published on Monday, May 23, 2005 in The Miami Herald
Absorbing business history like a good novel.
Les Standiford illuminates American industrial history and provides
as much drama as an exciting work of fiction.
BY RICHARD PACHTER
You in Hell: Andrew Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick, and the Bitter Partnership
That Transformed America. Les Standiford. Crown. 336 pages
In a sense, American history is a history of business. Much of the
might of this country results from the ascendance of mercantile
forces and industrialization. It's important, then, to understand
our history, if for no other reason than it's just good business.
Since we're a relatively young country, this shouldn't be too difficult.
Yet most of us possess no enthusiasm for history, which is why many
so-called historical novels or films are often dressed up as adventures,
romances or mysteries. In reality, however, most historical events
offer drama as interesting and revealing as any solid work of fiction.
Les Standiford, the head of Florida International University's creative
writing program, is a novelist and author of several historical
works. His most recent book, Meet You in Hell: Andrew Carnegie,
Henry Clay Frick, and the Bitter Partnership That Transformed America,
is the story of Pittsburgh (and later New York) industrialists Carnegie
and Frick. Partners and sometimes rivals in the steel industry in
the late 19th century, the pair are also forever linked by the horrific
events surrounding a strike at their Homestead, Pa. steel plant
in 1882. Carnegie, the owner of the company, delegated to Frick,
his chief executive, the power to manage the industrial dispute
as he saw fit.
Frick dispatched 300 Pinkerton detectives to the scene to ''protect''
the plant, resulting in one of the deadliest clashes between labor
and management in U.S. history.
Standiford uses this conflict as the centerpiece for his story of
the two men and the rise of the American steel industry. Frick is
portrayed interestingly, though he still seems to have been a driven,
one-dimensional, self-made businessman. Carnegie, another tycoon
who ascended from poverty, appeared to have much in common with
the younger Frick, and was at least as shrewd and ruthless in his
business dealings, if not more so.
But Carnegie also seemed to have more heart. After selling his vast
steel holdings to industrialist J.P. Morgan, he became one of the
largest charitable benefactors in history, endowing an astonishing
number of libraries and academic institutions throughout the country
and the world.
`A TROUBLED MAN'
Standiford writes: 'And yet Carnegie, for all his largess, remained
a troubled man. In 1914, speaking at the anniversary celebration
of one of the libraries he had founded in western Pennsylvania,
the white-bearded, slightly built benefactor, bearing an odd resemblance
to Edmund Gwenn's Santa Claus in Miracle on 34th Street, said, `I'm
willing to put this library and institution against any other form
of benevolence. . . . And all's well since it is growing better
and when I go for a trial for the things done on Earth, I think
I'll get a verdict of `not guilty' through my efforts to make the
Earth a little better than I found it.'
Beneath Carnegie's seeming self-confidence and optimism, the defensive
undertone was clear: speaking scant miles from the site of that
bloody Battle of Homestead, where steelworkers still lived in bleak
houses and lacked the power to organize in any meaningful way, Carnegie
knew full well that many a man in Homestead would dispute his claim
that all was well and 'growing better.' ''
All told, Standiford brings the past alive in his illumination of
a pivotal chapter of American industrial history. The narrative
is as absorbing as that of any good novel -- and as difficult to
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