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The fire of alchemists

A fresh angle on the true story of two famous millionaires as partners and foes, and the perfect storm they brewed in a Pennsylvania mill town

Published on July 29, 2007

The fire of alchemists

The author can get a little carried away.



Published by Crown, 2005

Available at Asia Books, Bt495

Reviewed by Paul Dorsey

The Nation

Les Standiford is a Florida-based author who says on his rather dusty website that he has a PhD in creative writing (!) and he does indeed teach the subject. He writes mostly fiction but earned praise for his first history, "Last Train to Paradise", about the "Railroad That Crossed an Ocean" - getting from Key West to mainland Florida.

"Meet You in Hell" is considerably more ambitious, a look at the fiery relations between 19th-century captains of American industry Carnegie and Frick. Standiford stresses in the foreword that he is writing only about their relationship, since there are plenty of biographies of both men already, and the central event in his book, the bloody "Battle of Homestead", has been well-documented too.

This was the worst day in the annals of US labour-management relations - July 6, 1892 - when 10 people were killed as agents of the Pinkerton detective agency took on a crowd of 5,000 striking steelworkers at Carnegie's mill in the town of Homestead, in the sprawling factory hell surrounding Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

It was a ghastly affair, no matter whose side it's seen from. Absurdly wealthy Carnegie was at his Scottish castle; his partner Frick, almost as rich, had been left in charge of the expected labour showdown with instructions to do as he saw fit. A confrontational man, he hired Pinkerton, and Pinkerton hired 300 thugs.

The way this mob confronted the mob of steel men - who understood all too well that their lives depended on their jobs, and were primed to fight it out to the last drop of blood - makes for hair-raising reading. Standiford seems to revel in this kind of writing. He might be faulted for immersing himself so deeply in the newspaper accounts of the day that their colourfully quaint language flows into his own, but this can be a plus as well, in helping set the scene.

"We are with you, no matter what," Carnegie had cabled his trusted lieutenant Frick, "and not stopping short of a contest." He spent the rest of his life regretting those words, even as he devoted his last years to giving away his fortune to help the poor, the downtrodden and the uneducated and, perhaps, to bring peace to the world he was leaving behind.

Frick had no regrets whatever, yet he too eventually sought out a balm for the wounds inflicted upon him by the workers, the press and to some extent the federal government for acting so rashly. Today thousands of people visit his cavernous former residence in New York to see the famous Frick Collection of art.

Millions around the world borrow books from Carnegie libraries. Many others attend Carnegie Mellon University, visit the Carnegie Institute of Washington, the Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh and the Carnegie Science Academy, and benefit from endowments from other funds he set up. It's still many musicians' dream to play at Carnegie Hall.

After the Spanish American War Carnegie offered to buy the Philippines for $20 million because he felt it should be free from the imperialist yoke. He also pushed hard for the League of Nations and the war crimes tribunal in The Hague.

This is the focal irony of the book. Andrew Carnegie started out as a dirt-poor immigrant and became the richest man in the world. There is doubtless something heroic in that alone.

Yet his pursuit of wealth - at any cost, as it were - guaranteed him an anti-hero's legacy in the chronicles of Western industrialisation. He may have built 3,000 public libraries, but as his underpaid and overwrought employees moaned, "What good is a book to a man who works 12 hours a day?"

Well, it did do some good, as the author points out. Standiford, fretting at the outset over his ability to portray Frick and Carnegie fairly when his own parents had been worn-down factory-shift labourers, winningly brings his history full circle in a moving epilogue. Having encapsulated the American worker's lament wonderfully - the unions are dying, along with the steel industry, and of the 300,000 new jobs that open in the US in an average month, usually there is not one in manufacturing - Standiford shares a personal memory.

"One of Carnegie's libraries went up in the blue-collar hill town of Cambridge, Ohio, shortly after the turn of the century... It wasn't on the scale of those virtual palaces in Braddock and Homestead; the library grants were tied to the size of the town, and Cambridge was an unprepossessing town of a few thousand souls. It remained pretty much that way into the 1950s, when I got my first library card there."

Standiford can get a little carried away. On the last page he evokes Freud, alchemy and Sisyphus in a rush to strike a balance between capital and labour.

But the picture frame he fashions for a once-familiar panorama is handsome and new, ensuring that this extraordinary story can be pondered from a fresh and engaging perspective.

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