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Originally published on Monday, May 23, 2005 in The Miami Herald

Absorbing business history like a good novel.
FIU's Les Standiford illuminates American industrial history and provides as much drama as an exciting work of fiction.

Meet You in Hell: Andrew Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick, and the Bitter Partnership That Transformed America. Les Standiford. Crown. 336 pages

In a sense, American history is a history of business. Much of the might of this country results from the ascendance of mercantile forces and industrialization. It's important, then, to understand our history, if for no other reason than it's just good business.

Since we're a relatively young country, this shouldn't be too difficult. Yet most of us possess no enthusiasm for history, which is why many so-called historical novels or films are often dressed up as adventures, romances or mysteries. In reality, however, most historical events offer drama as interesting and revealing as any solid work of fiction.

Les Standiford, the head of Florida International University's creative writing program, is a novelist and author of several historical works. His most recent book, Meet You in Hell: Andrew Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick, and the Bitter Partnership That Transformed America, is the story of Pittsburgh (and later New York) industrialists Carnegie and Frick. Partners and sometimes rivals in the steel industry in the late 19th century, the pair are also forever linked by the horrific events surrounding a strike at their Homestead, Pa. steel plant in 1882. Carnegie, the owner of the company, delegated to Frick, his chief executive, the power to manage the industrial dispute as he saw fit.

Frick dispatched 300 Pinkerton detectives to the scene to ''protect'' the plant, resulting in one of the deadliest clashes between labor and management in U.S. history.

Standiford uses this conflict as the centerpiece for his story of the two men and the rise of the American steel industry. Frick is portrayed interestingly, though he still seems to have been a driven, one-dimensional, self-made businessman. Carnegie, another tycoon who ascended from poverty, appeared to have much in common with the younger Frick, and was at least as shrewd and ruthless in his business dealings, if not more so.

But Carnegie also seemed to have more heart. After selling his vast steel holdings to industrialist J.P. Morgan, he became one of the largest charitable benefactors in history, endowing an astonishing number of libraries and academic institutions throughout the country and the world.

Standiford writes: 'And yet Carnegie, for all his largess, remained a troubled man. In 1914, speaking at the anniversary celebration of one of the libraries he had founded in western Pennsylvania, the white-bearded, slightly built benefactor, bearing an odd resemblance to Edmund Gwenn's Santa Claus in Miracle on 34th Street, said, `I'm willing to put this library and institution against any other form of benevolence. . . . And all's well since it is growing better and when I go for a trial for the things done on Earth, I think I'll get a verdict of `not guilty' through my efforts to make the Earth a little better than I found it.'

Beneath Carnegie's seeming self-confidence and optimism, the defensive undertone was clear: speaking scant miles from the site of that bloody Battle of Homestead, where steelworkers still lived in bleak houses and lacked the power to organize in any meaningful way, Carnegie knew full well that many a man in Homestead would dispute his claim that all was well and 'growing better.' ''

All told, Standiford brings the past alive in his illumination of a pivotal chapter of American industrial history. The narrative is as absorbing as that of any good novel -- and as difficult to put down.

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