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Two American Lives

“Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might.”

—Ecclesiastes 9:10

The Gilded Age still exerts a strange pull on the American imagination.  It was a time of larger-than-life people and larger-than-life business entities.  It featured conspicuous consumption—including palatial mansions, yachts, international travel, and international scandal—that seems almost to exceed anything we have today.  Today’s celebrity businessmen—Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, Robert Rubin—simply can’t hold a candle to John D. Rockefeller, Jay Gould, Andrew Carnegie, and Andrew Mellon.

These biographies of Carnegie and Mellon are massive.  Nasaw’s runs to 800 pages of text; Cannadine’s, to 620—big books about big men.  Carnegie and Mellon had some things in common, both being of that Scotch-Irish stock that was so important in furnishing the leaders of the American Revolution, and of 18th- and 19th-century America generally.  They were quintessential American WASPs, yet their personalities and personal histories were very different.

Andrew Carnegie immigrated to this country at the age of 13, after his father failed to make a living as a weaver in Ireland.  He lived most of his life with his mother, marrying very late, and, from his teen years, threw himself...

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