The Book Club

What Made Morgan Morgan?


Like you, I’m not a biographer, and I have no desire to be one. More than that, I don’t even really like biographies that much. I’m not sure why. Perhaps because they seem to be full of padding. A long profile by Gay Talese or Nick Tosches gets a person down on paper as well as anything ever could. I don’t need the extra 400 pages. (My favorite biography ever is William Nack’s book about Secretariat, which Da Capo Press has reissued under the title Secretariat: The Making of a Champion. But Secretariat was only 4 years old when it came out, so there wasn’t much room for padding.)

Still, I do think Strouse’s Morgan is a great book. The padding, so to speak, is in the right places (with the exception again of the deadly catalogs of acquisitions). But I honestly can’t see that it was worth 15 years. Of course, I don’t know exactly what that means. Who’s to say how anyone should spend her life? If Strouse enjoyed herself during those 15 years, then far be it from me to begrudge her her enjoyment. And yes, she could have been doing good deeds? instead, but so could we all.

In a way, then, what I find troubling about the 15 years isn’t so much that Strouse happily spent that much time in someone else’s life. (That’s perplexing, but no more perplexing than someone’s spending 15 years writing a single novel or doing nothing but writing code for a software company.) Instead, it’s that I’m not sure any book really requires that kind of investment. I understand how endless archival research can be, and Strouse has done a superb job here of bringing out new material, and of integrating already familiar stories into what amounts to a new narrative of Morgan’s life. But, like you, I can’t help wondering what Strouse could possibly have been doing all this time. And I can’t help wondering whether she couldn’t have written a pretty terrific book after, say, five years. Maybe we need a cutoff date for biographers. If you can’t say something interesting in half a decade, then it’s probably not worth saying. Move on.

Strouse does say in her introduction that she got halfway through a draft of the book before scrapping it because it leaned too heavily on the “robber baron” literature about Morgan. So, we are talking about a book that has been essentially rewritten from the ground up. (This- raised a different question in my mind: “If Strouse was originally planning just to retell the story of Morgan that we all knew, why bother?”)

In the end it doesn’t really annoy me that Strouse spent 15 years on this book. I just don’t want to hear the Random House publicity staff trumpeting it as some great accomplishment, instead of the genuinely melancholy fact that it is. The Random House catalog says of the book, “After more than a decade’s research in previously unexamined archives, Jean Strouse has returned with a landmark biography,” as if she’d been wandering around Antarctica or something. But think of how much more impressive it would be if that sentence read, “After three months, Jean Strouse has returned with a landmark biography.” Now that would have been a real feat.

Strouse has written a dazzling book, and you’re right that as it progresses, Morgan emerges as what we’d have to call a more rounded character. Your point about Morgan’s blue moods and his sense of restlessness defining that sense of roundedness is an excellent one. But, as I said yesterday, if you were struck by the utter conventionality of his youthful working self, I was struck by the utter conventionality of his romantic and Romantic self. The truth is that I think I prefer the “character, duty, honor” Morgan to the “My heart is overflowing with love” Morgan, because I feel like I know tons of people who are like the Romantic and restless Morgan, and almost no one for whom character and duty, especially in a familial context, really resonate as virtues. I don’t mean this in a Bill Bennett way. What I liked about Morgan’s sense of responsibility to The Family and, for that matter, to the economy, was that it represented a recognition that there were things that were more important than his own desires, his own feelings. His romantic life, by contrast, seemed only about himself. But then I guess it’s difficult actually to live with a stiff upper lip all the time.

Yesterday, you wrote, “For me, the challenge was to identify that spark of genius in the young Morgan, that one quality that made Morgan special, and I’m not sure I ever found it.” I want to take that comment, which really resonated with me, in a slightly different direction from the one in which you took it. As we’ve been talking, and as I’ve been thinking about Strouse’s book, I’ve realized that even now I don’t know exactly what it was that Morgan did that made him so exceptional, at least when it came to business (as opposed to finance). I mean, I can see how his interventions into the foreign-exchange and gold markets helped keep U.S. markets afloat, and I can see the genius it took to put those markets back together after they fell apart. But when it comes to Morgan’s relationship to the actual growth of the U.S. economy, which is to say to the businesses that drove it forward, I’d be hard-pressed to describe what it was that made him special.

Andrew Carnegie pioneered technological improvements that revolutionized the steel industry. John D. Rockefeller introduced vertical integration and transformed oil refining. Henry Ford had the assembly line and mass production. Alfred Sloan taught Americans to think of cars as consumer goods, and revolutionized the internal structure of U.S. corporations. Harold Geneen created the modern-day conglomerate. Michael Milken rediscovered the junk bond. Henry Kravis took the LBO to new heights. And so on. But what did Morgan do?