Blood, Sweat and Steel

BY SAM SACKS
06.25.2005 | BOOKS

Meet You in Hell: Andrew Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick, and the Bitter Partnership that Transformed America
By Les Standiford
Crown Publishers, 319 pages, $24.95

The millionaire philanthropist is one of those intriguing, paradoxical characters in the world. Generally, he makes his money by the sweat of workers treated poorly and kept in subjection; then, he gives all that money back to try to improve the lives of the very same people he's oppressed. Of this enigmatic composite creature, Andrew Carnegie can be said to be the founding father, a man whose company, Carnegie Steel, represents the dark ages of American labor maltreatment and who also became the greatest patron of culture and sponsor of learning this country has ever known.

The continuing issue of how history is supposed to judge this business titan is one of the central questions of Meet You in Hell, by the prolific novelist and sometimes historian Les Standiford. Standiford's inspiration for the book is a good example of Carnegie's enduring contradictions: His father worked in the deplorable factory conditions standardized by Carnegie, but he also discovered writing in a library that the steel magnate built.

There is no shortage of Carnegie biographies, but Standiford approaches the field in a new, if sometimes superficial way, by focusing on the exploitative relationship Carnegie had with his long-time manager, another rags-to-riches made man named Henry Clay Frick. This means that the book offers some fun in the guiltless schadenfreude of watching powerful people squabble and lie to one another like little children. (The title is derived from Frick's response to Carnegie's deathbed appeal that they meet and reconcile.) But more interestingly, their contentious partnership reveals a lot about the conflict that always exists between conscience and moneymaking ambition.

At the hub of Standiford's narration is the 1892 "Battle of Homestead," the violent skirmish between striking laborers and the Pinkerton detectives--hired union-busters--that Frick sent in to break them up. This drama takes up half the book. The rest is a speedy chronicle of the years before and after, and while Standiford's writing is clear and succinct, I wish he had spent less time glossing the events from year to year and delved more into the ideas he raises. Along those same lines, he shows a painful tendency to use clich├ęs ("The gloves were off" and "like a hot knife through butter" appear on a single page), which reinforces the impression that you're reading history lite. The rendering of the battle, however, is spirited. For 12 hours the strikers repulsed the Pinkertons, who were shooting from boats in the river, with fists, guns, even cannons. Meanwhile, Frick and the other shareholders sat in conference debating what all this would mean to profits. When all was over, seven strikers and three detectives were dead, and many more wounded.

But where was Carnegie? He was, throughout the ordeal and aftermath, at his mansion in Scotland, only loosely apprised of what was going on, and happy to keep it that way. Here's where the central relationship in the book becomes revealing. Alone, Frick is uninteresting. We may be grateful for his art collection, but as a person he was blunt-brained, nakedly avaricious and possessing a moral scope that ended abruptly after his immediate family. (If he was at least not a hypocrite, Standiford points out, he was just not hypocritical about being a bastard.) But as a man with few scruples, he was the perfect manager for Carnegie, willing to hold the hard line while the more squeamish company head absented himself to Europe and claimed ignorance. Writes Standiford, "Had Freud's theories taken hold by that time, outsiders might have seen in Frick the embodiment of Carnegie's unfettered id: the perfect profit-driven creature, untroubled by any pusillanimous ego."

The deaths at Homestead never bothered Frick, but they gnawed at Carnegie for the rest of his life, which he spent giving away his huge fortune. He wanted to be able to say when he died that he left the world a better place than when he entered it. Did he? Was the inhumane treatment of his workers overcompensated by his incredible charity? Standiford admirably reserves judgment. But the underlying message that Meet You in Hell leaves with us is that when we go into a Carnegie library or music hall, we should be just as grateful to those steelworkers as to their famous boss for its existence.

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