A Conversation with David Nasaw | Literary Arts | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

A Conversation with David Nasaw

The author of a new Andrew Carnegie biography speaks about his subject

The last full-length biography of Andrew Carnegie was written in 1970, during the swan song of the steel industry he built. But biographer David Nasaw has compiled a new 800-page tome on the Pittsburgh industrialist, due out Oct. 24. Nasaw's Carnegie is better and worse than the one we know: a vertically challenged capitalist who exploited workers not for greed, but for what he thought was society's benefit. At 7 p.m. Tue., Oct. 24, Nasaw will speak at the Carnegie Library's Oakland branch -- where he spent many hours researching the building's namesake.

Now that the mills are gone, do you think Carnegie has a lasting local influence other than the libraries and museums?

I did not get into a cab or have a conversation at a hotel when I didn't get a response -- a lively response -- after telling people why I was in town. Everybody had a story about Carnegie, and very few stories put him in a good light. He moved to New York in the 1870s and died in 1919. But his presence still seems to haunt the city.

Is that because of the famous 1892 Homestead Strike? Carnegie blamed that on his business partner, H.C. Frick.

Well, reading the local papers on microfilm, I discovered that while the rest of the world might have been surprised by Homestead, Pittsburghers weren't. This wasn't the first time he'd brought in the Pinkertons -- he'd done the same damn thing at [Braddock's] Edgar Thomson works. Homestead followed a script he'd already written.

Still, Carnegie had written articles about respecting the working man. And previously, he'd been way out in front negotiating with unions. So workers weren't just angry when he brought in the Pinkertons: They felt betrayed.

What prompted that betrayal?

This is perverse but true: He became more ruthless once he decided to give his money away. I think the common-sense explanation -- that he built libraries to atone for his money -- is wrong. [Before marrying Louise Carnegie] he did a pre-nuptial agreement spelling out how he intended to give away all his money. This was years before Homestead.

Since he was giving the money away, he felt he had to earn all he could ... because he was earning it not for himself, but for the larger community. If some workers had to be sacrificed, that was too bad.

In fact, Carnegie said that if he paid his workers more, they would "fritter away" the money. Yet he grew up poor himself; how could he say something like that?

I think it was difficult for him to exploit workers the way he did, and that's one reason he left Pittsburgh: to distance himself. And Carnegie's father, William, was sort of a head-in the-clouds thinker. He never worked quite as hard as he could have. So Carnegie didn't see his father as this heroic guy trying to put food on the table.

Plus, Carnegie read [philosopher] Herbert Spencer, who argues that there are "men of destiny" who have to make hard decisions in any era. Once they were the generals, who had to send people to their deaths. Later they were captains of industry, who make choices that victimize people too. But they have to, for the good of civilization.

"This wage cut hurts me more than it hurts you."

Exactly. So for one, Carnegie didn't have so much respect for working men, in whom he saw his father. Two, he stayed as far away from them as possible. Three, he was exploiting them for greater reasons, as a man of destiny.

Carnegie was 4' 11", and your book shows him trying to look taller in photographs. Did he have a Napoleon complex?

I think it influenced him. For one thing, it made him really jolly: He dominated any room he was in -- mostly while sitting. And because of his small size, he separated the world into workers and managers, brains and brawn. He was clearly the brains: He wanted more than anything to be known as an intellectual. But he didn't feel much comradeship with the big, brawny worker. He felt like they were almost a different species. ...

Carnegie felt sympathy for the downtrodden ... but at a distance. A novelist can resolve these contradictions, but a biographer can't.

Do you think Carnegie's ideas still have value?

Carnegie dedicated the last 20 years of his life -- and much of his fortune -- to world peace. He tried desperately to establish a forum where world leaders could talk out their problems. He believed evolutionary progress had taken humans past the point where they needed war.

That judgment was a bit premature.

Well, he was the eternal optimist. He thought it was impossible that he, the world's most persuasive human being, couldn't get the King of England, Kaiser Wilhelm and Teddy Roosevelt to agree to this forum. He was shattered by that failure, and after World War I, he had what we would call a nervous breakdown.

Isn't there some ... megalomania ... in thinking one person can stop war?

Absolutely. There was no bigger ego than Roosevelt's, yet Carnegie wrote out a whole script for him: "You'll do this and this and this." At the same time he's writing to the British Prime Minister and Kaiser Wilhelm, telling them what to do.

Because Carnegie is rich, Roosevelt humors him. But behind his back, Roosevelt made fun of him the whole time.

Do you still have unanswered questions about Carnegie?

Carnegie in many ways is the perfect subject, because he never shut up. He gave speeches, he wrote books and thousands of letters. I'd like to know what happened after World War I, when he went silent. And we'll never really know what he thought about Homestead. All his statements were about trying to absolve himself of responsibility. So it's impossible to say what he believed. It would be great to get him in a confessional and find out.

click to enlarge David Nasaw
David Nasaw

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