Delenda Est Carthago

Why not delve into a twisted mind? Thoughts on the world, history, politics, entertainment, comics, and why all shall call me master!

Location: Mesa, Arizona, United States

I plan on being the supreme dictator of the country, if not the world. Therefore, you might want to stay on my good side. Just a hint: ABBA rules!


What I've been reading

Meet You In Hell: Andrew Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick, and the Bitter Partnership That Transformed America by Les Standiford.
319 pages, 2005, Crown Publishers.
I love the Gilded Age. I find it terribly fascinating - the rise of "robber barons," the political scandals, the petty little wars we fought, the progressivism that came out of the reaction against scandal, and the way the United States slowly began to assert itself on the world stage after the Civil War. I love it. I also don't know a whole lot about it, because whenever I sashay through the American history section of the bookstore, I see dozens and dozens of books about the Civil War (when I was small I read Bruce Catton's book on the subject more than once, and that's all I need, damn it!), I see many books on Theodore Roosevelt (one of my favorite presidents, and the fact that Republicans today don't like him raises my esteem for him even more), but I see very few books about the era in between. What the crap?

So it was with glee that I picked this book up. Carnegie is a fascinating figure, and I knew very little about his business practices, his relationship with Frick, and how he tried to break the unions that operated in his plants. Standiford tells us early on that he is going to focus not exactly on Carnegie's and Frick's lives, but on their relationship and how their business practices led to the Homestead strike of 1892, a watershed event in the history of American labor. However, the book does a nice job of tracking the early years of Carnegie and Frick, losing its way only a slight bit in the section after the strike is over. We get into the personalities of both men, which helps us understand why the Homestead mess went as far as it did and turned so bloody. Frick was always disdainful of labor, and Carnegie, although he pretended to be a friend of the working man, was much more interested in keeping down costs. He was in Scotland when the strike hit, and he gave Frick carte blanche to deal with it. Frick responded by calling in scabs protected by Pinkertons, and things got messy.

The book is divided into three sections - the first leading up to the strike, the second about the strike, and then the denouement. We learn some interesting things about the two men - Carnegie was scornful of his fellow robber barons like Morgan and Rockefeller who pursued profit over all. He believed much more in keeping costs down, and hired people who shared that vision. He was one of the first people to pioneer the eight-hour shifts because one of his plant managers told him it would cost less for three eight-hour shifts than two twelve-hour ones. One of the reasons why the union representatives felt betrayed by Carnegie was because he reversed this policy. Carnegie was at the forefront of innovation in steel-making, too, because of this obsession with cost-cutting. He was also dedicated to creating a monopoly on steel-making for the same reason, which brought him into contact with Frick, who controlled the coke in western Pennsylvania. Both Carnegie and Frick were self-made men (to a degree) who were in the right place at the right time. Standiford goes into their business dealings in great deal, showing how they both became rich through steel. He also sets the stage nicely for their friendship and subsequent falling out.

The Homestead strike is covered in great detail, and this is where the book does a nice job. Homestead, Pennsylvania, was a complete company town, and when the union tried to negotiate a higher wage, Frick balked. When the workers went on strike, Frick kept in close contact with Carnegie, who basically told him to trust his instincts. So Frick played hard ball, brought in scabs, and tried to land them by boat inside the plant grounds, hoping to keep the strikers outside the fence. The strikers got inside and blocked the boat bringing the workers in. Frick had hired Pinkertons from the famous detective agency to defend the new workers and make sure they could get to work. Naturally, somebody fired a shot, and to this day no one knows who fired first. Four union workers died and a few of the Pinkertons, but no one could gain a clear advantage. Frick remained resolute, and the strike eventually fell apart. Standiford makes a mention to the slower news cycle of the times, which worked in management's advantage. He also goes into a bit of detail about the Haymarket Riot of 1886 and how American public opinion was slowly turning against labor at this time, which helped Frick as well. By the early 1900s, Carnegie's businesses were union-free, and would remain so until the late 1930s and the upswing in socialism.

The Homestead strike also put the first chinks in the friendship and partnership of Carnegie and Frick. Standiford tracks their falling-out, but he does so a bit perfunctorily, as if he lost interest in the subject after going into Homestead in such detail. It's still fascinating to read how petty it became, especially on Frick's side. He built a skyscraper in downtown Pittsburgh that dwarfed Carnegie's right next to it. He built a mansion in New York that made Carnegie's look small. He amassed a huge private art collection that is now housed in his mansion, which was converted into a museum. Both Frick and Carnegie, who were examples of American nouveau riche, believed in bettering themselves through the arts. Of course, Carnegie ended up giving away most of his fortune, and Standiford leaves us wondering if it was because of his strict religious upbringing or because of the guilt he felt over crushing labor. Carnegie himself probably didn't know.

Meet You in Hell is by no means a great book. It's an interesting read, but I can't tell you that you must run out and read it right now! If you're interested in this time period, it's a good book, and Standiford's prose is easy-going and loose, with an easily digestible style. I think the book could have been a bit longer, especially in the latter stages when Frick and Carnegie's friendship fell apart. Standiford does a nice job, however, in showing how Carnegie and Frick were at the forefront of the complete transformation of American society from an agricultural one to an industrial one. The sections dealing with Carnegie's business dealings and the Homestead strike itself are fascinating, and I enjoyed the book for the most part. It just let me down a bit at the end.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is a fascinating time in history. Business became the new frontier to conquer for these guys.

Though, I find it interesting in part because I had a great-great uncle who was a robber-baron in Chicago. He had a commercial hardware business and patented the first mechanical-arm door stop. The last I checked, you could still look up at the doorstops while leaving the Museum of Science and Industry and see my family name in brass there. (That's "Hoffman", not "Geek", btw.) Sadly, I saw none of the crooked, old, bastard's money. His last heir donated most of it to charity.

19/7/06 9:45 AM  
Blogger sonia said...

Theodore Roosevelt (...) Republicans today don't like him

Are you sure ? Dubya's agressivity in foreign policy (and his preference for gunboat diplomacy over verbal one) are inspired directly by Teddy. Only Truman is more admired by neo-cons among 20th century presidents...

20/7/06 6:32 AM  
Blogger Greg said...

Sonia - I've been reading some Bush Republicans recently who are trying to change the perception of Roosevelt. The idea of gunboat diplomacy certainly strikes a chord with Bush, but it seems like a lot of Roosevelt's domestic agenda is under attack by Republicans who don't want to regulate anything. I'd love to see how different presidents are viewed by each Administration. Bush models some of his policies after Roosevelt and Truman, but other things they did are horrific to him.

That's pretty cool, Mr. Geek. I have no idea about my family further back then my grandparents, so it's neat that you're connected to a piece of history like that.

20/7/06 8:42 AM  
Blogger San Nakji said...

This book sounds really interesting. I may just check it out...

20/7/06 5:02 PM  
Blogger Thomas said...

I can almost read this book...starting next week.

21/7/06 4:46 PM  
Blogger T. said...

Just what I need, another interesting book on a fascinating topic to tempt me to order from Amazon. Never mind that I have a million books left to read. Must...resist...urge to...purchase...

22/7/06 9:17 AM  
Blogger Greg said...

I know what you mean, T. I think I've mentioned before that I have close to 300 books on my shelves that I haven't read yet. I've made up some ground recently, but now I'm taking another brief break before plunging forward. Too many good books!

22/7/06 11:08 AM  

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