of success but also the generous cushion provided in case of failure. Reading Jonathan Levy's book leaves no doubt which theory is more consistent with traditional American values.
(Benjamin M. Friedman New Republic 2013-08-05)

About the Author

Jonathan Levy is Associate Professor of History at the University of Chicago.
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 432 pages
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press (October 29, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674047486
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674047488
  • Product Dimensions: 9.4 x 6.4 x 1.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.7 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (6 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #213,178 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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By Samuel J. Sharp on April 25, 2013
Format: Hardcover
"Freaks of Fortune" is an exhaustively researched account of how America's financial system evolved in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to absorb increasing amounts of risk from the perils of the "economic chance-world." Levy traces the development of risk management principles from marine insurance to life insurance, farm mortgages, and eventually the dominance of commercial trusts in the early 1900s.

Even though Levy deserves praise for his research and scholarly contribution, the book itself does not make for great reading. The 300 pages are divided into eight long, largely standalone chapters that average 37.5 pages each. Chapter 4 is a entirely a history of the Freedman's bank; Chapter 8 is a biography of financier George Perkins. The book lacks a strong overarching theme to pull each chapter's subjects together. Levy lays the groundwork for a discussion of how the meaning of identity changed as individuals shifted more of life's day-to-day risk to third parties, but this theme was not robustly treated throughout the book.

This book is most appropriate for economic history scholars like Levy and for readers with particularly strong interests in the history of insurance. I am afraid most readers will find this book clearly impressive but ultimately too long and too disjointed.
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Format: Hardcover
The practice of managing risks of the unknown was a major preoccupation of 19th century Americans. One major form of risk was the loss of physical wealth (e.g., a ship's cargo); the other was the loss of monetary wealth, through a change in prices. According to author Jonathan Levy, both forms of risk were tied to the concept of personal liberty--of self-ownership: free people owned themselves, and therefore, owned the risks associated with their situation within the industrial system.

This book is organized into eight chapters with a thematic (and mostly chronological) structure. The first two address the philosophical and pragmatic issues of maritime insurance, with chapter two especially focused on the antebellum dilemma of insuring cargos of slaves (slavery plays a major role in this book because of the revolutionary impact of emancipation). As the coastal trade in human captives runs its baneful course, finance and the slave power confront each other over the risks insurers are obligated to bear: is a bid for liberty the sort of disaster a policy is supposed to cover? Insurers and their lawyers battled over this in Southern courts where the expression of abolitionist ideas was virtually a capital offense.

With the liquidation of slavery, the freedmen and the planter alike needed to accumulate reserves against the risk of early death or incapacitation. Life insurance (§3) had, until the 1850s, been unusual and primitive in the US; now it boomed. In the past, all types of farm proprietor had accumulated capital mostly in the form of land and improvements (and in the South, slaves). After 1865, the saving bank (§4), farm mortgage (§5), and life insurance policy became major forms of personal capital accumulation.
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This book has opened my eyes to depths and meanings of risk, risk transfer, insurance, and a great array of related topics, I never grasped at anything like this level before. (I'm a law teacher of some 3 decades' experience, without a formal finance background.) In this sweeping canvas, we also witness a seafaring adventuring people transforming into the land-based capitalists of the great emerging American cities. This is a great example of those books on the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries that give such deep insight into the formation of our modern ideas and ways. The explanations here are well-researched and well-crafted, sailing far above so much dreck clogging the bookshelves these days. This is a skilled and erudite author. Vignettes of the lives of the participants, from capitalists to laborers, alongside examples of transactions, court cases, and a big picture of the flow and development of business, are masterfully blended and paced. If the title seems to your liking, I feel assured the whole book will be.
I finish at least a book per week, and this is my favorite discovery of the last year, alongside two others in law and finance history: "Novus Ordo Seclorum" by Forrest McDonald (I got in audio form) on ideological and legal origins of the U.S. Constitution, and "The Origins of Value: The Financial Innovations that Created Modern Capital Markets" by various authors. All these books have that high-quality value of building deep history-based insights into things we might otherwise see only shallowly. If only every book I start into could be this good!
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