That’s Grand Central Station as it was in the 1880s.
Saturday, March 10, 2012

Robber Barons II

Last year I got a book called Myth of the Robber Barons for Christmas. This year I got the original book by Matthew Josephson. Josephson’s book was written in the 1930s, and copyrighted in 1934. So it comes out of the Depression, and bears signs of the Marxism that infected many in that era.

Marx looks back, in the Manifesto, to a golden age in which the relations between master and servant were vastly different than they are in the present industrial age. He then looks to the future to re-establish that golden age that will bring universal benevolence under the dictatorship of the proletariat. Josephson too paints a picture of a golden age that is destroyed by the evil industrialists. He also seeks a golden age, but he believes that it is being realized in the Soviet Union.

Josephson can lay no claim to objectivity. When he introduces Cornelius Vanderbilt this is what he has to say, “Cornelius Vanderbilt most astonishing of all the famous parvenus of the 1840’s and 1850’s? The hulking, Silenus-like figure of an old man, in his eternal fur coat and ‘plug hat,’ winter and summer, with the handsome, bald head, and the profane language of a sea-dog, was known and liked by all New York” (12). “Parvenu,” “Silenus-like,” and “sea-dog” all conjure up negative images. The OED lists no positive definition for parvenu, it is negative in both denotation and connotation. Silenus is a satyr, a rather elderly one at that, so by implication Vanderbilt is a dirty old man, or at least a disgusting one. Sea-dog can mean a sailor, but it also has the meaning of privateer or pirate. So Josephson has already prejudiced the reader against Vanderbilt.

He does the same thing when he describes the foundation of the stock exchange as “shrewd, lynx-eyed, slit-mouthed speculator-politicians” (17).

He has something in common with Garry Wills. That’s not a good thing. Wills, born in 1934, graduated from high school in 1952, fooled around in the Jesuit order for a few years, then went to college and graduate school. He then worked for The National Review till he lost his senses and moved left. Josephson, born in 1898, graduated from Columbia in 1920, got married, and left for Paris. Neither Wills nor Josephson, as far as I can tell, served a day in the military, and yet both are sharp in their condemnation of those who did not serve in war-time. Josephson opens chapter 3 with a condemnation of the industrialists who procured substitutes for themselves. Now that was legal at the time, so while there may be a moral issue involved, it is not necessarily one that men who either through luck, or cunning, or cowardice, or education, avoided service are qualified to pronounce upon.

Josephson makes a rather strange observation at page 87: “Yet at the time there was little bewailing the const of the American system of empire-building by private enterprise, owing to the general enthusiasm which attended its progress everywhere throughout the young and growing industrial nation.” Just how was the American empire supposed to grow? Later on (108) he says, “One wonders if another form of society, one that was not dependent for its innovation upon the providential ‘blind hand’ of commercial struggle, would not have moved more rapidly in matters which affected  the general population so deeply.” A little later he provides an answer when he compares Carnegie’s capacity for administration to that possessed by the “socialist statemen of modern Russia.”

Journalists are a fairly contemptible lot. They’re voyeurs who derive their income from the emotions and troubles of others, and panders who play to the worst emotions of a gullible public, and who loudly proclaim their heroism and investigative competence while concealing the pecadilloes of their heroes. Josephson’s opinion of journalists is even lower than mine. He describes the bribes applied to writers for the “New York World, Times, Herald and Sun, the Hartford Courant, the Chicago Post.” The bribes consisted of invitations Cooke’s home, “or cases of wine from his private Catawba vineyards in Ohio.” Unless I am sadly mistaken, which is always possible, American wine until much later in the 19th or even the early 20th century was pretty much undrinkable. To imagine that journalists would be moved by cases of Ohio plonk is to think them even worse than the drunken sots portrayed in almost every American film from The Front Page up until, but not including, All the President’s Men.

Josephson has a condemnation of Grant for refusing a truce with Lee at Cold Harbor that would have allowed him to pick up the wounded and dying from the battlefield. Josephson attributes this to pressure from stock speculators. I find this explanation very doubtful. The topic is the subject of considerable discussion among Civil War historians, and the interested reader should see a reputable history of the period such as Gordon Rhea’s book on Cold Harbor.

The book is marred by his reliance on Charles Beard’s economic interpretation of history. Beard’s views fell out of favor subsequent to WW II, which Beard disapproved of. You see a trace of this I think in Josephson’s preface to a re-issue of the book from the 1960’s.

I’m about 120 pages into the book right now, but I’ve read enough to be able to write this note. I should finish this week, and will update if necessary.

Update. March 28, 2012—Josephson has a number of passage that are somewhat questionable. Here he is on the Soviet Union:

“As in socialist Russia today, the vigorous progress of the railroad-builders delighted the popular imagination, was reported day by day in the newspapers of the principal cities, was attended with holiday-making, music and public orations in the towns along their line of march” (76).

“Though it was a new country, being built up with great ringing and hammering everywhere, as terribly in need of machines and railroads as Russia today, a condition of “overproduction,” of cut-throat competition arose again and again to demoralize various industries, especially the new steel” (175, PDF version).

Here he is on the “whiskey ring:”

“Thus the “whiskey ring,” as Henry Lloyd wrote at the time, regulated the liquor traffic as no government could up to then or ever since effectively do, decreeing where and how much liquor should be made, and enforcing their decree, controlling alcohol, hence the sciences, medicine, even the arts and poetry” (195, PDF version).

Note that in the references to Russia he bypasses the human cost that the modernization and industrialization, by dictatorial fiat, imposed on the nation. In the reference to the “whiskey ring,” it is simply ludicrous to imagine that the arts and sciences are dependent upon the supply of cheap whiskey.

The socialist policies of which Josephson approves ultimately drove the steel mills out of Pittsburgh, and turned Detroit into a sewer that is dominated by unions. Josephson died in 1978, well after Krushchev’s speech at the 20th Party Congress, and shortly after the publication of The Gulag Archipelago, events which revealed the extent of the crimes of the Revolution.

Next up will be poems by Pindar and a book of sci-fi short stories by military vets.