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Morgan: American Financier. By Jean Strouse. New York: Random House, 1999. 769 PP. Bibliography, photograph, references, and index. $34.95. ISBN 0375501665.
The period from the Civil War to World War I still fascinates us. It was, after all, an era of economic revolution, technological innovation and new ways of working, of great demographic shifts and social dislocation, of enormous wealth creation and profound moral confusion. Larger-than-life economic actors, people like Cornelius Vanderbilt, John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, and, of course, John Pierpont Morgan, held center stage; it was they, the masters of industry and finance--and not the usual politicians, generals or religious leaders--who captured the public's imagination and personified the tenor of the times. They unleashed the "gales of creative destruction" that transformed the United States from a collection of prosperous (and lightly governed) agrarian communities into an even richer (and more regulated) industrial nation. They were admired for their great achievements, and ultimately blamed for the evils inherent in the new order of things.
In our own time we have the likes of Bill Gates, Jack Welch, and Michael Milken to wonder and worry about, and yet we can't seem to get enough of the great business magnates of the late nineteenth century. They resonate. Some bad reputations linger, but from the perspective of a century, we have begun to view the "robber barons" more sympathetically. In Maury Klein's Jay Gould (1986), for example, published at the height of the 1980s hostile takeover boom, "Mephistopheles" emerges as an important financial innovator, an agent of positive change against the stodgy status quo. Never mind that he perpetrated one deceit after another in pursuit of his ambitions--he was a useful catalyst in the quest for efficiency. Ron Chernow's recently published Titan (1998), seems more transparently present-minded. He presents the monopolist John D. Rockefeller as a kind of Bill Gates figure, a misunderstood organizer of a great new industry who manages to outfox his less efficient competitors, enrage self-righteous journalis ts, and attract unwanted (unwarranted?) political attention.
Such large historical actors are, of course, perfect subjects for biography, the most popular medium for conveying history to those who don't practice it for a living. …