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Man of steel

Andrew Carnegie David Nasaw The Penguin Press: 878 pp., $35

October 22, 2006|Anthony Arthur | Anthony Arthur's biography "Radical Innocent: Upton Sinclair" was published in June.

IN December 1868, Andrew Carnegie sat down at his desk in a New York hotel and scratched out a memo to himself on a piece of scrap paper. He had just turned 33 and was worth $400,000, he wrote, and that was enough. (That $400,000 equals more than $75 million in today's dollars.) He feared that to "continue much longer overwhelmed by business cares," thinking "wholly upon the way to make more money in the shortest time, must degrade me beyond hope of permanent recovery."

From now on, Carnegie vowed, he would reject the "idol" of "the amassing of wealth," which he had previously worshiped, and spend whatever else he made for "benevolent purposes." He had made his money in Pittsburgh, in oil, railroads, iron mills and bond speculation. Now he hoped to acquire the knowledge of art, music, literature and history that he'd been forced to slight in his progression from linen weaver's son to man of property; his first step on this road to self-improvement would be to move to "Oxford & get a thorough education making the acquaintance of literary men." Eventually, he wrote, he would settle in London, buy a newspaper and devote himself to public affairs, especially educating the poor.

Carnegie never moved to England or bought a newspaper, and he continued to enlarge his fortune many times over, eventually selling his Carnegie Steel Co. to J.P. Morgan -- and becoming, according to Morgan, "the richest man in the world." The signal virtues of David Nasaw's new biography of Carnegie are revealed first by his unearthing of this hitherto obscure document but even more by what he does with it. For one thing, he notes that the young bachelor omits any mention of a future wife or family -- perhaps because he felt his lack of education disqualified him as an eligible suitor. Equally interesting is the absence of any religious impulse or indeed "any external motivating force," as Nasaw writes, a valuable key to the character of this unusually self-reliant businessman. Finally, as the author explains later, the memo refutes the familiar argument that Carnegie's impulse toward charitable giving developed only after the notorious Homestead strike deaths in 1892 threatened to ruin his reputation.

Nasaw's intent in this lengthy but consistently readable biography is to show, through examining Carnegie's life afresh, that neither of the generally accepted interpretations is adequate -- and to offer his own more balanced appraisal in their stead.

The first of these accepted views is the so-called "heroic narrative" of "the Star-spangled Scotchman," as a contemporary dubbed Carnegie. By this reading, Carnegie was a captain of industry who brought "sanity and rationality to an immature capitalism plagued by runaway competition, ruthless speculation, and insider corruption" during the second half of the 19th century, dubbed "the great barbecue" by Carnegie's friend and admirer Mark Twain.

Nasaw persuasively demonstrates, through vivid anecdote and trenchant analysis, that Carnegie was a gigantic presence in his adopted country, despite his diminutive size (at the age of 30, he weighed 109 pounds and was about 5 feet tall). Favored by nature with intelligence, energy and remarkable personal charm, Carnegie was both a disciple and an exemplar of his friend Herbert Spencer's hugely influential ideology of Social Darwinism, which preached, above all, the optimistic doctrine of inevitable progress powered by unfettered capitalism. His great good fortune was to be on the American scene during the explosive period that Howard Mumford Jones aptly called "the Age of Energy." A penniless immigrant from the Scottish Highlands when he came to Pittsburgh at the age of 13 in 1848, by the time Carnegie died in 1919, he had become not only the richest man in America but also one of the most generous, having given most of his fortune -- some $350 million -- away.

The second, darker story line for Carnegie, and for his role as businessman, requires what Nasaw calls a "recitation of another muckraking expose of Gilded Age criminality." Carnegie hired a volunteer to take his place in the Union Army during the Civil War, then made money with the other "robber barons" (e.g. Philip Armour, J.P. Morgan, Jay Gould, Collis P. Huntington and John D. Rockefeller Sr.) by selling Washington whatever it needed to crush the rebellion. The underlying assumption held by Carnegie critics such as Upton Sinclair was that all these men were war profiteers. The climactic moment of this rendering involves Carnegie's complicity in the Homestead disaster of 1892, when hired goons brought in to protect scabs at the Carnegie mills clashed with striking steelworkers in one of the watershed battles of the war between labor and capital.

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