Strouse's 'Morgan': the top-dollar man

April 25, 1999|By Craig Eisendrath | By Craig Eisendrath,Special to the Sun

"Morgan: American Financier," by Jean Strouse. Random House. 796 pages. $34.95.

In the famous Edward Steichen photograph of 1903, J. Pierpont Morgan stares balefully into the viewer's eyes, as if he were about to foreclose on a debt. In his left hand, he grasps what appears to be a dagger.

This was the threatening portrait most Americans held of the famous financier, the object of intense hatred by labor, farmers, small businessmen and political reformers. This portrait, while not completely changed by Strouse, the author of the Bancroft Prize-winning biography "Alice James" (Houghton Mifflin, 1980), is provided depth and nuance.

Nine years in the making, and based on painstaking research on sources perhaps never tapped, including the Morgan family papers, this study is likely to be definitive for a hundred years, although Frederick Lewis Allen's excellent "The Great Pierpont Morgan" (Harper & Row, 1948) is still a good read and a quarter its length.

In a much richer fabric, Strouse's "Morgan" contains many histories. First of all, it shows how Morgan led the formation of a distinctly American form of economy, which was neither the free market proclaimed by Adam Smith, the socialist society advanced by Karl Marx, nor the regulated economy championed by the Progressives.

It was an economy based on "trusts," huge conglomerates operating under single boards of directors and tied to large banking houses, such as Morgan's own, which offered financial stability and substituted for a still non-existent federal banking system.

Strouse details how Morgan consolidated railways, formed U.S. Steel and underwrote General Electric, International Harvester and AT&T. These were the engines for the creation of the largest industrial economy on earth, which formed the basis for a massive relocation of financial resources from London to New York.

Strouse also gives the political background for this economic development, richly illustrated by Morgan's own dealings with the political figures of his day, including Grover Cleveland and Teddy Roosevelt.

Still another history Strouse provides is of the Gilded Age, its social hierarchy, its galas, its alliances. Here was a group of people just learning the ways of aristocracy, with the buying power of Nebuchadnezzars. Strouse offers a rich portrait of how this group, led by Morgan, ransacked Europe and the Middle East for art objects, richly furnishing their own palatial homes and endowing American museums -- in Morgan's case, pre-eminently the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Finally, connecting all these strands, is a personal biography of Morgan; his descent from two generations of bankers; his long mentorship with his father, Junius, and his early assertion of independence and daring; his intricate balancing of Christian morality and business probity with mistresses, flirtations and "companions" and a level of personal indulgence perhaps unequaled in American life.

Strouse gives us everything we want to know, and often too much, including lists of participants at social gatherings, the price down to cents of purchased items, addresses, dates and financial minutiae, which can swamp the reader.

What the book lacks is an assessment of Morgan's importance for the present. In a new age of instability, we have much to learn from how Morgan balanced stability and growth, although it is clear to most people in the West that the social cost of his version of self-regulated entrepreneurial capitalism cannot be repeated.

Craig Eisendrath has a Ph.D. from Harvard in the History of American Civilization, and is the former executive director of the Pennsylvania Humanities Council.

Pub Date: 04/25/99

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