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The middle to the end of the book explores some very important themes, where there are irreconcilable problems with some of Edison's later inventions and the marketability of the resulting products. Like the ore-smashing enterprise in New Jersey, which worked, but not at a market profit. Same thing with the goldenrod-into-rubber operation in Florida.
These then become background for some surprisingly sensitive observations on Edison, made by his friends John Burroughs and Henry Ford. Ford is too sentimental to shut down the funding of the hopeless goldenrod operation; and Burroughs gently points out how Edison in his later years at least, contradicted his personal core-beliefs about sleeping and eating food (He sleeps till 10 am, "bolts half a pie," dumps tons of sugar in his coffee, then lectures on how Americans should eat less and sleep less).
The disconnect which also developed between Edison and his children is developed against the backdrop of Edison's inability to relate to the scale and demands of the electric power industry which he helped create. At his core, as the author shows, Edison's ability to do things was not necessarily transferable to others, including his children. The first batch of kids went kind of bad, and the group from marriage #2 turned out better because wife #2 was more strict and traditional than Edison.
Harvard Business Review recently had an article on great leaders, and pointed out that for every narcissistic leader, you need about 100 obsessive-compulsives scurrying around to make things really work. Each type needs the other to get anything done. This seems to have been the case with Edison, who in addition to being headstrong and creative, had the essential gifts described by Henry Ford as necessary to get anything done: also have "the soul of an Irish construction foreman and a Jewish broker." Or something like that.
The book is very readable, and goes into just enough depth about his personal life (of which he had very little) and his public and professional lives. The only negative is that because it was written in the early 1950's, it is missing a perspective that could be added by 50 more years of luxuriating in the lifestyle which Edison has made possible.
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Reading the book today, the reader will discover that many of Josephson's observations - such as his favorable comments on the then contemporary economic programs of Stalinist Russia - are risible in hindsight. But he does provide a broad overview of the major players and thoroughly chronicles the great evils attributed to them and their practices - at least from the perspective of a 1930s socialist.
In short, this book, if it must be read at all, should be read to gain insight into the early twentieth century liberal bias toward capitalism and its embrace of a socialist future, rather than a legitimate economic history of the United States in the post bellum period, which it most definitely is not.
By going the second route, this book provides not only a historical account of the robber barons, but a pretty clear picture of the Marxist perspective on them in 1934.
It's interesting at times to watch Josephson struggle for balance. On the one hand, he seems to almost admire the big capitalists when they're creating collectives by crushing the little capitalists. On the other hand, when they start tromping on the workers, they're clearly Very Naughty. And he addresses the rampant religious fervor of most of the barons, but never really figures out how to make it fit the picture other than by suggesting they're just enormously hypocritical.
The story of railroad, steel and banking essentially taking over the country is here, nicely organized so that we can follow relevant threads without getting to caught up in chronology. Josephson sometimes lets his billowing prose and sweeping characterizations overwhelm detail and fact; his style is definitely not for all tastes.
Ultimately it's a double history, not only of the Robber Barons themselves, but of the singular vantage point of the mid-thirties. Yes, Josephson is not the most objective of chroniclers, but his bias is so clearly stated and in evidence that it is easy to filter out, and his point of view becomes an interesting subject of this study in its own right.
This book has a certain bias against the Barons and the laissez-faire system that created them, but it is not overwhelming. Keep in mind that it was written in the depths of the Great Depression, when many people questioned their faith in the free market system. While the author describes their many great accomplishments, he also spends plenty of time on their weaknesses and excesses, especially in the latter chapters. But remember, even the most admirable Barons also bribed politicians, abused their workers, and cheated ordinary investors by manipulating their own stock. Many of their actions would be illegal today.
This book contains a lot of detail (though if you are like me, you will soon be wanting more). It is not a light book for a lazy Sunday afternoon. But if you are really interested, this is the place to start.
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Incidentally, I would call Josephson neither a "Marxist" nor an "Opportunist," as did a previous reviewer. The book never advocated socialist revolution or indeed any policy alternative, and therefore seems not particularly Marxist. Anyway, if Josephson harbored doubts about capitalism, he was hardly alone in his generation. Many Americans of his time shared such doubts, as seems understandable under the circumstances--the book was written during the 1930s, in the midst of one of the worst economic crises in world history, and before Keynes refuted a fear widely held amongst prominent economists that capitalism would inexorably produce more and more depressions as time went on.
He also seems not particularly "Opportunist"; rather, he was a serious historian, who wrote a number of other historical works that were widely revered in his time and since (one of which, "The Politicos," is every bit a classic of American history, as is "The Robber Barrons"). I'm not sure where the "Opportunism" comes in.
A word of caution is that the book is written in a somewhat archaic style that to modern eyes might seem ostentatious and sometimes melodramatic, and might at times seem a tedious read. Still, if you want a good introduction to a classic account of this important phase of American history, the Robber Barons is an excellent resource.
It's treatment of politicians as more villainous than the worst of the "Robber Barons" is entirely believable. Josephson worked hard to recount a coherent tale of industrial struggle.
The book helped popularize the phrase "Robber Barons" But in today's treatment of "monopolies" such as Microsoft and Intel and ATandT, it's informative to see what a REAL trust was. The trust may be put in negative light in this book, but study of America's incredible progress in this era, above all other countries in the world at this time, teaches us that trusts really don't hinder progress at all-- they actually result from the most intense of all competition and can only last until it is superceded by new technology-- just as AtandT would have met eventual ruinous competition from wireless, cable, and internet companies had the gov't not screwed the American people by breaking it into 7 regional "GOVERNMENT-AUTHORIZED MOnopolies". No need for gov't interference in business-- period! Only when gov't gets its hands dirty in business is the monopoly harmful. See today's railroads (which are now getting their asses kicked by the trucking industry which is also gov't subsidized via gov't built and maintained roads) for details.
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