A Novelist Does History; Gilds a Gilded Age Tale

Meet You in Hell: Andrew Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick, and the Bitter Partnership That Transformed America, by Les Standiford. Crown, 319 pages, $24.95.

In Meet You in Hell, Les Standiford invites readers back to the days when capitalists were capitalists and workers were workers-and when the two met, blood was frequently shed. Today’s Shermanesque march of Wal-Mart across the retail landscape, leaving in its wake burned-out downtowns and workers wearing blue uniforms of defeat, seems almost genteel in comparison to this slice of Gilded Age history. Indeed, Mr. Standiford, the author of a half-dozen novels, would have been hard put to find a better tale to exploit in the days of robber barons than that of Andrew Carnegie and Henry Clay Frick.

As most schoolchildren learn, Carnegie made steel, lots of it. He played a key role in industrializing an agrarian nation, became the richest man in the world, dotted the landscape with libraries and set the stage for modern philanthropy. Frick, the lesser-known of the two, ran Carnegie’s empire for years, used his money to acquire art and built the superb private collections now housed in the museum that was once his mansion. (Of the two men, Carnegie is overdue for a good biography, but that should soon be remedied by David Nasaw, author of The Chief: The Life of William Randolph Hearst.)

Mr. Standiford’s Meet You in Hell is not an attempt at biography. He focuses solely on the relationship between the two men-a wise choice. Carnegie’s business acumen and Frick’s ruthless management style combined in the late 1800′s to produce a steel empire of such immense proportions that two out every three rails, I-beams or sheets of metal in the United States bore the Carnegie name. Both born poor, the men forged a partnership that from our postmodern vantage blends Horatio Alger with Darth Vader. In his day, Carnegie was trusted by the gatekeepers of capital and seemed in the public’s mind-wrongly, I might add-to embody a more humane form of capitalism. Frick wasn’t just willing to take on the darker but necessary chores of a ruthless industrial captain-he relished the job. Together, the two men exploited all forms of industrial integration until steel belonged to them as oil belonged to John Rockefeller and banking to J.P. Morgan.

The pairing looked so perfect that a third of the way through the book, all parties expect it to endure like a well-founded marriage. “Had such unalloyed sentiments been expressed in a novel, experienced readers would have known to expect the worst,” writes Mr. Standiford. “This being real life, however, the players in this drama forged blithely ahead.”

The infamous industrial clash at the Homestead Mills in 1892-seven workers and three Pinkertons died, scores were wounded-triggered the eventual rupture.

Frick had been the general issuing commands on the battlefield-on Carnegie’s authority (“We all approve of anything you do”). But Carnegie, unable to live with the consequences of his own orders to Frick, began to rewrite history. In short, he blamed Frick. Then, when Frick-the quintessential capitalist (the very trait that endeared him to Carnegie)-put himself in a position to profit from the possible sale of Carnegie Steel, he was cast aside for betraying his master.

Mr. Standiford overwrites the climatic scene. Carnegie arrived at Frick’s office-the same office where an anarchist, Alexander Berkman, enraged by the busting of the Homestead strike, had attempted to assassinate Frick-with a letter of termination from the board of managers. “No pistol was in Carnegie’s hand on this day. He carried an instrument far more lethal,” writes Mr. Standiford. And again: “Carnegie drew a copy of a document from his coat pocket. He might have smiled-or did he wear the same expression as Alexander Berkman as he fixed the sights of his pistol between the eyes of Henry Clay Frick?”

On a stronger note, Mr. Standiford successfully captures the Jekyll-and-Hyde duality of Carnegie that makes him the more interesting of the two men. One moment he’s assembling a fortune on the backs of steel workers, the next he’s endowing the nation’s towns with libraries. One moment he’s declaring war on men who work for him, the other he’s working for world peace. One moment he’s crushing workers seeking the right to organize, the next he’s endorsing that right in print.

Carnegie actually had an impact on the author’s own life. As a young man growing up in a blue-collar family in southeastern Ohio (dad worked for Continental Can, mom for Champion Spark Plug), Les Standiford found his way to the Carnegie library in his town. “The staircases were broad and made of marble, the ceilings were high, the walls paneled in wood, and everyone inside moved carefully and spoke softly, the way they did in church. Certainly, the books I read there opened onto grand and boundless vistas.” Young Les went on to college: “I have often described my life as one long, unbroken effort to stay off the assembly line.” In effect, his escape from the factory floor was abetted by Carnegie-and he’s by no means alone.

Mr. Standiford is right to think that the saga of Carnegie and Frick is the perfect story for a novelist to tell, but he’s gone too far in his pursuit of dramatic detail. Newspaper accounts of suspect reliability dot the text. Motives, smiles and grimaces are given freely to the cast of characters, without adequate corroboration. Contradictory versions of events-Berkman’s assassination attempt, for instance-leave the reader bewildered.

The earliest sign of this flaw comes in the first dozen words of the book. “On a late spring day in 1919, so the story goes,” begins Mr. Standiford, who then devotes a whole chapter to what’s probably an apocryphal tale: On his deathbed, Carnegie made an overture to his spurned partner Frick and was met with the classic rebuff: “Tell him I’ll see him in Hell, where we both are going.” The same technique crops up again in different guises: A doubtful anecdote about Carnegie’s childhood is prefaced by an “as the tale goes.”

A tale this good has no need of dubious elaboration.

James McGrath Morris is the author of The Rose Man of Sing Sing: A True Tale of Life, Murder, and Redemption in the Age of Yellow Journalism (Fordham University Press). He is currently at work on a biography of Joseph Pulitzer.