Morgan: American Financier

By Jean Strouse

Last year’s biography of John D. Rockefeller, Sr. (Titan, by Ron Chernow) took the life of a thoroughly uninteresting man and transformed it into a first-rate story of American business. In Morgan: American Financier, Jean Strouse tries the same trick with banking magnate J. P. Morgan. This time it doesn’t work.

Rockefeller and Morgan had a lot in common. Both were members of a triumphant generation in American capitalism that rose to power during the post-Civil War economic explosion known by historians as the “Great Barbeque.” Corporate power was being concentrated through the new industrial economies of scale and the use of “trusts” to bring competing companies under common control. Before the present digital revolution began spawning new billionaires every week, it was the easiest time in American history to get grotesquely rich.

But despite titles like the Napoleon of Wall Street and King of America, Morgan was low-rent by the standards of his gilded neighbourhood. When he died he left a personal estate valued at a mere $80 million (roughly $1.2 billion in today’s dollars). “And to think he wasn’t even a rich man,” Rockefeller remarked.

Rockefeller, who was never anything more than an ascetic accountant, still made a better subject for the biographer. Though she tries very hard, Strouse is unable to make a convincing case for Morgan being a man worth knowing more about.

Part of the problem lies in Morgan’s own discomfort with language. When he did put his thoughts into words (which wasn’t often), what usually came out was a pockmarked, inexpressive jumble. As a result, Strouse frequently has to speculate about Morgan’s opinions on the important events in his life, what he thought of various works of art, and how he felt toward those closest to him. Her tendency, which I would challenge, is to assume the most. While still waters may run deep, Morgan’s reticence probably indicated indifference as often as profundity.

Morgan was not a bad man, nor the ogre of capitalism so frequently caricatured in the press. In some ways he performed a valuable public service, becoming the “unofficial chancellor of the American exchequer” at a time when the U. S. had no federal reserve. The question that remains, however, is “Why?”

Never as driven as the industrial tycoons of his generation, his business was one he would have gladly retired from while still a young man. Nor did he invoke a higher power (or purpose) to explain his life’s work. For all of his support of various churches (a formal obligation, again so unlike Rockefeller), I was unable to determine whether or not he really believed in God.

In his later years he became a great collector of mistresses he did not love, art he did not look at, and books he did not read. What we find interesting in others are their interests. After 700 pages I still don’t know what Morgan’s were.

J. P. Morgan was a dull man and this is a dull biography. The narrative never finds its stride, while the financial deals and crises which make up so much of Morgan’s story are not explained as clearly as they might have been. Like most modern biographers, Strouse goes into far too much detail without providing a corresponding level of insight.

Like Morgan himself, the whole is too much, and not enough.

Review first published May 29, 1999.


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