Review

Morgan: American Financier

by Jean Strouse

Writing the biography of a historical figure such as J.P.
Morgan would appear to be a daunting proposition. Morgan was born
before the U.S. Civil War and died shortly before World War I.
Though Morgan is a historical figure, he is not a household name
like Abraham Lincoln or Benjamin Franklin.
General knowledge of Morgan is limited to the fact that he was
wealthy; those who have attempted biographies of him in the past
appear to have been motivated less by a desire to present an
accurate picture of the man than to grind a socialist ax against a
capitalist stone. Morgan's name and reputation have acquired
something of an uneasy, though vague, connotation of
unscrupulousness. This unfair and inaccurate picture is happily
remedied with the publication of MORGAN, by Jean Strouse, which
will no doubt be regarded as the definitive account of the life and
times of J. Pierpont Morgan.
It
must be noted at the outset that Ms. Strouse did not content
herself with going back a generation or two, reading previous
studies and opinions of Morgan, and calling it "research." Instead,
she prepared her biography the old-fashioned way: she sought out
resources contemporaneous with the subject. Ms. Strouse, who spent
over 10 years studying the subject material for MORGAN, was
afforded access to the Morgan family papers as well as to the
Pierpont Morgan library. The result is an exhaustive, thorough, and
--- most importantly --- evenhanded account of the life and times
of a man who made an indelible impression on our economic
system.
J.
Pierpont Morgan was born in April 1837. At that time, travel was
accomplished by wagon or by ship. Correspondence was affected by
these modes of transportation. Pierpont Morgan, by the time of his
death in 1913, had witnessed the laying of the transatlantic cable,
reducing the international transmission of messages to hours,
rather than weeks; the creation of less expensive manufacturing of
steel; the implementation of a network of railroads, thus
drastically reducing travel time across the United States; and the
inventions of the telephone, electric light, and the telephone.
What is not generally known is that he helped finance all of these
developments. For Morgan combined a brilliant education,
intelligence, and financial acumen with a foresight which benefited
him, as well as future generations.
It
is to Ms. Strouse's credit that Morgan's positive aspects shine
through. Those who have previously attempted to chronicle the 19th
and early 20th Century have focused entirely on Morgan's wealth,
and ascribed him with an evil character on that basis alone. These
historians have not been above misdirection or, indeed, out-and-out
falsehood in attempting to twist the facts to fit their
conclusions. Ms. Strouse certainly does not shy away from Morgan's
flaws and weaknesses. She is just as forthright, however, in
presenting the positive side of this man; a presentation sadly
missing from previous narratives concerning the man and his
era.
And
make no mistake, Ms. Strouse's narrative makes Morgan and his era
come alive. The reader is presented with almost overwhelming
details concerning Morgan, his family, and their acquaintances,
with respect to their travels, meals, education, relations, and
transactions. Such details would be tedious in the hands of a
lesser writer. What Ms. Strouse gives to her readers, however, is a
snapshot of a time when incredible fortunes were made, unimaginable
advances in technology were achieved, and civilization, at times,
seemed to be on the brink of chaos --- in other words, a time very
much like our own.
One
is tempted, after reading MORGAN, to call it a classic of
historical study. While such a statement would be accurate, it
would also be faint praise. For MORGAN is a classic of scholarship,
of style, and of objectivity in its treatment of the subject
matter. With MORGAN, Ms. Strouse has done nothing less than set a
standard by which future works will, and should, be
judged.

Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on January 22, 2011

Morgan: American Financier
by Jean Strouse

  • Publication Date: April 1, 2000
  • Genres: Biography, Nonfiction
  • Paperback: 848 pages
  • Publisher: Harper Perennial
  • ISBN-10: 0060955899
  • ISBN-13: 9780060955892