“Lords of capital” in “a savage and gaudy age”
First, some brief background information about Stewart Hall Holbrook (1893-1964). Throughout his adult years, he was at first a lumberjack and then a writer, journalist, and (his descriptive) “lowbrow historian.” The Age of the Moguls (1953) is probably his best-known work but it should be noted that, for more than thirty years, he wrote for The Oregonian, the oldest continuously published daily newspaper in the western United States (founded in 1850) and also authored or co-authored dozens of other books whose titles correctly indicate the scope and variety of his interests. For example, Little Annie Oakley & Other Rugged People (1948), Wild Bill Hickok Tames the West (1952) with Ernest Richardson, Davey Crockett (1955), Wyatt Earp: U.S. Marshall (1956), The Golden Age of Quackery (1959), The Golden Age of Railroads (1960), and Wildmen, Wobblies & Whistle Punks: Stewart Holbrook’s Lowbrow Northwest (1992), an anthology. Holbrook’s style of writing is as lively as his selection of subjects but it would be a mistake to question the authenticity of his historical material. One source (whose name I do not recall) has correctly described him as a “feisty David McCullough.”
In The Age of Moguls, Holbrook examines a number of “lords of capital” who, in his words, “made `deals,’ purchased immunity, and did other things which in 1860, or 1880, or even 1900, were considered no more than `smart’ by their fellow Americans, but which today would give pause to the most conscientiously dishonest promoter….They were a motley crew, yet taken together they fashioned a savage and gaudy age as distinctively purple as that of imperial Rome, and infinitely more entertaining.” The group Holbrook considers is divided into three categories: promoters, bankers, and industrialists, with merchants in the latter group. They include Jim Fisk, Jay Gould, Charlie Gates, Thomas William Lawson, Henry H. Rogers, Henry Morrison Flagler, and Samuel Insull; Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., Cyrus McCormick, Philip D. Armour, Henry Clay Frick, Henry Ford, and the Du Ponts; also the Guggenheims, Andrew W. Mellon, James J. Hill, Edward Henry Harriman, Henry Villard, the first two Vanderbilts, and the Astors. Some of these names remain familiar in our own time; others do not. All were “tough-minded fellows, who fought their way encased in rhinoceros hides and filled the air with their mad bellowings and the cries of the wounded.” A colorful lot indeed.
There are several reasons why I hold this book in such high regard. First, until reading it, I knew very little about the social and economic significance of what Holbrook characterizes as a “savage and gaudy age.” As he explains so well, it was certainly both but the moguls he examines, together, established a bedrock of capitalism that remains intact to this day even as new laws and regulatory enforcement of them seem to ensure that, although Holbrook is not overly concerned with comparative business ethics then and now, were they alive today, “almost every man in this book would face a good hundred years in prison.”
I admire this book, also, because Holbrook succeeds so well in bringing the moguls to life in ways and to any extent I did not anticipate. Some are much more colorful than others, of course, but Holbrook anchors each in a human context, warts and all.
Finally, I admire this book because it enables me and other readers to draw comparisons and (especially) contrasts between the current business world and the one that evolved throughout much of the 19th century. Those who receive most of Holbrook’s attention have been variously described (then and now) as “giants and titans, and more often as rogues, robbers, and rascals” but Holbrook has convinced me that these and other adjectives (both positive and negative) accurately characterize most of them. For better or worse, all were “larger than life.”