THE GREAT GAME by John Steele Gordon


The Emergence of Wall Street as a World Power, 1653-2000
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This sparkling account (the basis for a forthcoming CNBC TV special) finds in Wall Street a remarkable microcosm for American invention, eccentricity, and double-dealing. Compressing centuries of economic arcana and dozens of complicated characters into a concise history is no easy task. But Gordon (Hamilton’s Blessing, 1997, not reviewed), an American Heritage business-history columnist and a commentator for PRI’s —Marketplace,— manages to make it all go down smoothly. He shows how from the time of its original Dutch builders, Wall Street assumed a cosmopolitan, commercial character. Opposing this tendency was the Jeffersonian suspicion of any central banking system, leading America’s financial markets to rely for their smooth functioning not on the government but on the sense and good will of individual companies. Although this lack of interference permitted the rise of such financial geniuses as —Commodore— Vanderbilt, J.P. Morgan, and Charles Merrill, it also gave free rein to Wall Street’s classic rogues, including Ivan Boesky, Richard Whitney, Jay Gould, and Jim Fisk. (The last two pulled off what Gordon, with ironic grandeur, describes as —the greatest single act of financial derring-do in the history of the Street.—) Gordon discloses how Wall Street was responsible for many major institutions taken for granted in American life, including modern accounting, fast food, and zoning laws. When he’s not serving up delicious trivia, Gordon expertly analyzes the trends that spurred Wall Street and consolidated its power. Especially important was technology: the Erie Canal, which sparked business for its brokers; the telegraph, which solidified New York City’s place as the nation’s financial capital; and computers, which resulted in globalization and the integration of the world’s financial markets in the last few decades. Refreshingly free of ideological cant, Gordon happily chastises the excesses of both government micromanagement (leading, for example, to robber barons— bribery of state legislatures) and free-market capitalism (the adored, still unprofitable American business history depicted with infectious delight. (16 pages b&w photos)

Pub Date: Nov. 16th, 1999
ISBN: 0-684-83287-9
Page count: 352pp
Publisher: Scribner
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1st, 1999


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