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Andrew Carnegie

by David Nasaw
878 pages
Penguin Books
Published: October 2006

Andrew Carnegie” by Davis Nasaw was published in 2006 and was a finalist for the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Biography. Nasaw is the Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. Professor of History at City University of New York. Among his most widely-read books are biographies of Joseph P.Kennedy (which I read and reviewed last year) and William Randolph Hearst.

The ideal biography requires several crucial ingredients. Among them are an intriguing biographical subject, a skilled writer, a robust supply of primary source material and an author capable of diligent and determined research. This scholarly and often gripping biography of Andrew Carnegie provides each of these items in abundance.

Using sources not available to earlier biographers, Nasaw skillfully stitches together a seamless and comprehensive narrative which explores his subject’s entire life.  In these 801 pages of text, Nasaw paints an extraordinarily balanced and remarkably robust portrait of Carnegie…displaying his determination, financial acumen, personal passions, charitable predilections and his numerous faults and contradictions.

There is no consensus, however, as to whether Nasaw’s biography surpassed Joseph Frazier Wall’s 1970 classic as the definitive biography of Carnegie; at some point I will have to read the latter and decide for myself!

Among the book’s best features are its compelling introduction (one of the best I’ve ever encountered), a fascinating opening chapter which reviews Carnegie’s ancestry and chapters which recount his early years in Pittsburgh while working a variety of odd jobs. In addition, the description of Carnegie’s relationship with his future wife and as well as his relationships with Henry Clay Frick (a longtime business partner) and Herbert Spencer and Matthew Arnold (two English intellectuals) are excellent.

Like many irresistible biographical subjects, Carnegie’s personality is full of contradictions and the sharp contrast between the ruthless businessman and the famously generous and compassionate philanthropist is well articulated. In general, it often appears that Nasaw was able to uncover every interesting tidbit of Carnegie’s long and spirited life.

But for all its merit, this biography is not perfect. Many readers will find the book too lengthy and inconsistently engaging. It often seems as though Nasaw was reluctant to filter out mind-numbing minutiae in an attempt to leave no doubt this must be the definitive – and exhaustive – account of Carnegie’s life. In addition, the considerable focus on his non-business efforts (most notably his retirement-era crusade for world peace) feels overdone.

Overall, David Nasaw’s “Andrew Carnegie” is a remarkably detailed and often extremely interesting account of the life of a Scottish-American immigrant and capitalist who may have been the richest man in the world when he retired. Readers seeking swift and effortless tales of capitalist adventure will find the book too detailed and occasionally tedious. But for anyone who enjoys good writing underpinned by a fascinating subject and exceptional research…this book is likely to prove extraordinary.

Overall rating: 4¼ stars