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Morgan: American Financier

by Jean Strouse
816 pages
Random House
Published: March 1999

When published in 1999, Jean Strouse’s “Morgan: American Financier” was the first full-scale biography of J.P. Morgan in several decades. Strouse is also the author of “Alice James, A Biographywhich won the Bancroft Prize in American History and Diplomacy. She is currently writing a book about John Singer Sargent’s “Wertheimer portraits.”

The best early biographies of J.P. Morgan include Frederick Lewis Allen’s 1949 “The Great Pierpont Morgan” and the 1939 authorized biography “J. Pierpont Morgan, An Intimate Portrait” by Morgan’s son-in-law Herbert Satterlee.  Strouse’s book, however, benefits enormously from her tenacious pursuit of new sources including documents found in the Pierpont Morgan Library and the Morgan Grenfell Archives.

During its early pages this book comes across as one of the most intriguing biographies I’ve ever read. The author describes her quest to uncover the real Morgan; her analysis of previous biographies (including their strengths and limitations), her hunt for new primary source materials and her efforts to separate fact from fiction are immediately entrancing.

Strouse’s writing style is dense and impactful – always full of depth and force – but is rarely fluid or easy to read. Rather than leading readers on a captivating journey through Morgan’s life, the narrative inculcates its audience with a steady barrage of facts while rarely slowing long enough to set a scene or add color to Morgan’s surprisingly dull complexion.

At first glance J.P. Morgan seems an ideal biographical subject: he was an icon of the business world, helped save the U.S. economy on multiple occasions and led a seemingly fascinating life (including two marriages, numerous affairs and complicated relationships with his father and children). And yet Morgan never comes across as a particularly colorful or engaging character.

What is difficult to determine is whether the author is uninspiring as a storyteller…or that J.P. Morgan was far less interesting than one might suspect. But what is undeniable is that Strouse is unable to tease out and accentuate whatever bits of vivacity may have existed in Morgan’s life.

This book’s strengths are numerous and include insightful observations concerning the gold standard and monetary policy (including the role and limitations of central banks), Morgan’s stewardship of the American economy, his influence over global corporate finance, his interest in Thomas Edison’s new technologies, and his complex family dynamics. The biography is also filled with footnotes which are often more interesting than the narrative itself.

But the author fills the text with a blizzard of detail likely to appeal only to the most committed of readers, including the nuances of loan syndications, mundane intricacies of Morgan’s life which add little texture to his portrait, inconsequential details of bond financings and an extraordinary degree of insight into his art collection. Even readers committed to fully understanding Morgan are likely to find this biography excessive in trivialities.

Even the book’s “Afterword” – a section where many biographies redeem themselves with pithy but astute observations that were buried in the preceding narrative – fails to provide overarching revelations or compelling conclusions concerning Morgan’s life or legacy.

Overall, Jean Strouse’s biography succeeds at presenting J.P. Morgan as a far more complicated figure than his “Robber baron” caricature might suggest. This book earns extremely high marks for its historical value and it seems unlikely there will ever be a more detailed review of Morgan’s life. What is not hard to imagine, however, is that there could be a far more interesting biography of the man…

Overall rating: 3 stars