Joseph Frazier Wall (1920-1995)
Andrew Carnegie's Greatest Historian

A Memoir by Liane Ellison Norman

Joseph Frazier Wall, author of the definitive biography of Andrew Carnegie, died on October 9, 1995. I regard his death as a great personal loss; also a great loss to Pittsburgh. But the other side of loss is gratitude. Joe was a generous friend and mentor to me. He was generous to Pittsburgh (and beyond) as well, continuing to share his knowledge and insight about this city's great and problematic industrialist and philanthropist.

I met Professor Wall when I took his History of Modern Europe course as a Grinnell College sophomore. I dreaded the impending work, for Grinnell's history department was known as the best--and toughest-- department at the college. Sure enough, it was hard work, but neither dreary nor date-driven. Pre-modern Europe came alive with the stories of real men and women with real dilemmas. These people who made up history had their own histories. They had peculiarities and idiosyncrasies. Their motives were not so different from mine and the people I knew. And therefore, I decided with rising excitement, history was nothing more than the stories of people, just people. Why I myself had a bit part in history!

Once I left Grinnell I lost track of Joe except through occasional reports in the alumni magazine, where I learned of his stature as a professor and sometime dean of the college. When the alumni magazine told of his course on nuclear weapons and war, I wrote to congratulate him and tell him of the Pittsburgh Peace Institute, which I had founded. He wrote to congratulate me and invited me to speak on nonviolence to his class. An adult friendship developed.

Beyond Grinnell and a concern with peace, there was another connection. I had come to Pittsburgh in 1967 and learned to regard this city as home. Joe too, I learned, was deeply tied to Pittsburgh because of his work on Andrew Carnegie.

I read Andrew Carnegie because Joe wrote it. Like most of its readers, I found enthralling the 1,041 pages of text about the man who had so profoundly shaped Pittsburgh. Joe made the story of this complex man and the other actors in his world as lively as any novel. He showed Carnegie as a man driven to make money, troubled by the moral compromises this undertaking exacted, eager to give away his wealth for the loftiest of reasons but also in urgent need of easing his conscience. In the chapter on the Homestead Strike, Joe quoted Charles Spahr who interviewed Homestead workers. One worker told Spahr that what he wanted above anything else was an education. "But after my day's work, I haven't been able to do much studying....After working twelve hours, how can a man go to the library?'" Such contradictions plagued Carnegie, and continue to haunt Pittsburgh and indeed, post-industrial capitalism. Again Joe revealed that history was not abstract.

Andrew Carnegie was first published in 1970 by Oxford University Press and won the Bancroft Prize for history. The University of Pittsburgh Press reissued the biography in 1989 in a handsome edition made colorful by Pittsburgher Andy Warhol's portrait of Carnegie on the cover.

Joe next published Skibo, the story of Carnegie's Scottish estate (Oxford University Press, 1984). This was followed by The Andrew Carnegie Reader, an anthology bringing together some of Andrew Carnegie's prolific writings, on the 73rd anniversary of Carnegie's death (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1992). He came to speak for the Pittsburgh Peace Institute on Carnegie's commitment to peace in 1989. He spoke again in Pittsburgh in 1992, the centennial of the terrible Homestead Strike, which Carnegie - despite his duplicity - understood better than public officials at the time. In 1995 Joe returned several times to Pittsburgh to stand amidst the splendors of The Carnegie and to speak of its benefactor for the two-hour TV documentary entitled Carnegie, produced by WBGH Boston as part of The American Experience history series. He complained of the irritating and tiring "takes," though as a perfectionist himself, he understood. He returned again in 1995 to participate in a second television documentary on Carnegie produced in California.

Joe had other works to his credit. His first biography was Henry Watterson: Reconstructed Rebel, published by Oxford University Press, as was his mammoth Alfred I. Du Pont; The Man and His Family, a Pulitzer Prize finalist. At the time of his death, he was working on a history of Grinnell College, where he, a native of Iowa, had gone to college, met his wife, and spent nearly all of his adult life.

Some of my friends want to know why a man whose scholarship would have qualified him for the most famous schools chose to stay in the small farm town of Grinnell and teach at Grinnell College. How do you get them back on the farm after they've seen Paree? is the old rhetorical question. Joe had seen Paree. He earned his M.A. at Harvard and Ph.D. at Columbia and served in the Navy during World War II. He took various leaves on Fulbright research and teaching grants in Scotland and Sweden and spent several years in the picturesque town of Salzburg in Austria. He left Grinnell for two years to be chairman of the History Department at the State University of New York in Albany.

Nevertheless he returned to Grinnell where he continued to teach, holding one distinguished chair after another, to help run the college, and to play an active part of the community. He felt a deep loyalty for Grinnell, both college and town. It seems to me that in some way Joe Wall's devotion to one place, its excellence and its human scale, qualified him to understand the loyalty Carnegie felt for Pittsburgh--as a world famous "robber baron" who gave so much back.

Liane Norman is a freelance writer living in Pittsburgh.