By David NasawPenguin Press
If generalizations about national character and national callings were as unreliable as some people purport to think, then the names MacAdam and MacIntosh would not have entered everyday language (albeit abbreviated as the words tarmac and mac). Scots like to boast of the number of practical and engineered devices that their sons have given the world (John Logie Baird’s first TV set might be another, if less eponymous, example), and it used to be said that if you shouted “Mac!” down the hatch to the engine room on any ship in the British Empire, the chief mechanic would very soon make his appearance on deck. (This tradition survived into the naming of “Scotty,” the only man who knew how to keep the Starship Enterprise functioning and on course.) And native enterprise, too, is considered by the thrifty Scots to have been the air that was breathed by that great son of St. Andrews, Adam Smith, the modest herald of modern capitalism.
In contrast, or perhaps in counterpart, the other great tradition of Scotland is rebellion and political radicalism, from Robert Burns to James Keir Hardie to the Red Clydeside. An accompaniment to this is a fierce emphasis on, and respect for, education, especially of the self-taught or self-acquired variety. If one takes any or all of these indicators as typical, then Andrew Carnegie of Dunfermline, Fife, would have been the very personification of a Scotsman.
To say that this is not how he has come down to us would be an understatement. For decades, his name was inseparable from the two stock phrases (robber baron and Gilded Age) that were allowed to define late-nineteenth-century American industrialism. John Dos Passos makes him a no-less stock character in The 42nd Parallel, the first volume of the U.S.A. trilogy, in which someone has to embody—as in an E. L. Doctorow cameo—the figure of the incarnate acquisitionist. When I taught at the University of Pittsburgh, in the 1990s, the remains of the old Homestead steel plant were much visited by both locals and tourists, either as a museum of the American Rust Belt or as a shrine to the Gettysburg of the lutte de classe. Elsewhere in the city, if a gallery or museum or university was not named for Andrew Carnegie, it was named for one or another of his partners or rivals in the shape of either a Mellon or a Frick. This was widely viewed as the tribute, in the form of conscience money, that had been originally raised from the blood of the toilers. In cities with less radical traditions, Carnegie and his benefactions were regarded with equal simplicity as the living proof of the American dream and the Horatio Alger principle. The great strength of this immense biography is the way in which David Nasaw causes these tributaries—capitalism, radicalism, and educational aspiration—to converge like the three rivers (the Allegheny, the Ohio, and the Monongahela) whose confluence makes the site of Pittsburgh possible.
Andrew Carnegie was born in 1835, the son of a weaver who was a tenant of the vast estate of Lord Elgin, delapidator of the Parthenon. His early memories were of the Chartist agitation by which, for the first time, the more educated British workers attempted to secure not just economic but political reform, demanding their own voice in Parliament and an end to the tyranny of the hereditary nobles lampooned by Burns in “For A’ That.” Though the struggle was very advanced for its time and did eventually lead to enfranchisement, it was powerless to halt the decline of the smaller weaving towns. The Carnegies were compelled to do what many had done before them, and board a ship for the United States.
Nasaw reminds us of a time that many people have forgotten: that period of the “Hungry ’40s” when the United States was considered by the radicals of Europe to be a lantern of liberty, equality, and fraternity. (It was to try to dispel this very illusion that Charles Dickens wrote his American Notes and, later, his dreadful novel Martin Chuzzlewit.) Young Andrew was almost as excited by America as Chuzzlewit himself: no kings or aristos, no distinctions of rank, no established church or clerisy (he was always hostile to the Calvinism of so many Scots), free land under the Homestead Act, and a chance for every aspiring lad. Dos Passos lampooned the myth and the man in a sub-Joycean manner in the “Prince of Peace” section of The 42nd Parallel:
was born in Dunfermline in Scotland,
came over to the States in an immigrant
ship worked as bobbinboy in a textile factory
clerked in a bobbin factory at $2.50 a week
ran round Philadelphia with telegrams as a Western Union messenger
learned the Morse code was telegraph operator on the Pennsy lines
was a military telegraph operator in the Civil War and
always saved his pay;
whenever he had a dollar he invested it …
The sarcasm goes on, hymning Carnegie’s many successful investments, until the conclusion:
Andrew Carnegie gave millions for peace
and libraries and scientific institutes and endowments and thrift
whenever he made a billion dollars he endowed an institution to promote universal peace
except in time of war.