The Age of the Robber Baron

As I have previously mentioned, I have a particular affinity for autobiographies. They reignite my interest in history. Andrew Carnegie’s autobiography is of especial fascination because he represents a bygone era of American history. As an idealist and self-proclaimed optimist, Carnegie manages to leave a trail of lingering sadness behind him in his story.

The book is written in three acts: his early life of poverty and hard work, in which he eventually had to leave his homeland of Scotland, as well as the education he received there, at the age of thirteen; his life of industry and hard work that led to his eventual fortune; his life of philanthropy and politics, in which he gave all his money away and fought for peace. Yes, indeed, he gave away good money to useless peace-making organizations. I claimed he was an idealist, didn’t I?

Carnegie was a complex man, and his political views were mixed. He supported a large federal government because one central authority made more sense to him than the scattered power structures of state rights. At the same time, he was an anti-imperialist. He was a republican; an abolitionist; a believer in a highly flexible constitution that could change as needed with the times.

It’s difficult to condense the entire book into one short blog post. But I had an urge to return to the subject because, just as I was finishing the last pages of the book, I read this article, David Stockman: Woodrow Wilson’s War and Why the Entire 20th Century Was a Mistake. The general thesis of the article is as follows:


…[T]he entire 20th Century was a giant mistake.

And that you can put the blame for this monumental error squarely on Thomas Woodrow Wilson——-a megalomaniacal madman who was the very worst President in American history……..well, except for the last two.

His unforgiveable error was to put the United States into the Great War for utterly no good reason of national interest.

As an anti-imperialist, Carnegie’s first great disappointment in politics came before Wilson and World War I. It was rather the occupation of the Philippines that inspired Carnegie to write, “Here the Republic made its first grievous international mistake — a mistake which dragged it into the vortex of international militarism and a great navy.” Although Stockman no doubt makes a salient point concerning President Wilson dragging the U.S. into the Great War and hence into international affairs and continuous warfare — not to mention, massive debt, the Depression and the New Deal — the path to international militarism had already been laid. For the record, it was also Wilson who signed the Federal Reserve Act into law, and that was prior to World War I.

Additionally, of course, the path to socialism had already been laid, had already influenced the labor movement for better or worse [if you're an idealist like Carnegie, you'll choose one or the other], and this is another element of history recorded in Carnegie’s biography. Yet Carnegie, being the optimist he was, remained somewhat idealistic about his great nation, its thriving industry, its politics, the office of presidency, etc. until his autobiography ends abruptly with this: “Nothing is impossible to genius! Watch President Wilson! He has Scotch blood in his veins.”

In the preface, the reader learns from Carnegie’s widow why the autobiography ends in this abrupt manner. Her husband had carried on writing his autobiography in his florid Victorian style, pouring out his idealism, while vacationing in his beloved Scotland when he heard the news of World War I. The news destroyed him, and he never returned to finish the book. He simply lost heart. The world was ravaged by the Great War, and eventually this “genius” Wilson would bring the U.S. into it.

 Mrs. Carnegie claims her husband was young and active before the war, but became old due to the tragedy of it. Add to that a body weakened by the great bout of influenza, and Carnegie could not withstand. He died in 1919, just after the war ended. And that is why the autobiography, with its ironic last words of effusive praise for a president that still gave Carnegie hope, carries a weight of sadness. This book — this era — is closed in American history. I would argue that the U.S. had already embarked on its path. But I would also agree that Wilson had a tremendously bad effect on the future — now past — of the United States.

I don’t wish to fall into Carnegie’s own error and wax idealistic about the autobiographer himself. In fact, I have a great inability for being idealistic, and that’s rather sad, I suppose. In these modern days, history professors call Carnegie and industrialists of his ilk Robber Barons. This is how definitions are created and how history’s victors control the dialogue. I suspect Carnegie was neither as bad as moderns wish to believe, nor was he as honorable as he paints himself in his autobiography. But the term Robber Baron hearkens back to men who were actual robbers [go look it up if you don't believe me; I don't feel like doing all the homework here] and not capitalists who became wealthy from making use of resources that benefited not just their pocketbooks, but the needs of a growing country. Paying one’s employees low wages isn’t robbery, especially when those employees aren’t slaves and agree contractually to the system of payment.

And that’s about all I have to say about that. Since I’m neither an optimist nor and idealist, my heart can’t be broken by the course the country’s on. Actually, it can. But I’m rarely willing to admit to it openly.

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Thoughts On Andrew Carnegie’s Autobiography

I could have written ten blog posts off this book. I wrote them in my head, certainly, as I was thinking about what I was reading. But there are times when I’m not interested in sharing my “essais” with the world. That’s just the way it is. Biographies and autobiographies tend to keep me in my mental cave for unnecessary lengths of time. As it is, I very much like history. Filter that history through the minds or lives of fascinating people, and I get caught in a net I can’t easily tangle myself out of.

I’ve read a number of autobiographies of people who were born in the late 19th C and lived through enough of the 20th C to see the world transform into a full-blown world of technology and modernism. The tone in these autobios tends to be confessional, and yet somewhat pragmatic, maybe a little cynical, and always circumspect. Authors of the early 20th C had not quite taken to the later 20th C shamelessness of confessional memoirs or autobiographies. I don’t mean to sidetrack myself with the short history of autobiographies, although I not only could, but would enjoy doing so. No, I mean only to place Carnegie in an era that occurred slightly before the pragmatism of the early 20th C thinkers and long before the new era of shamelessness.

Because Carnegie was born in 1835 — a Scottish boy, no less — his writing carries a distinct intertwining of Enlightenment values with florid Victorianism. In many ways, his autobiography is his own say on events Americans came to despise him for, such as his absence during the Homestead Strike. And it takes on a self-congratulatory tone in some areas. That can’t be denied. But his self-congratulation is part and parcel with his Victorian floridness, in the same way that his congratulatory words for all people he loved and honored fit with his times. As a modern reader, his poetic odes to his mother or his wife are about ten times more gag-inducing than anything he claims about himself.

Now that I’ve set a kind of background, I would like to highlight a few things I learned from this book. For a start, I learned far more about the fine details of the steel industry than I ever thought I wanted to know. That was kind of fun. But I also learned that Carnegie still clung very heavily to the rights of the individual. I wouldn’t necessarily claim he was an egalitarian — only that he believed all people should have the opportunity to rise to whatever challenge they needed to. By extension, he was an abolitionist; he was the first person to hire women to work as telegraphers; he believed in giving back to his workers and the public at large. I’ve been tempted to call him the “patron saint of libraries” as his method of giving back was mainly in the form of education. By the end of his life, he had funded around 3000 libraries.

Although I do understand the overblown writing must be scaled back if one wants to make an honest assessment, the facts of his life are verifiable. Andrew Carnegie, in my estimation, carried his Scottish Enlightenment values with him wherever he went. In this book, he repeatedly stresses concepts such as honor and integrity. These ideals were undoubtedly part of his Enlightenment upbringing, but they are also catchwords for specific personality types. Whatever one thinks of Carnegie in these shameless days we live in, he had a larger-than-life personality, one which I would hesitate to denote as robber barren. In fact, the next person who uses the term robber baron ought to get a lecture about what it actually means. But that’s another blog post.

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I Dream in Pinkerton

Because of the autobiography I’m reading, I’ve come across an area of study I haven’t touched since I was in my twenties. When I first began writing novels, I chose to write mysteries. I’ve always been fascinated by detectives and detective fiction. My childhood is filled with Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot. It makes sense, therefore, that I dove into studying detectives, detective practices, and the history of detectives. I read the history of police and private dicks for both the United States and Britain. In my studies, I went to an OMI (office of the medical investigator) conference, visited a cadaver lab, and read any library book I could find on criminal investigation.

One of the books I read was on the Pinkerton Agency, and that is the area of convergence with the autobiography I’m reading. The Pinkerton Agency was created in 1850 in the U.S., during a time when there was no centralized system for passing information among police forces. There was no FBI, no federal databases, no networking through agencies like the DMV. The Pinkerton Agency, however, did make an attempt at centralized intelligence among their agencies. They became the largest private detective force in the world. In fact, in their prime, there were more agents in the Pinkerton Agency than there were men in the standing army of the United States.

Although they set a precedent for what police agencies were to become in the United States, they were mercenaries and, therefore, possessed the moral problems associated with mercenary “police”. They were for hire as security guards and infiltrators, and are well known for their role in suppressing union activists during the labor strikes around the turn of the 19th to 20th C. I don’t know that disputes between unions and companies fall into the realm of morality, per se, but it only serves to demonstrate that the “Pinks” at times were essentially spies for hire.

There is a kind of romanticism attached to the Pinkerton Agency. It was early detective work — the kind that involved footwork and mental deduction — as well as scary escapades down dark, poorly lit alleyways (not to mention coalmines). When I think of the Pinkerton Agency, the atmosphere of Sherlock Holme’s world fills my head. That isn’t terribly surprising, as one of Arthur Conan O’Doyle’s novels, The Valley of Fear, features a Pinkerton agent. The novel is loosely based off an actual Pinkerton story, in which the agent James McParland goes undercover in a secret coal-mining organization called the Molly Maguires.

I love how this information is being lit up in those stored-memory regions of my mind. Someday, I might return to detective fiction. It holds a special place in my heart. My problem, of course, is that I’ve read in every genre all my life. Picking one to write is really rather difficult. But for now I’m stuck on speculative fiction of all kinds, so I’ll remain there. I can’t get this dream out of my head, though, this dream I had at the peak of my detective studies — almost twenty years ago — in which I was a detective going through files. The feel and smell of the office, which lay just past a swinging door, has left a tantalizing sense of…of mystery in my head.

 

 

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A Wee Little Promotion

Alas, I spend almost no time promoting my books. But you know what? If you like to read weird short fiction, I recommend my book Jaybird’s Nest and Other Stories. If you’ve purchased it and read it, would you consider reviewing it on Amazon? In addition to not promoting, I haven’t actually begged for any reviews this time around. Thus far, on Amazon, anyway, one reader has given it a five-star rating and quite simply has this to say:

“Excellent writing with a great sense of humor. I love these stories. Jill’s voice is unique and the humor she weaves into her writing will surely bring a chuckle or two. Highly recommended for anyone who enjoys a short story before bed like I do.”

Friends, I couldn’t ask for a better review. Unique. Humorous. Excellent writing. That was everything I strove for in putting this book of shorts together.

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Memoirs From a Nineties Coffee Girl: The Speakeasy of Main St Oregon

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It’s taken me a while to be able to write about the day that ended in the evening above. It was a whirlwind day on a whirlwind trip to Portland. I stayed one night at my friend Jaynee’s house, drinking her expensive cognac and talking and laughing. The next day, I sorrowfully expressed my displeasure at not having visited the coast while in Oregon. The weather was taking a turn for the worse, and it was unlikely that I would make it there, as the coastal roads were likely to be solid sheets of ice. But I must have underestimated my old friend. She is afraid of nothing and is almost too willing to take off on a whim. I make no understatement when I tell you she’s the most extroverted person I’ve ever met.

Soon enough, we were headed to Eugene. No, you don’t have to tell me — Eugene isn’t a coastal town. We drove to Eugene via the coast…or after the coast, I should say. And the coastal highway was, indeed, beset by solid sheets of ice when it wound under the overhanging trees. The beach itself was covered in snow; this is unusual for the Oregon coastline, at least when I lived there. It was always cold and damp in the winter, but it didn’t often snow.

Needless to say, we didn’t spend much time frolicking in the waves or running like young does over the sand. We pulled off our gloves in order to take a few pictures. We waxed poetic while staring out at the vastness of the thunderously gray Pacific, and then we jumped back in the car and took off for Eugene. It escapes me now why we had to visit Eugene. It was Jaynee’s errand, not mine. But as I have some good friends in Eugene, I scheduled a meetup with one.

Eugene had been hit hard by a snowstorm. My meetup was, therefore, a little unusual. Jaynee dropped me off at Perk coffeehouse, where my old friend Sallie works. I’ve dedicated at least one of my coffee memoirs to Sallie; she is the epitome of a coffee girl. She’s a coffee girl after all these years, still jerking espresso while attending university classes and raising her children. The meetup was unusual because the coffeehouse was closed and Sallie was stranded there. She’d been stranded in town for some time, and there she sat, bleary-eyed, in day-old clothes and, yet, still willing to jump up and give me a hug.

While the storm had passed, the streets weren’t clear. Eugene is, apparently, not used to sudden swift bouts of snow. So we sat there for some time and drank tea together, until I casually wondered if there was any where in this universe or the next I could eat. I’d been on the road with Jaynee all day. Was there any place nearby we could eat a hot dinner? Yes, there was a place behind us, in the back alleyway…

Oregon has become known for its food culture. Not only that, but because of the state’s libertarian bent, it’s become known for its back alley repositories of organic and fresh-from-the-farm foods. Many of these places are unregulated, in the sense of health inspections. As such, an ordinary storage space is transformed into a dinner party, and people show up due to word of mouth and drop money in a donation jar. A few days before, I’d read all about such places in a food memoir at Powell’s Books.

To be honest, the restaurant in the back alley behind Perk is a regulated restaurant that takes credit cards. But you couldn’t have convinced me of that as Sallie and I scuffed out way through the snow and slid over ice, around dumpsters and recycling bins, to arrive at a nearly invisible restaurant. This was what the book at Powell’s had written about. We slipped in, and I stared up at the menu on the wall, quite incredulous. See, it really did have the organic and fresh-from-the-farm food. And yet it had something else I like to call “white-trash gourmet”. Actually, my husband coined that term. He went through a brief life stint in which he wanted to write that recipe book.

I think he lost the desire when he realized that kind of food was already popular in many venues…and especially in Oregon. It was certainly part of the back alley mystique. As I don’t eat wheat, my options are always limited. Nowadays, I eat no grains of any kind nor any starch, but in those days, I still ate potatoes. There was, therefore, about one item on the menu I could eat: fresh from the potato french fries topped with an elegant cheese sauce made with white wine and topped with homemade corned beef and chopped parsley. I ordered a decent glass of cabernet to offset the grease.

Then Sallie and I sat on tall stools eating this…this…over-the-top cuisine. It was a noisy and crowded place, despite its obscured location. After a second glass of wine, the adventures of the day hit me hard, and I can’t remember much else except the buzz in my brain caused by too many people and too much action.

If I were to write a song about the day, it might follow this model: I remember girls in hats, big bananas, and loony chats. I remember snow. I remember snow. Okay, that might need a little work. I’ve never yet come out as a singer-songwriter, and there’s probably a good reason for that.

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