This is far from Frederick Lewis Allen’s best books. “Only Yesterday,” his social history of the 1920s was his best and “Since Yesterday,” his history of the 1930s and “The Big Change,” his social history of the first half of the 20th Century come pretty close. Nevertheless if readers want to get a real flavor of the big business and high finance milieu in America from 1900-1930, “The Lords of Creation” does a credible, if biased, job. You see the House of Morgan, the other New York bankers, the railroad magnates and the new Wall Street men of the 1920s in full flower. They were “the 1%” of that era. He vividly illustrates the stock manipulation that was almost taken for granted and the way commercial banking was integrated with investment banking though affiliated organizations. Those abuses led to the Securities Acts of 1933 and 1934 and the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933.
Remember Allen wrote his book from the vantage point of 1935. In the popular imagination big business and big finance were the leading players in causing the depression the nation was then experiencing. To him and President Roosevelt the causes of the depression were domestic in origin. We have since learned as President Hoover thought at the time, that the depression had its origins in the dislocations caused by World War I and the transmission of deflation through the workings of the gold standard.
My criticism of the book is that Allen only pays lip service to the very real improvements in the living standard of the average American from 1900-1929. Unlike today real wages were consistently rising and we saw in the 1920s the glimmers of the kind of prosperity that occurred in the 1950s.
One last point, I would avoid the very snarky introduction to this edition written by New York Times columnist Gretchen Morgenson.
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