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Andrew Carnegie Hardcover – Bargain Price, October 24, 2006
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From Publishers Weekly
Without education or contacts, Andrew Carnegie rose from poverty to become the richest person in the world, mostly while working three hours a day in comfortable surroundings far from his factories. Having decided while relatively young and poor to give all his money away in his lifetime, he embraced philanthropy with the same energy and creativity as he did making money. He wrote influential books, became a significant political force and spent his last years working tirelessly for world peace. Yet he was a true robber baron, a ruthless and hypocritical strikebreaker who made much of his money through practices since outlawed. Nasaw, who won a Bancroft Prize for The Chief, a bio of William Randolph Hearst, has uncovered important new material among Carnegie's papers and letters written to others, but comes no closer than previous biographers to explaining how such an ordinary-seeming person could achieve so much and embody such contradictions. He concentrates on the private man, including Carnegie's relations with his mother and wife, and his extensive self-education through reading and correspondence. His business and political dealings are described mostly indirectly, through letters to managers, congressional testimony and articles. Nasaw makes some sense out of the contradictions, but describes a man who seems too small to play the public role. While Peter Krass's Carnegie and Carnegie's own autobiography are more exciting to read and do more to explain his place in history, they also leave the man an enigma. 32 pages of photos. (Oct. 24)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
From Bookmarks Magazine
Given the vast subject, critics commend David Nasaw's effort. The author combines thorough and much previously unavailable research in only the second full-length biography of Carnegie in nearly 40 years (Peter Krass's Carnegie, 2002). Despite his talent as a biographer, Nasawprofessor of history at City University of New York and winner of the Bancroft Prize for The Chief, his biography of William Randolph Hearstat times comes up short in his inability to reconcile Carnegie's contradictory ruthlessness and generosity. To be fair, no author has succeeded completely, and Carnegie's true motivation remains hidden to history. At nearly 900 pages, the book might more succinctly make its point. Those interested in Gilded Age history, however, will appreciate the meticulousness of Nasaw's research and his enthusiasm for a time of unprecedented change in America.
Copyright © 2004 Phillips & Nelson Media, Inc.
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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.