Bring back Gustavus Meyers.
When LI was a young and impressionable pup, he read an abridged version of Gustavus Myers “History of the Great American Fortunes.” It was, we believe, the Modern Library version. The book made a great impression on LI. It is always a great moment when a man finds words spelling out his obscure resentments -- it always leads to religious conversion or politics. For LI, it lead to politics. And here we are today!
This has all come back to us since finding a Myers devotee on the web – one who has actually put up whole books of Myers, such as his history of Tammany Hall. As well as the beloved, muckraking “American Fortunes.”
Gustavus Meyers was a rather unique combination of historian and muckraker. A brief bio exists his website. His great period was coincident with the great muckraking period – 1900-1917. His preferred rhetorical approach was the diatribe. Here’s a typical Meyers graf. He begins his history of Great American Fortunes with the first great American millionaire, John Jacob Astor. Astor made his money, originally, in the fur trade. Meyers provides a scoriating account of the way Astor’s company pursued the beaver pelt and the Indian in his first chapter. His second chapter begins:
“While at the outposts, and in the depths, of the Western wilderness an armed host was working and cheating for Astor, and, in turn, being cheated by their employer ; while, for Astor’s gain, they were violating all laws, debauching, demoralizing and beggaring entire tribes of Indians, slaying and often being themselves slain in retaliation, what was the beneficiary of this orgy of crime and bloodshed doing in New York ?”
Unfortunately, nobody writes like Myers any more. Nicholas Hoffman used to, but Hoffman is generally a clumsy butcher. There are times that his whacking is inspired, but compared to Myers it is as weak as is an apprentice homicide’s weekend in contrast with a night of Jack the Ripper's.
Myers was incensed that wealth had bent the American democracy to fit its oligarchic ends, and he trumpeted that belief from one end of his work to the other. He would find our current predicament, with a weak minded pawn of the malefactors of great wealth leading our country into a fiscal debauch from which the middle class is only going to escape by the skin of its teeth, grimly amusing – didn’t he tell us? Over and over again, he told us. Here is an observation about Astor’s contempt for the law that is quite contemporary:
As applied to the business and landowning class, law was notoriously a flexible, convenient, and highly adaptable function. By either the tacit permission or connivance of Government, this class was virtually, in most instances, its own law-regulator. It could consistently, and without being seriously interfered with, violate such laws as suited its interests, while calling for the enactment or enforcement of other laws which favored its designs and enhanced its profits. We see Astor ruthlessly brushing aside, like so many annoying encumbrances, even those very laws which were commonly held indispensable to a modicum of fair treatment of the Indians and to the preservation of human life. These laws happened to conflict with the amassing of profits ; and always in a civilization ruled by the trading class, laws which do this are either unceremoniously trampled upon, evaded or repealed.
For confirmation of which sentiments, go to the Biz section of today’s Times – any day’s Times since we’ve been keeping this website. Let’s see: for today, we have Martha Stewart. We have the bilking of Shell’s investors by the management. We have labor’s doldrums, which are partly the result of the labor gerontocracy’s refusal to confront the government on the laws designed to suppress unions. And we have the Tyco case, with its million dollar birthday party for Tyco’s ex-CEO.
Vernon Lewis Parrington’s Currents of American Thought has a nice little essay on the Muckrakers and Liberalism, which has been put on-line here.