A Fresh Look
at the Founder:
Carnegie, by Peter Krass, John
Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2002, $35.00
biography Carnegie proves it is impossible ever to have the last word about
would have thought that the current generation needed another Carnegie
biography? Joseph Wall's monumental
Andrew Carnegie (1970) was reprinted by the University of Pittsburgh Press
in 1995 and seemed to lock up the subject for our time. Before that there was the official The
Life of Andrew Carnegie, and Carnegie's own autobiography, plus numerous
other books that paint him as a saint or a devil. The "Star-Spangled
Scot" was recently treated in two major TV biographies, and a third is
in the works.
But in Carnegie
Peter Krass deliberately avoids the building blocks of former writers, and
his Carnegie has the fresh narrative energy that goes with the discovery of
a new subject.
has family roots in western Pennsylvania, where his great grandfather
William Danziger worked in a Carnegie mill, dying before the age of sixty
from a hard life and alcohol. This
ancestry fuels the author's need to understand, and justify, Carnegie's
success in amassing a fantastic fortune built on the hardships of
millworkers, and then turning it to public use in uplifting the lives of
has a business background, and his vision of the entrepreneurial Andrew
Carnegie is of a modern, micromanaging CEO, complete with the sharp wit and
great self-confidence that made him a successful salesman. In the current
climate of scrutinizing big business practices, this version of Carnegie,
who was a master strategist in the age of unregulated big business and
Robber Barons, has special meaning.
polarities of Carnegie's financial life do not change: a relentless penny
pincher when it came to making money, he was an inspired philanthropist
when it came to giving it away. This
tension keeps his story fascinating, and raises questions about the meaning
of accumulating wealth and the ultimate value of money. Krass poses a psychological
transformation of Carnegie in retirement in later years, arguing that he
tried to right the wrongs he thinks he might have done during his years as
an industrial giant.
is no doubt that Carnegie did change, reversing his attitude on protective
tariffs and rebates, which he had once used to advantage to build his steel
empire. In old age, called before a
congressional committee ten years after retirement to testify on tariff
laws, the wily steel master made congressmen into his comic foils. He presented himself as a jovial, retired
old man whose only goal in life was to do good. As far as steel was concerned, he said
that U.S. Steel could now make steel so cheaply the question of protective
tariffs was moot.
clever philanthropist, he did not believe in an afterlife, and tried to
make people's lives better now, rather than in the future. Thus, he put in place institutions and
charities that had an immediate public effect, and he gave to board members
flexibility of control. In this he
set the pattern that other philanthropists admired, and became the
prototype of the modern benefactor.
classic example is his founding of what became TIAA-CREF, the largest
retirement organization in the country, to help teachers survive old age
without becoming destitute. He also
funded the meritocracy of the poor --two-year trade schools, schools for
black students, and free public libraries--rather than the rich Ivy League
schools which besieged him for money and came away frustrated.
fresh look at Carnegie, Peter Krass's biography is a good fit for our
time. The author's next book targets
another famous American figure: whisky baron Jack Daniel.