- Shopping Bag ( 0 items )
From Barnes & NobleThe Barnes & Noble Review
A friend of J.P. Morgan once described her reaction upon seeing the great financier make his grand entrance into a room: "He was the king. He was it!" This was the Gilded Age, the Age of Excess, and the tycoons seemed to rule America. Morgan held the formidable moneymen and society ladies of late-19th-century New York in thrall. To farmers and laborers, he was oppression itself, the man who made the industrial trusts that kept prices up and wages down. To his fellow gentlemen of business, he was a force for order at a chaotic time in America's financial history. It is an endlessly interesting question: By what means did a powerful man achieve his power? In Morgan's case, was it connections, native talent, forceful personality, favorable circumstances, or all of the above? Naturally, the final answer is the correct one.
Morgan had an influential banker father, well-placed friends, mathematic and financial acumen, prodigious energy, an irresistible personality, and a business climate conducive to the making of money and the building of fortunes. Jean Strouse, acclaimed author of Alice James: A Biography , is thorough, penetrating, and perhaps a bit revisionist in her treatment of this titan of American banking. (As enjoyable as this book is, at nearly 700 pages, no one will wish it longer.) Strouse has softened the image created by most earlier writers of Morgan as heartless tyrant and bloodsucker of the masses. She sensibly contends that Morgan merely behaved in the way that nature and aristocratic tradition dictated, that we could not expect him to dootherwise,and that he really wasn't as bad as we have been led to believe.
There is a persuasive argument to be made that in the explosion of commercial activity in America following the Civil War, someone had to step in to harness the whirlwind. There were no laws, written or unwritten, capable of doing so. Thus the Morgans, the Vanderbilts, the Carnegies, the Rockefellers, and the Goulds moved into the vacuum. The industrialists appear to us now to have been greedy and rapacious. Morgan does not. While he made money, he seems not to have been motivated so much by the acquisition of wealth as by the patrician's instinctive yearning for stability. Morgan saw his building of railroad, steel, electric, and other trusts as a technique for achieving stability at a time of shocking commercial turbulence.
Born in Connecticut, world-traveled, and perfectly suited to the Big Apple, Morgan was an art collector, bon vivant, social lion, and, most importantly, a conduit for the immense wealth that flowed during this period from Europe to America. He possessed the typical patrician's nose, bulbous and purple, the product of a grotesque skin ailment. But his eyes sparkled, his intelligence shone, his charm bubbled forth when he wished it to, along with frequent ferocity and frequent kindness. He was very religious, yet he kept mistresses. He spent little time worrying about the plight of poor folks, yet he gave millions to social causes, hospitals, churches, relief agencies. He worked hard; he played hard; he enjoyed life. Although supremely self-confident, he was high-strung and prone to ailments such as boils, earaches, seizures, and melancholy. He worked his partners literally to death. He wore them out and he might wear you out, too, but the man that Jean Strouse gives us was something of a wonder of nature, and as you read her book, you will feel his force.
Richard Norman, a journalist and freelance writer, lives in Norwich, Connecticut. Norman is currently writing a novel, The City of Goliath .