Carnegie (2003)

Book Review
Publishing information: 
Peter Krass. (2003). John Wiley & Sons, Hoboken, New Jersey:USA. 624pp. Paperback. ISBN: 978-0-471-46883-7 £13.50

Whenever popular commentators reach for the name of a philanthropist, chances are that it is Andrew Carnegie, the Scots-born US steel magnate and originator of foundational philanthropy, whom they first recall. But beyond his nationality, source of wealth and scale of giving, how much is actually known about the man who is the poster boy for modern philanthropy? And how might his personal life story account for the subsequent Janus-face of philanthropy in the public imagination - admired and reviled in seemingly equal measure?

Peter Krass does a thorough and impressive job of reconstructing the complicated life of this titan who came to power in America's Gilded Age, exploring the contradictions in the man who rose from lowly bobbin boy to build the largest and most profitable steel company in the world.

Krass clearly believes that clues to the man's achievements lie in his boyhood as he dwells at length on the dozen years Andra (as he was then known) spent in his native Dunfermline before poverty drove the family to seek a better life in the USA. An exhaustive account is provided of Carnegie's career trajectory, where patronage and charm propelled him ever upwards, before the reader encounters any insight into the practice and philosophy of his giving. In 1889 Carnegie's treatise on philanthropy, published as 'Wealth' in the North American Review, first defended the accumulation of wealth and then argued that all surplus funds must be considered as being held in trust and distributed for the benefit of the community. His belief that giving should occur during a person's lifetime is emphasized in his wry comment on legacies that "Men who leave vast sums in this way may fairly be thought men who would not have left it at all had they been able to take it with them".

Accounts of Carnegie's giving, from his first donation to the public baths in his home town to his well-known library programme to his final, mammoth endowment of the Carnegie Institute are interwoven with accounts of his life as a hard-nosed industrialist. The author's great grandfather worked in one of Carnegie's "hellish" mills, where frequent industrial accidents, long hours, low pay and intolerance of union activities combined to create appalling conditions. The employees responsible for ensuring that he became the world's richest man when he sold the Carnegie Company to JP Morgan in 1902 for $480 million, were remembered in his first philanthropic act of retirement when he created the Carnegie Relief Fund to support retired employees and their widows and dependents. Whether this act was proper recognition of the shoulders he had stood on, or 'too little too late', is a typical quandary facing anyone seeking to assess Carnegie's legacy.

Objectivity rightly demands that the author give due weight to describing and explaining both the 'robber baron' and his remarkable beneficence. The reader is left to reconcile these two distinctive aspects of Carnegie's life. Krass' triumph in this book lies in his adept handling of Carnegie's notorious reputation in the workplace in parallel with his development of the greatest philanthropic career yet known.

This book review is tagged under:

  • History of philanthropy
  • Promoting philanthropy