Thomas Mellon and His Times
by Thomas Mellon, foreword by David McCullough, University of Pittsburgh Press, 478 pages.
A few issues ago our columnist John Steele Gordon wrote about the curious paucity of good business autobiographies. His very slim roster omitted one of the best—for the good reason that until now you couldn’t read it if you weren’t a Mellon. In 1885 Thomas Mellon, the founder of the great Pittsburgh banking fortune, published his memoir with the proviso that it never “be for sale in the bookstores, nor any new edition published,” because it contains “nothing which concerns the public to know, and much which if writing for it I would have omitted.”
But now the family has lifted the restriction, and the University of Pittsburgh Press has issued a big, handsome edition of what deserves to take its rightful place as an American classic. Mellon was a natural writer, and the book is full of engrossing, sharply told scenes. In one, for instance, Mellon describes the pivot on which his entire life turned. He was seventeen, had been raised a farmer, and was spending the morning chopping wood while his father went off to town to arrange the purchase of an adjoining farm that the young man would work. As the morning wore on, he became “nearly crazed” with the vision of the lifetime of farming to which that purchase would condemn him. Finally he flung his ax over a fence and ran into town—ten miles—to collar his father just as he and the seller were chatting about which lawyer to visit to close the deal. Mellon tells this with the verve of a good novelist, as he does the rest of the tremendous career that flowed from his desperate impulse.
It is some indication of the book’s seductive vitality that when Andrew Carnegie got hold of a copy, it inspired him to write his own autobiography, the only other first-person account by one of those nineteenth-century empire builders that comes close to this one.