Thursday, November 12, 2009

Deification of Gilded Age Financiers in a Time of Economic Ruin

In this week's issue of The Nation, Steve Fraser does a solid job of providing the background to the spate of biographies in recent years regarding post-US Civil War economic tycoons, and does a takedown of the latest biography of Corneilius Vanderbilt. I had enjoyed David Nasaw's book on Andrew Carnegie because there was a sense that AC was hypocritical and downright tough on his workers. Nasaw was also brilliant in helping the reader understand how tariffs in the 1870s made Carnegie go from merely rich to super-super rich as a steel magnate. As for T.J. Stiles' "The First Tycoon," about Vanderbilt, I have picked it up and put it down in several bookstores because I sensed the book was failing to recognize the very little redeeming values in Vanderbilt, particularly with regard to labor relations. It struck me as more hagiography than biography.

Fraser's review nails this point towards the end of the review. Here are the three "money" paragraphs (pardon the slight pun):

"Stiles thinks the (Henry & Charles) Adamses, (E.L.) Godkin and other patrician critics of the First Tycoon were cynics (in their harsh condemnation of Vanderbilt). After all, they loathed trade unions, lamented that Anglo-Protestant America was being mongrelized by immigrants, feared and deplored mass democratic politics, considered Populists to be hayseeds and were appalled as much by the vulgarity of the new tycoonery as they were by its inordinate power. Stiles says these unsavory views discredit the Brahmins' withering critique of the robber barons' greed, corruption and exploitation. But the charge is a cheap shot and also reflects a kind of intellectual snobbery. After all, the Brahmins' criticisms were echoed in the indictments against the robber barons leveled by the Knights of Labor, farmer-labor and greenback political parties and anti-monopoly leagues, men and women untainted by the reactionary views of their social superiors. But these anonymous or less well-known political actors don't turn up in The First Tycoon. They are as invisible to Stiles as they were noxious to Godkin. (Parentheses added)


Stiles insists that Vanderbilt deserves to be treated as a pioneer of modern industrial capitalism. If that's so, and certainly there's a case to be made, then what is more fundamental than understanding his relationship to wage labor, upon which the whole system rests? Thousands of workers, not Vanderbilt alone, made the road what it was. Did they end up dead and disabled in numbers comparable to, less than or more than their co-workers on other lines? Was the Commodore particularly solicitous about their welfare? Did he install the air brake? If not, why not? Did he share the bellicose view of people like Tom Scott of the Pennsylvania Railroad or was he, given his lowly social origins, more sympathetic, conciliatory perhaps? What was it like to work for one of the Commodore's great enterprises? The First Tycoon has little to say about any of this, and its silence helps sustain the romance of the misunderstood robber baron.

Not that everyone was silent. Stiles cites an open letter of 1869 from Mark Twain to Vanderbilt in which Twain indicts the tycoon's rapaciousness and greed. But what really bothers Twain (and Stiles emphasizes this) is the idolatry that Vanderbilt's fortune inspired among ordinary people: "You seem to be the idol of only a crawling swarm of small souls, who love to glorify your most flagrant unworthiness in print or praise your vast possessions worshippingly; or sing of your unimportant private habits and sayings and doings, as if your millions gave them dignity." Anyone living during the last quarter century must be acutely aware that the inclination to genuflect before great wealth has once again become a national pastime...

What is especially great about the first sentence of the first paragraph quoted above is that Fraser exposes what I've long said about E.L. Godkin, an original founding editor of The Nation not long after the US Civil War. He was a noxious elitist who hated organized and organizing labor. Godkin may have been anti-racist, but long time editor and publisher Victor Navasky's elevation of Godkin as a great editor of The Nation, while never missing a chance to belittle Freda Kirchwey,* a wonderful editor of The Nation from the 1930s through 1950s, is something that has long left me scratching my head with admittedly some anger.

* The usual attack on Kirchwey is that she was supposedly soft on the Soviet Union during the 1930s. Compared to the editor of The New Republic at the time (Bruce Bliven), she was definitely not. Further, anyone reading her essay at the end of June 1939 called "Red Totalitarianism" (sadly not available online unless one subscribes to The Nation archives) would recognize her as a true liberal-minded person who saw Stalinism as a menace to free thought and liberty.

Fraser's article, however, is worth reading in its entirety.



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