MONEY AND MORALS IN AMERICA by Patricia O’Toole

MONEY AND MORALS IN AMERICA

A History
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KIRKUS REVIEW

A light look at a heavy subject, the conflicting imperatives of wealth and commonwealth. One of the surest routes to prosperity in a market society is to fleece your neighbor. Effectively exploiting those around you while retaining a claim to high moral standards, however, can be challenging: Accumulating wealth usually requires relentless attention to self-interest, while moral behavior usually requires concern for others. In this walk through American history, O’Toole (The Five of Hearts, 1990) discovers that Americans have seemingly always wanted to have it both ways, to enrich themselves and feel good about it, too. To illustrate the unresolvable nature of this tension she presents a series of vignettes highlighting selected individuals and movements, and unveiling a wide range of perspectives on money and morals. Naturally, the Puritans lead the way with a peculiar obsession with wealth that left them “trembling on the edge of a blade,” torn between accumulating it as a sign of God’s blessing and fearing it as a path to the sin of pride. The 12 stories that follow range from the familiar fare of mainstream history (e.g., Ben Franklin, Emerson and Thoreau, slavery, Andrew Carnegie, and Henry Ford) to less-well-known and often intriguing efforts to merge capitalism and morality (e.g., the origins of Georgia, the textile mills of Lowell, Mass., the Agrarian challenge to big business, Henry J. Kaiser, Whitney Young, William C. Norris, and the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility). Throughout, the prose provides a lively counterpoint to the heavy subject matter, elevating what could have been a moralistic tome to the level of a genuinely enjoyable read. The lack of a real conclusion is disappointing, but this is a historical volume in which the story is to be continued. This book succeeds because O’Toole is serious about morality without being preachy and accepts the appeal of wealth without worshiping mammon while addressing a subject where Americans often do both.

Pub Date: May 13th, 1998
ISBN: 0-517-58693-2
Page count: 432pp
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1st, 1998




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