Professor looks at history of the rich being good
Robert F. Dalzell, Jr., professor emeritus of American History at Williams College, has written previously about the Rockefellers and others of the business elite.
His latest book, "The Good Rich and What They Cost Us" is an overview of wealthy Americans through the years and how they have contributed -- or not contributed -- to the welfare and well-being of the rest of us.
While the subject is interesting, the work has more the feel of a survey than a thorough examination.
Each of the people Dalzell examines gets a single chapter covering his history of philanthropy, his character and the change of outlook that opens him to charitable giving.
Other authors have written whole books on such individuals. Here, Dalzell reduces each to a few thousand words.
His opening chapter is less a narrative than an introduction to points to be proven. Its seven pages could have been omitted, leaving a book that otherwise reads well.
When Dalzell gets specific, I found I learned a great deal more about people I thought I knew, like George Washington and John D. Rockefeller. I also discovered men I'd never heard of before like Robert Keayne and Amos and Abbott Lawrence.
Dalzell approaches each with a fresh perspective that captures the reader's imagination while revealing parts of their histories that have often been neglected in other books.
Washington's difficulty in freeing his slaves -- his own and, against his will, not his wife's, for example -- illuminates his charity and late-in-life views on his fellow man.
His decisions on dispensing his personal wealth were so tied in, as he is quoted as saying, to "disparities of wealth and power" and a "nation of people who knew their own worth and who were prepared to fight for it" that he rose in my estimation from a two-dimensional historical figure to a complex, exemplary one.
Robert Keayne, a Puritan merchant in 17th century Boston, is the first of Dalzell's "good rich" in a story that stretches the imagination.
Criticized by his peers for his business acumen, accused of gouging his customers and hounded out of Boston, he, nonetheless, left to his city a legacy of scholarships, meeting places and the money to support them, thereby forcing his detractors to eventually bless him for his good works.
His is a fascinating story that amazed me and will others as well.
I thought I understood the Rockefeller family and their philanthropy but there must have been major blanks in my knowledge for I finished the chapters on them with a much broader view of who, what and why and a deeper appreciation of the man who started it all and for his son as well.
For anyone with an interest in the future of this country and its wealth, this book has a lot to offer.
Dalzell's assessment of Oprah Winfrey and Steve Jobs is of interest, naturally, and an unfolding story in many ways
These two with their enormous wealth avoided many of the more obvious ways of giving, even signing a pledge to keep their better works to themselves and, in the case of the late Steve Jobs, believing that their contributions to mankind may be enough of a give-back.
The author, in titling the book as he has with its caveat "and what they cost us," has set up expectations that are not truly realized. His concentration on the rich whose philanthropy has aided and abetted other people's aspirations has shown no "cost" to the recipients of their largesse. His final sections on contemporary times may show a certain listlessness in the new rich to become more publicly involved with the idea of giving back. Still that doesn't truly cost us anything other than a slowing down of philanthropic activity.
His emphasis on such movements as the Occupy Wall Street and its attempt to shake the rich into action doesn't show us costs. It just shows how many people feel that the distribution of wealth today is not realistic.
I'd say, wait and see. I believe that is what the author is also saying, just not in a straightforward manner.
TALK TO US
If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us. We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.