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Andrew Carnegie    by David Nasaw order for
Andrew Carnegie
by David Nasaw
Order:  USA  Can
Penguin, 2006 (2006)
* *   Reviewed by Tim Davis

Although just over four feet eleven inches tall, Andrew Carnegie was a giant in American industrial and social history. Nearly everyone has heard his name (at least as it has been connected - as if it were merely an adjective - to hundreds of places, buildings, and institutions). At the same time, very few people know anything at all about this fascinating man who was Andrew Carnegie. Until I had discovered and read David Nasaw's powerful new biography, I regret that I had to count myself among those who paradoxically knew the name but knew very little else.

The paradox began for me during my childhood in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. At every turn, people in Pittsburgh were confronted by the ubiquitous presence of Carnegie. There was the natural history and art museum, there was the concert hall, there was a university, there were libraries, there were streets, there were communities, and - of course - there were the steel mills: all were emblazoned with Carnegie's name. However, as a child in the 50s, I knew little about the man himself except that he had owned a steel company and he had become extraordinarily wealthy; moreover, I knew that he made his mark (and left his mark) on western Pennsylvania - in particular - through his philanthropic generosity (although I don't think at the time that I fully understood what that long word really meant).

But who, in fact, was this industrial titan, Andrew Carnegie? Where did he come from? How had he acquired so much wealth that he could so generously contribute to so many social and cultural enterprises? What motivated his apparently endless generosity? And what did I know about this singular fellow's personal life? What kind of family life did he have? Was he, in fact, an emigrant who had made Pittsburgh his life-long home? Were there hidden, darker sides to this otherwise magnificent and munificent capitalist.

Those questions - and thousands more - get careful and passionate attention in David Nasaw's immensely readable and thoroughly enjoyable Andrew Carnegie. When you read this 800 page masterpiece, you - like me - get wonderful answers to many, many questions. Discover, for example, that Carnegie - the Scottish immigrant who had come to America when he was a penniless 13-year old - was not merely an extravagantly successful industrialist who eventually became the wealthiest and most generous man in America. He was also an accomplished and prolific writer, and he became an ardent activist for peace; he would become the trusted advisor and tolerated agitator to many of the most powerful people in the political world. Yet his entrepreneurial drive, his social activism, and his philanthropy had a rather unpleasant side; many of his workers suffered through long 12 hour days for which they received inadequate wages. And his attachment to Pittsburgh eventually became surprisingly tenuous as Carnegie spent more time in New York City and in Europe (only returning to Pittsburgh for brief visits a couple of times a year). This was also the man whose optimism and drive was nearly completely destroyed by the First World War.

As businessman, capitalist, steelmaker, philanthropist, peace activist, writer, son, husband, and father, 'Carnegie wore many hats well,' says Nasaw. The author - whose research is extensive and thorough - goes on to say that Carnegie remains 'one of the most fascinating men' he has ever encountered. Carnegie was 'a man who was many things in his long life, but never boring.' And - in closing - I would simply add that Nasaw's portrait of Carnegie is one of the most fascinating biographies in many years, and it is - to borrow a phrase - never boring!

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