Reading Note:
Operatic Understatement
4 October 2018

The Robber Barons, by Matthew Josephson, was already an old book — first published in 1934 — when I was in school, and that was one strike against it. Worse, it threatened to be a tedious screed about the rapaciousness of Gilded Age millionaires. I wasn’t exactly sympathetic to Gilded Age millionaires, but I believed that retrospective scoldings were not going to amount to much, unless, in the alternative, they had amounted to a lot, as witness the extinction (so we thought) of Gilded Age millionaires. But as it was a book that everybody was supposed to have read, I kept a copy on hand, in case of need. 

That’s no longer reason enough for a book to take up space in my library. The speculative criterion — “this may come in handy” — has itself been sent to the scaffold. Along with one or two other books, I brought The Robber Barons to my reading chair, and opened it in the middle, with “The Fight For Erie.” Just a few pages in: 

“Buy Erie,” Vanderbilt ordered his brokers. “Buy it at the lowest figure you can, but buy it!” His holdings increased visibly, and knowing nothing of the secret acquisitions of the Erie ring he assumed that the market would soon be bare of offerings. He possessed more shares than were known to exist. Erie’s stock climbed to 95. The shorts, he told himself gloatingly, would be soon trapped as in the famous Harlem corner. But suddenly a wave of crisp, newly printed Erie shares struck Wall Street, 50,000 of them, and smashed the market, so that the price broke to 50 a share, and Vanderbilt in the calamitous process was loser by some millions of dollars to the party headed by Daniel Drew. 

The rage and mortification of the Commodore now passed all bounds. (123)

It isn’t funny, exactly, but it is very tasty. “He possessed more shares than were known to exist” — that’s what I mean by operatic understatement. Then, that “wave of crisp, newly printed Erie shares.” Finally, “rage and mortification,” words plucked from Il Trovatore surely, only actually better, given the circumstances, in English. I sense the acute penmanship of W S Gilbert on every page.

I chose the extract for brevity; most of the book’s delights would require rather more copying. There’s a wonderfully ironic bit on the “probity” of the young Pierpont Morgan that runs from page 59 to 60. You have to read every word, and there are plenty of them, but what might have been dull outrage is too well-seasoned by giggles and snorts. 

Eventually, of course, I had to go back and start at the beginning, to find out what “the Harlem corner” was. (I had been under the impression that trying to corner the market in something never works. Not so!) Now, the point of opening The Robber Barons was simply to determine if the writing was any good. If it was, I was supposed to put the book down and look at the next one. But no, here I am reading the whole thing as if I had nothing else to do. 

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