THE LIFE AND LEGEND OF E.H. HARRIMAN, by Maury Klein, The University of North Carolina Press, 521 pages, $34.95.
EACH generation redefines its heroes. The thieves and reprobates of one generation become the moral polestars of the next. Today our evaluation of the “robber barons” of the late-eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries is being recycled into an image more compatible with our New Economy. What writers Ron Chernow and Jean Strousse did for John D. Rockefeller and J.P. Morgan, Maury Klein has now done for another besmirched titan, railroad magnate E.H. Harriman. Klein, like his colleagues, gives us a fuller, more historically based understanding of his subject. While cognizant of Harriman’s failures and excesses, Klein describes his leadership, bold vision, and ability to execute plans as innovative business strategies. The Life & Legend of E.H. Harriman is a well-written, highly readable, noteworthy contribution both as a biography of the individual and an analysis of the restructuring of railroads. It is a commendable effort to understand a man who drove himself to the heights of his chosen profession and put him within the complicated business history of his times.
According to Klein, Harriman rose during a period when the changing nature of the American economy called for a new breed of bold businessmen. Competition was seen as wasteful and inefficient. By using modern methods of organization and management, Harriman brought order to a massive railroad system in chaos. He bought small and large railroads, moved mountains and rivers to make the routes more efficient, upgraded trains and tracks in an effort to stabilize prices, made train transportation safe and reliable, and earned a tidy profit for himself and his stockholders. Klein gives depth and breadth to Harriman by describing his faithful devotion to family and his active interest in other areas, including an Alaskan scientific expedition.
Obviously well researched, this book gives us an intimate understanding of a complex man and should remain a standard biography for generations.
JOSEPH SWEET is a freelance writer living with his family in Kingston, Rhode Island.
Talking with Maury Klein