Fighting a Former Friend
Lightning began to play around the head of Mr. Stuyvesant Fish, who had lectured Mr. Harriman in the winter of 1905 on the subject of railroad ethics. Mr. Harriman did not want a fight. Indeed, he much preferred to take the control of the Illinois Central without one…. When this successful raid was accomplished, everybody felt as though the house had been robbed in the night. All the highly respectable critics all over the world view it with “extreme regret.” … Mr. Fish has been unanimously handed the crown of a martyr, whether he likes it or not.
—C. M. Keys, “Harriman: The Man in the Making”
If the Equitable fight had been an isolated incident, Harriman might have escaped with no more than the bruises of a distasteful experience. But it triggered an inextricable chain of events that together would create what Otto Kahn called the “Harriman Extermination League” and transform his reputation from builder to cold-hearted wrecker, a second-generation robber baron. The Harriman of legend, which had been slowly congealing since 1900, emerged as a bizarre Jekyll-Hyde creature mingling doses of good and evil in every deed.
This legend fit the schizoid character of American material civilization at the turn of the century. Victorian society was immensely pleased with itself and its accomplishments, yet beneath its smug, stolid exterior ran a deep vein of anxiety over the changes that were reshaping every facet of American life. Fear and hope, belief in both the idea of progress and the decline of civilization became a current that energized Progressive America with alternating jolts of optimism and alarm. Every aspect of American culture reflected this duality: art and architecture, business and industry, politics and reform.
The supreme creative skill of the age, which Harriman possessed in rare abundance, was the ability to organize on a grand scale. From the dedicated exercise of this skill arose the huge business enterprises that revamped not only the economy but everything else in American life. But this talent was itself a twoheaded monster capable of performing great feats while trampling indifferently over anything in its path. The age preened and puffed over its monuments while ignoring the price paid for them in the form of social dislocation, grinding poverty, hideous slums, and a ravaged environment.