three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
26-Jan-Feb-2007
By: 
David Nasaw
user_rating: 
0

A-Andrew CarnegieAndrew Carnegie’s life is the quintessential rags-to-riches story. Emigrating from Scotland in 1848, the self-taught Carnegie worked as a bobbin boy in a Pittsburgh cotton factory before becoming the world’s richest person, his steel empire a dominant force in a booming American economy. The jolly Carnegie was truly larger than life (at 4’11" he was more comfortable dominating a room while seated) and a man of contradictory impulses devoid, seemingly, of external pressures. Carnegie infamously exploited workers—in the 1892 Homestead incident, he hired Pinkertons to subdue discontented strikers—though he shared his wealth with those in need by educating the poor and championing public institutions. He also advocated for world peace until his death in 1919.
Penguin. 896 pages. $35. ISBN: 1594201048

Los Angeles Times 4 of 5 Stars
"Nasaw’s intent in this lengthy but consistently readable biography is to show, through examining Carnegie’s life afresh, that neither of the generally accepted interpretations is adequate—and to offer his own more balanced appraisal in their stead. … Nasaw’s fine book incorporates what’s best [about other biographies of] Carnegie and his times so fully that it seems sure to be the final word on ‘the Star-spangled Scotchman.’" Anthony Arthur

New York Times 4 of 5 Stars
"Highly readable despite its length, Andrew Carnegie shows signs of prodigious original research on almost every page. … I expect it will be the definitive work on Carnegie for the foreseeable future, and it fully deserves to be." John Steele Gordon

Wall Street Journal 4 of 5 Stars
"Mr. Nasaw’s book is beautifully crafted and fun to read. What it does especially well is to put you inside Carnegie’s mind and help you see America as he did." Louis Galambos

Washington Post 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Andrew Carnegie would be a better book had it been pared down from 800 pages of text to, say, 650, because Nasaw is in love with his research and cannot let go of it even when it becomes redundant, but only readers laboring under constraints of time are likely to complain; this is biography on the grand scale, and on the whole it lives up to its author’s ambitions." Jonathan Yardley

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 3 of 5 Stars
"Coming in at 896 pages, the book just may be too long. It also could be that a biography of a man whose life was focused on remorseless execution of business principles lacks the natural drama of books about warriors or statesmen." Len Barcou

San Francisco Chronicle 3 of 5 Stars
"Nasaw falls short, however, by packing these details into a disappointingly bland analytical framework." Elizabeth Corcoran

Newsday 2.5 of 5 Stars
"‘The highest praise I can offer Andrew Carnegie,’ Nasaw writes in his introduction, ‘is to profess that, after these many years of research and writing, I find him one of the most fascinating men I have encountered, a man who was many things in his long life, but never boring.’ Regrettably, the same cannot be said for this massive biography, which contains many passages of astute analysis and perceptive character study but is simply too long." Wendy Smith

Critical Summary

Given the vast subject, critics commend David Nasaw’s effort. The author combines thorough and much previously unavailable research in only the second full-length biography of Carnegie in nearly 40 years (Peter Krass’s Carnegie, 2002). Despite his talent as a biographer, Nasaw—professor of history at City University of New York and winner of the Bancroft Prize for The Chief, his biography of William Randolph Hearst—at times comes up short in his inability to reconcile Carnegie’s contradictory ruthlessness and generosity. To be fair, no author has succeeded completely, and Carnegie’s true motivation remains hidden to history. At nearly 900 pages, the book might more succinctly make its point. Those interested in Gilded Age history, however, will appreciate the meticulousness of Nasaw’s research and his enthusiasm for a time of unprecedented change in America.