Joseph Frazier Wall (1920-1995)
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.