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Andrew Carnegieby David Nasaw
"The great strength of this immense biography is the way in which David Nasaw causes these tributaries — capitalism, radicalism, and educational aspiration — to converge like the three rivers (the Allegheny, the Ohio, and the Monongahela) whose confluence makes the site of Pittsburgh possible." Christopher Hitchens, The Atlantic Monthly (read the entire Atlantic Monthly review)
Synopses & Reviews
Majestically told and based on materials not available to any previous biographer, the definitive life of Andrew Carnegie — one of American business's most iconic and elusive titans — by the bestselling author of The Chief: The Life of William Randolph Hearst.
Celebrated historian David Nasaw, whom the New York Times Book Review has called "a meticulous researcher and a cool analyst," brings new life to the story of one of America's most famous and successful businessmen and philanthropists — in what will prove to be the biography of the season.
Born of modest origins in Scotland in 1835, Andrew Carnegie is best known as the founder of Carnegie Steel. His rags to riches story has never been told as dramatically and vividly as in Nasaw's new biography. Carnegie, the son of an impoverished linen weaver, moved to Pittsburgh at the age of thirteen. The embodiment of the American dream, he pulled himself up from bobbin boy in a cotton factory to become the richest man in the world. He spent the rest of his life giving away the fortune he had accumulated and crusading for international peace. For all that he accomplished and came to represent to the American public — a wildly successful businessman and capitalist, a self-educated writer, peace activist, philanthropist, man of letters, lover of culture, and unabashed enthusiast for American democracy and capitalism — Carnegie has remained, to this day, an enigma.
Nasaw explains how Carnegie made his early fortune and what prompted him to give it all away, how he was drawn into the campaign first against American involvement in the Spanish-American War and then for international peace, and how he used his friendships with presidents and prime ministers to try to pull the world back from the brink of disaster.
With a trove of new material — unpublished chapters of Carnegie's Autobiography; personal letters between Carnegie and his future wife, Louise, and other family members; his prenuptial agreement; diaries of family and close friends; his applications for citizenship; his extensive correspondence with Henry Clay Frick; and dozens of private letters to and from presidents Grant, Cleveland, McKinley, Roosevelt, and British prime ministers Gladstone and Balfour, as well as friends Herbert Spencer, Matthew Arnold, and Mark Twain — Nasaw brilliantly plumbs the core of this facinating and complex man, deftly placing his life in cultural and political context as only a master storyteller can.
"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." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Andrew Carnegie was almost the exact contemporary of Charles Sherwood Stratton, better known as Tom Thumb, and easily could have been mistaken for P.T. Barnum's celebrated performing midget. At his tallest, Carnegie never got above five feet, he weighed barely over 100 pounds, and, David Nasaw reports, he 'wore high-heeled boots and a top hat to disguise his lack of size.' But resemblances ended right... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) there. Any way you measured him, Carnegie was a giant. He established and subsequently dominated the steel industry, he invested early and wisely in oil, he multiplied his millions many times over — and then he gave away 'more than $350 million (in the tens of billions today)' to charities and worthy causes so numerous as to defy cataloguing. Here in Washington, as almost everywhere else in America, his mark is inescapable. The Carnegie Library at Mount Vernon Place, a model of the Beaux Arts style, was donated to the city by him in 1902, along with three branch libraries. The neoclassical building of the Carnegie Institution, on P Street, is one of the city's architectural glories and the headquarters of one of the world's most important centers of scientific research. On Massachusetts Ave., the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace continues its valiant, hopeless struggle against humankind's baser inclinations, and on New York Avenue the Washington office of Carnegie Mellon University conducts many activities of local, national and international importance. Carnegie's story is right out of Horatio Alger, though he makes Ragged Dick look like a mere piker. The poor Scot arrives in Pittsburgh in 1848, age 12, child of an aimless father and industrious mother. Goes to work at an early age and quickly ingratiates himself to all with 'his remarkably sunny disposition, his broad smile, and non-stop, good natured chatter' — not to mention his capacity for hard work and his nimble mind. Soon he is a messenger boy for the telegraph office — 'the perfect position for an ambitious, affable young man' — and soon after that becomes a telegraph operator, 'the most sought-after operator in the company' because he is the smartest and the quickest. On he moves to the Pennsylvania Railroad, not yet 20 years old, and wins the favor of its president-to-be. He's offered the opportunity to buy shares in another company, and eagerly does so, with a loan from the boss, and later gets his first dividend check. 'I shall remember that check as long as I live,' he wrote many years later. 'It gave me the first penny of revenue from capital — something I had not worked for with the sweat of my brow. `Eureka!' I cried. `Here's the goose that lays the golden eggs.'' With that he was off. During the Civil War he helped keep the trains running — he paid $850 to an Irish immigrant to take his place in the army — and began to make farsighted but prudent investments. 'Meteoric' scarcely begins to describe his upward trajectory: 'Almost thirty, Andrew Carnegie was the principal shareholder in several thriving companies, a partner in several more, and a force in local business circles, well known and respected for his acumen and his access to capital. He paid taxes on an income of $17,500 in 1864, with an additional $1 tax for his one-horse carriage. A year later, his income had risen to $38,735 ($5.6 million today), on which he paid a tax of $3,655. Again, he was charged an additional $1 tax for his carriage, $2 for his gold watch, and $4 for his pianoforte.' It is an astonishing story and even now, almost nine decades after his death, one that is familiar to many Americans. Carnegie, after all, is the giant of the Gilded Age, his only real rival being his contemporary and friendly acquaintance John D. Rockefeller. Never has this story been told so thoroughly or so well as David Nasaw tells it in this massive and monumental biography. Nasaw, who teaches history at the City University of New York and is the author of an excellent biography of William Randolph Hearst, has gotten access to a great deal of material unavailable to previous biographers and has made the most — at times too much — of it. 'Andrew Carnegie' would be a better book had it been pared down from 800 pages of text to, say, 650, because Nasaw is in love with his research and cannot let go of it even when it becomes redundant, but only readers laboring under constraints of time are likely to complain; this is biography on the grand scale, and on the whole it lives up to its author's ambitions. Not the least of its qualities is that Nasaw, unlike most biographers of prominent public figures, does not scant the private side of his subject's life. He trowels on all the details about how Carnegie became richer and richer and richer — he was both the beneficiary and the victim of what Nasaw wryly calls 'the inexorable logic of compound interest' — and how in March 1901 he sold out to J.P. Morgan for the then-unimaginable sum of $400 million, making possible the formation of U.S. Steel, but he is no less attentive to Carnegie's intimate and inner sides. He admires his subject — 'one of the most fascinating men I have encountered, a man who was many things in his long life, but never boring' — but sees him with eyes wide open, and thus paints a portrait that is balanced, nuanced and, in the end, fair and probably accurate. Nasaw doesn't dwell overlong on Carnegie's physical stature, but probably that is where one must start. Samuel Clemens, who was one of his many famous friends, wrote that 'Mr. Carnegie is no smaller than Napoleon, ... but for some reason or other he looks smaller than he really is. He looks incredibly small, almost unthinkably small.' To the end of his life Carnegie was 'the undersized outsider with the funny accent who had been uprooted from his home' in Scotland and never forgot it. His 'insecurities were legion,' but he 'battled his demons and insecurities in silence. He was a master at compartmentalizing his life, building barriers between Carnegie the lovesick suitor, Carnegie the powerful industrialist, and Carnegie the man of letters, disciple of Herbert Spencer, and confidant of Matthew Arnold.' Apart from his mother and wife, Herbert Spencer almost certainly was the most important influence in Carnegie's life. The British philosopher is now almost entirely forgotten outside academic circles, but in the second half of the 19th century he was one of the most influential and widely read writers in the West. He and Carnegie became friends of sorts — Spencer seems to have been singularly disagreeable and antisocial — but that meant less than the philosophical underpinnings Spencer provided for Carnegie. He was a gloomy man but a sunny moralizer: 'Spencer offered Carnegie and his generation an intellectual foundation for their optimism, their sense that history was a record of forward progress, by arguing that material progress went hand-in-hand with moral progress, that industrialization was a higher state of civilization than that which preceded it, and that the future would be even rosier than the present.' Spencer taught Carnegie that 'his success as a businessman ... depended on his adherence to the laws of the marketplace, which, because they were embedded in a larger evolutionary schema, were as moral as they were inexorable. The path of evolutionary progress he was following would be strewn with hardships and sacrifice; but these were unavoidable in the short term if mankind was going to benefit over the long term.' Hardships and sacrifice were far more likely to be exacted upon the laboring classes than upon their wealthy employer; this was regrettable but also unavoidable, because it was toward the greater goal of putting sufficient money into the hands of Carnegie and his peers so that they could redistribute it for the benefit of all. Carnegie devoutly believed this: that he was part of a chosen elect — chosen by whom is unclear, since he was not a religious man — whose responsibility it was to decide how the wealth of society could be best and most wisely allocated. He was not the first or the last to hold such a belief. It is one of the enduring contradictions of American democracy that on the one hand we believe in rule by popular vote, yet on the other we have acquiesced in the formation of a ruling class whose power comes not from the vote but from the pocketbook. Carnegie, who so passionately believed in America and its institutions that he was known as 'the Star-Spangled Scotchman,' not merely saw no contradiction but believed that it was natural law and that he had been naturally selected. Carnegie formulated a 'gospel of wealth,' relying heavily on Spencer, that rebutted 'protests against the unequal distribution of wealth by arguing that the common good was best served by allowing men like himself to accumulate and retain huge fortunes. The more wealth that landed in wise hands, the more that could be given away — wisely — by the retired capitalist acting `as trustee and agent for his poorer brethren, bringing to their service his superior wisdom, experience, and ability to administer, doing for them better than they would or could do for themselves.'' He was as good as his word. Whether the decisions he made were wiser than those that would have been made by an elected government is at least debatable, but the hundreds of libraries built by this man who loved to read enriched the nation incalculably, and his other benefactions similarly made the country a better place. He did himself no honor when he remained silent as his company called in 'a private army of detectives to battle its own employees' in the bloody, infamous Homestead Strike of 1892, and the incredible luxury in which he lived with his beloved wife and daughter scarcely suggested sacrifice on his own part, yet on the whole he was honorable and public-spirited. Far more wealth came his way than any human deserves, but he did far better by his good fortune than most others similarly blessed. Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is yardleyj(at)washpost.com." Reviewed by Jonathan Yardley, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
(hide most of this review)
"[A] grand biography....
"Mr. Nasaw tells this tale extremely well. Highly readable despite its length, Andrew Carnegie shows signs of prodigious original research on almost every page....I expect it will be the definitive work on Carnegie for the foreseeable future, and it fully deserves to be." John Steele Gordon, The New York Times Book Review
"[G]enerally compelling. Ultimately, Nasaw cannot fully explain the man's contradictions, but this is a worthy attempt and an important examination of the man and his times." Booklist
"Nasaw competently builds a credible narrative arc that illustrates the cultural and political forces that shaped Carnegie's life and times." Denver Post
"Mr. Nasaw's book is beautifully crafted and fun to read. What it does especially well is to put you inside Carnegie's mind and help you see America as he did." The Wall Street Journal
"Coming in at 801 pages, the book just may be too long. It also could be that a biography of a man whose life was focused on remorseless execution of business principles lacks the natural drama of books about warriors or statesmen." Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
"[C]onsistently readable....Nasaw's fine book incorporates what's best in these and other books about Carnegie and his times so fully that it seems sure to be the final word on 'the Star-spangled Scotchman.'" Los Angeles Times
"Nasaw's research is extraordinary, drawing on everything from family letters to private business memos. Nasaw falls short, however, by packing these details into a disappointingly bland analytical framework." San Francisco Chronicle
"[T]his massive biography...contains many passages of astute analysis and perceptive character study but is simply too long. Granted, an epic life demands epic treatment, but Nasaw is not as selective as he should have been." Newsday
Celebrated historian David Nasaw (The Chief: The Life of William Randolph Hearst) brings new life to the story of one of America's most famous and successful businessmen and philanthropists. Using materials not available to any previous biographer, Nasaw brilliantly plumbs the core of this fascinating and complex man, deftly placing his life in cultural and political context as only a master storyteller can.
In this magnificent biography, celebrated historian David Nasaw brings to life the fascinating rags- to-riches story of one of our most iconic business legends-Andrew Carnegie, America's first modern titan. From his first job as a bobbin boy at age thirteen to his status as the richest man in the world upon retirement, Carnegie was the embodiment of the American dream and the prototype of today's billionaire. Drawing on a trove of new material, Nasaw brilliantly plumbs the core of this fascinating and complex man, at last fixing him in his rightful place as one of the most compelling, elusive, and multifaceted personalities of the twentieth century.
About the Author
David Nasaw is the author of the nationally bestselling biography The Chief: The Life of William Randolph Hearst, winner of the Bancroft Prize for History, the J. Anthony Lukas Book Prize, the Ambassador Book Prize for Biography, and finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. He is currently a distinguished professor of history and Director for the Humanities at the City University of New York Graduate Center.
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