23/12/2017 8:43 PM IST | Updated 23/12/2017 10:46 PM IST

God Bless Us, Every Robber Baron

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Gather round, friends, and savor a holiday fable for our bitter age. As in the Charles Dickens classic A Christmas Carol, the villain of this story is money. It features its own Ebenezer Scrooge and ghosts of moral compunction. But the ending of our tale has been adjusted: Money prevails and Scrooge dies miserable and rich, but not before buying off his ghosts and fashioning them into a museum exhibit.

That’s where I’m standing, in the annual Yuletide display of John Pierpont Morgan’s collection of Dickensia at the Morgan Library, the Madison Avenue monument to the excesses and undeniable good taste of the man who invented American banking as we know it. Specifically, I am standing in front of the original handwritten manuscript of A Christmas Carol, purchased by Morgan sometime in the 1890s, as his economic and political power approached its zenith. It is the crown jewel of the production, bound in handsome red Morocco leather, presented alongside personal correspondence, illustrations and other minor treasures from Dickens’ improbable life.

In prior years, the irony would have been outrageous, but in this moment, the Dickens exhibit is merely appropriate. As Congress approves a tax bill of blatant financial despotism ― showering fresh riches on billionaires, senators and the president himself ― one of the most beloved expressions of Christian egalitarianism rests under soft illumination, the hunting trophy of a dead financier.   

When Dickens sat down to write A Christmas Carol in October 1843, he was frightened and broke. This would have surprised most Victorians, who knew him as the most popular English writer since Shakespeare and one of the few living men recognizable on multiple continents. But the weak sales of his most recent novels had put severe strain on his resources and amplified some of his deepest anxieties.

When he was 12, Dickens’ respectable middle-class family had been overwhelmed by debt. His father was sentenced to debtors’ prison, and young Charles was dispatched to work at a shoe polish factory to help the family buy back their freedom. The “rotten floors and staircase” he described to his first biographer, John Forster, “and the old grey rats swarming down in the cellars” stayed with him. They eventually made an appearance in his hit second novel, Oliver Twist, and stamped on its author a profound sense of social fragility. For Dickens, financial success and the public esteem that accompanied it were not anchored to character or ability. They were insecure blessings, easily erased.

Oliver Twist was now four years in the past. In the meantime, like his father before him, Dickens had been siring more children than he could afford. He and his wife, Catherine, moved into a bigger house to accommodate their growing family even as sales of his novels, serialized in popular magazines, had collapsed to one-fifth of their 1841 peak.

A Christmas Carol was a wild attempt to reverse these sagging fortunes. Instead of turning the work over to the magazines, Dickens would publish it himself as a hardbound book released a week before Christmas to capitalize on the holiday market. Though a sensible sales gimmick today, this was an act of lunatic delusion in 1843, when the market for bound books was small, and the market for Christmas did not exist.

Christmas, in Dickens’ time, was going through an identity crisis. Considered a minor theological event for most of Christian history, Dec. 25 had always been entangled with various non-Christian celebrations of the winter solstice ― holly, mistletoe and ivy are all holdovers from different European tribal festivities, along with Yule logs and Christmas trees. This was particularly troubling to the severe theologies popular among the British. In the 17th century, Oliver Cromwell and his Puritan government put an end to all dangerous compromises with paganism by banning the holiday outright. Caroling became a crime.

Print Collector via Getty Images
Illustration by John Leech of Scrooge being visited by the ghost of his late business partner, Marley.

The Puritans eventually lost their war on Christmas, but upstanding English families were still negotiating the appropriate limits of joviality under Queen Victoria. She was understood to be Christmas-curious ― her German husband, Albert, was adamant about his tannenbaum ― but most households settled for the rough equivalent of a bank holiday in December, with an evening of ghost stories around the fire thrown in for family entertainment.

Still, Dickens had to do something about his depleted bank account. After blitzing through the manuscript in just six weeks, he was overdrawn, and he wrote to his lawyer Thomas Mitton to beg for a £200 loan ― enough to get him through until the book sales paid out.

All of this spiritual and financial turmoil found an outlet in A Christmas Carol. Combining pagan supernaturalia with Christian themes as subtle as a sledgehammer, Dickens presented a parable of what would soon be known as the social gospel ― a celebration of the working family, of the triumph of love over greed and the promise that everyone, even the most miserable miser, can be redeemed by helping the poor.

People loved it. A Christmas Carol quickly sold out of its initial run of 6,000 copies. A pirated edition appeared ― a sure sign of a hit ― as additional printings were ordered up. It was soon adapted for the stage, and has continued to serve as source material for television, film, ballet and opera ever since. But its cultural influence proved more than literary. Dickens did not, as the latest film adaptation of his slim book (based on an amiable biography by Les Standiford) claims, invent Christmas. He was, however, instrumental in establishing the holiday as a festive season, according to another Dickens biographer, Peter Ackroyd. So long as everyone maintained a Christian spirit ― love of family, care for the poor and a healthy skepticism of financial capital ― pagan frivolities were fair game. All of the childhood wonder that has emerged since ― Frosty, Rudolph, the Grinch, even Santa’s red and white suit ― owe a small debt to Dickens.

The great criminal of A Christmas Carol is not Ebenezer Scrooge, who opens the story as an abusive boss, denouncing the moral fiber of the poor as he shuns his own family. Scrooge eventually corrects his moral errors. The real poison is money itself, which corrupts his innocent soul and tricks him into purging joy from his life in a hopeless quest to insulate himself from sorrow. Dickens offered a retelling of the legend of King Midas, the tragic mythological figure whose life was ruined when everything he touched began turning to gold.

It would eventually fall into the hands of a Gilded Age colossus.

Nobody who knew Pierpont Morgan doubted his religious zeal. He collected medieval holy books, made an emotional pilgrimage to Jerusalem and claimed to have seen the exact spot along the Nile River where the infant Moses had been rescued from the reeds. So as his fortune swelled during the second half of the 19th century, the greatest of American financiers devoted some of his wealth to a higher purpose. He bought a church.

At Saint George’s in Manhattan, Morgan paid for social services, financed the construction of new buildings and even picked the rector, Rev. William Rainsford. But ownership and management soon came into conflict when Rainsford sought to “democratize” the vestry ― the governing body of the burgeoning institution ― which the new preacher believed to be an unacceptably narrow, wealthy slice of the parish. Morgan was appalled: “I do not want the vestry democratized. I want it to remain a body of gentlemen whom I can ask to meet me in my study.”

It was not that Morgan despised the working and middle classes ― though he did loathe the nouveau riche who had dared to migrate from among them into his own lofty station. “He was never a champion of social justice or equality,” as biographer Ron Chernow wrote in his titanic history The House of Morgan. But the money magnate still paid for his rector’s various endeavors to feed and educate the poor.

Morgan instead enjoyed a sense of superiority over the masses. He had an unshakeable belief that he and his fellow princes of capital knew what was best not only for the ordering of corporations, but for the way his fellow citizens should live their lives. He provided financial support to Anthony Comstock’s censorship campaigns, which burned books and championed the covering of nude statues. When the Metropolitan Opera’s performance of the Richard Strauss libretto ”Salome” offended his puritanical sensibilities, Morgan personally intervened to cancel the production. He was an active member of the Young Men’s Christian Association, which sought to temper political radicalism among industrial workers by instilling in them Victorian virtues, discouraging gambling, in particular.

Not that Morgan allowed his own conduct to be hindered by such inconveniences. Unhappy with his marriage, he carried on affair after affair with actresses “aboard his yachts, in private railroad cars, and at European spas,” as Chernow details. Once, at a Cairo hotel, he threw a small fortune in gold jewelry onto a table and instructed a throng of young women, “Help yourselves!” before other entertainments ensued.

But for the most part, he lived a life of great power and little pleasure. With his children, Morgan was, in Chernow’s words, “terrifying” and “distant.” A dour, ferocious businessman, he could be as brutal with his colleagues as he was ruthless with his competitors, which he steadily eliminated, forming great monopolies in the steel, coal, telegraph, shipping and railroad industries. When a financial crisis shook the foundations of the American banking system in 1907, Morgan worked out the rescue plan in his study and all but ordered President Theodore Roosevelt to accept the terms, which happened to give Morgan control over the Tennessee Coal, Iron and Railroad Company. The Rough Rider assented without complaint.

In short, over the course of his 75 years, Morgan was a living embodiment of everything Charles Dickens assailed in his fiction. When his son, Jack, came across the Dickens novel Dombey and Son at the age of 13, he was moved to tears by the story, which opens with an overbearing shipping magnate attempting to groom his sensitive son for the family business through various acts of bullying and intimidation. The child dies.

Jack proved sturdier. He succeeded his father at the helm of the family empire and opened the Morgan home as a museum in 1924. Though most of the building has since been transformed into an airy, modern public space, curators have preserved the original patriarch’s library and study. It is both opulent and ominous, filled with dark mahogany shelves, walls covered in crimson silk, Italian Renaissance paintings and one massive portrait each of a glowering Pierpont and a more contemplative Jack. The library has its own rotunda adorned with brilliant mosaics supported by intricately carved marble columns. An adjacent showroom houses illuminated manuscripts, Egyptian statuary and an Assyrian cuneiform tablet. Pierpont’s greatest passion was not for actresses, but for plunder.

Yet money was never far from his mind. Hanging over a massive stone fireplace in the library is an epic 16th-century tapestry depicting the deadly sin of avarice, characterized by King Midas himself. It is a difficult item to interpret. A symbol of Morgan’s internal torment? A demonstration of his power over the moral trifles of lesser men? A simple lack of self-awareness?

Though the Dickens exhibit is more cheerful, it is impossible to put aside similar questions. Why would a fabulously rich banker purchase the letter Dickens wrote over Christmas of 1843 pleading for a loan?

The wealth of material provides a charming narrative of Dickens’ career. Though A Christmas Carol revived his confidence, the project was a financial bust. He insisted on a jubilant presentation for the book, paying for full-color illustrations, leather covers and gilt-edged pages. These elevated production costs left him with a total profit of just £137 from the first printing. Even this was soon wiped out. Dickens successfully sued the rogue publishers who had released a pirated edition, but when they declared bankruptcy, he was left with £700 in legal fees to cover out of his own pocket.

Undeterred, Dickens followed up with four other Christmas books in the 1840s, all of which racked up impressive sales numbers. This year’s Morgan Library exhibit features for the first time the original manuscripts of these later works ― The Chimes, The Cricket on the Hearth, The Battle of Life and The Haunted Man ― though they all made their way into the museum long after Pierpont’s death. None have the same power of A Christmas Carol, but they tackle the same themes, celebrating the working class as they excoriate the elite ― bankers, politicians and churchmen ― as either moralizing hypocrites or sterile, joyless sadists.

The Chimes is even more radical than its better-known predecessor, the story of a poor family steadily beaten down into death and despair by a politician who styles himself an enlightened “friend and father to the poor.” Instead of education or financial aid, the vulnerable protagonists receive stern lectures about their character failings, as additional hardships are piled on to test their fitness for relief. Dickens explained his motive for writing the piece in a letter to the actor William Macready: “I have endeavored to plant an indignant right-hander on the eye of certain Wicked Cant that makes my blood boil, which I hope will not only cloud that eye with black and blue, but many a gentler one with chrystal of the purest sort.”

Morgan’s eye was not blackened. He purchased the letter sometime before 1913. And Dickens himself would struggle to live up to some of these values in later life. His international celebrity put a terrible strain on his marriage to Catherine. In 1858, he humiliated her with a very public separation, leaving the mother of his children for the teenage Ellen Ternan. He worked at a furious pace all his life, taking on a second career as a public speaker, reading his books before audiences of thousands. He never abandoned his crusade for the poor ― his speaking tours for A Christmas Carol raised money for charity ― but family joys and responsibilities became an encumbrance to a man consumed by his own greatness.

None of these failings have diminished the cultural power of his prose, which will resonate so long as economic inequality remains a dominant social problem. For Dickens, Christmas was synonymous with a natural, divine abundance. Scarcity was a human invention. There is never any question in his holiday fables whether there are enough geese in England to satisfy every table at Christmas ― only the question of why some tables are denied their dinner.

Men like Morgan knew the answer. It was stashed away in their bank vaults and hoarded among their cuneiform ruins. And for all the talk of innovation, efficiency and progress we have heard from Wall Street and Silicon Valley in the century or so since Morgan’s death, that is where it remains. The American economy generates over $19 trillion in wealth every year, yet 40 million Americans live in poverty, 41 million live in "food insecure" households and roughly half do not have the funds to meet an unexpected $500 expense. Congress, meanwhile, has decided to raise taxes on the poor and middle class to shower trillions of dollars on some of the richest families the world has ever known, including their own. We are experiencing the spiritual arc of A Christmas Carol in reverse, watching our public commitments and ideas curdle into moral rot.

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