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Andrew Carnegie Paperback – October 30, 2007
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“The definitive work on Carnegie for the foreseeable future, and it fully deserves to be."—John Steele Gordon, The New York Times
“Never has this story been told so thoroughly or so well as David Nasaw tells it in this massive and monumental biography."—Jonathan Yardley, The Washington Post
“Beautifully crafted and fun to read."—Louis Galambos, The Wall Street Journal
“The definitive Carnegie biography has arrived."—USA Today
“Nasaw delivers a vivid history of nineteenth-century capitalism."—Fortune
“Nasaw’s fine book…seems sure to be the final word on ‘the Star-spangled Scotchman.’”—Los Angeles Times
“Nasaw’s research is extraordinary.”—San Francisco Chronicle
“A meticulous account of a paradoxical American original.”—BusinessWeek
“Make no mistake: David Nasaw has produced the most thorough, accurate and authoritative biography of Carnegie to date.”—Salon.com
“Nasaw’s…very well-written biography is timely and instructive…Nasaw does brilliant work in bringing [Carnegie] to life.”—Kirkus Reviews, starred review
“A comprehensive and often engrossing biography…compelling.”—Booklist
“In this lucid, meticulous, and finely detailed biography, David Nasaw has delivered the authoritative volume on Andrew Carnegie that we have long awaited. He captures in persuasive fashion the many sides of this energetic and kaleidoscopic personality—the abrasive industrialist, the enlightened philanthropist, the aspiring, often infuriatingly self-deluded author and political polemicist—and thereby makes a valuable contribution to the rich literature of America in the Gilded Age.”—Ron Chernow, author of Alexander Hamilton
About the Author
David Nasaw is the author of five book and is the Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. Professor of History of American History at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. His biography of Andrew Carnegie was a finalist for the Pulitizer Prize and his biography of William Randolph Hearst, The Chief, won the Bancroft Prize and the J. Anthony Lukas Book Prize. He has served as a historical consultant for several television documentaries. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Nation, The New York Times Book Review, The Wall Street Journal, and other periodicals. He resides in New York City.
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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.
Nasaw covers all of Carnegie's life from early boyhood in 1830's Scotland, to ambitious telegraph boy in Pittsburgh, to iron and steel magnate, to philanthropist and finally to international peace advocate. Most of the 800 pages go swiftly. Nasaw writes well and I generally found his very detailed account valuable, especially for Carnegie's business adventures and for his final peace activities, although perhaps rather less so for all the details of his family life.
In Nasaw's account Carnegie comes across as much more of a "businessman" than an "industrialist". His initial fortune was made in his twenties through insider dealings from his role as a key aide to railroad magnates who were making their own fortunes by tricks such as awarding lucrative contracts to companies that they themselves owned. But starting in his late twenties Carnegie did build a mighty iron and steel empire, with remorseless business logic.
Carnegie in his middle age inevitably comes across as a great hypocrite. He had given speeches extolling the virtues of unions and of the need for employers to treat workers fairly, but he went on to mercilessly repress workers at his own plants, including cutting wages, extending hours, and suppressing all unions. He denied responsibility for the climactic Homestead lockout which was designed to break the steel unions, but Nasaw shows that he was kept fully informed and must have either made or supported the key decisions. Nasaw explains how Carnegie rationalized this harshness to himself, as a necessary part of business and of social evolution, but still his deeds fit poorly with his words.
However in his later life, especially after selling Carnegie Steel, Carnegie became indisputably a genuine exuberant philanthropist. He lived well (very well indeed!) but he also gave away a vast fortune, founding an astounding 2500 libraries, plus many Institutions, the Carnegie Hall, various Hero funds, and many peace organizations.
In his latter years, Carnegie's incessant lobbying for international peace is truly striking. Nasaw sometimes deprecates Carnegie's endless expressions of optimism in the face of repeated failures and his ceaseless lobbying of presidents, monarchs, and statesmen. But given that Carnegie believed war would be a disaster (as WWI proved all too well) and was committed to doing whatever he could for peace, then his behavior seems both entirely rationale and commendable. Yes, he was often grasping at straws and he did aggressively pester and "name drop" to try to move things forward, but given the stakes it is difficult to condemn his donning of a bold face and his trying again and again in the face of failures and cynicism. Alas, his efforts were probably inevitably doomed, but given his beliefs and commitment, it seems hard to criticize him for trying as hard as he did.
Overall, Carnegie's life is a fascinating one, involving many contrasts and apparent contradictions. Nasaw captures it well and succeeds in making Carnegie a surprisingly sympathetic character, without concealing his flaws.
He is certainly free to do this as the author, but I personally prefer a more measured approach to biography.