Reading The Numbers

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When Edward Streeter was not busy being vice president of the Bank of New York, he spent his time writing fond, clear-eyed, and very funny novels about the American middle class. But his last book, the 1969 Ham Martin , Class of ’17, tells the story of a boy raised in very modest circumstances by parents who want him to become a writer. So, too. does his highborn fiancée. All are thrilled when he sells a story to the Atlantic during the First World War.

Then Ham’s genial businessman uncle offers the fledgling author a clerk’s job, just to tide him over until the royalties start coming in. Ham settles down glumly to scan columns of figures—and is enchanted. “They were not dull. Read properly they told romantic human stories of success and failure. … They told the fang and claw story of industrial America.” Ham gets passionately—and profitably—involved in the numbers, rides the great bull market of the 1920s, sells short during the Crash, becomes immensely rich. But he never does get to be a writer; in fact, he is incapable of expressing to anyone the sense of drama he finds in his balance sheets. His parents are heartbroken, his marriage poisoned, and it gradually becomes clear that this is a perverse, straight-faced upending of the worn old story of the romantic who yearns to escape the dull shackles of commerce and create art.

I think of Ham Martin when I read our business columnist, John Steele Gordon, because he, too, is able to see the tremendous tale that numbers can tell. And he has what poor Ham turned out to lack: the ability to communicate that story. I first became aware of him when my weakness for anything that contains a steam engine led me to his book The Scarlet Woman of Wall Street , the fang-and-claw story of the battle between Cornelius Vanderbilt and Jim Fisk, Daniel Drew, and Jay Gould for control of the Erie Railroad. I was struck not only by the vigor of the narrative but by the fact that here was an author who did not treat the hard-handed capitalists of that era merely as venal buffoons—which is pretty much the way it’s gone since Matthew Josephson produced his lively, dishonest, and influential The Robber Barons in 1934.

We got in touch with John. It turns out that he came by his interest in finance early. His grandfather, Richard H. Gordon, came to New York from Tennessee in 1898 and spent an astonishing seventy-nine years on Wall Street. He loved to talk with his grandson about it (“Almost before I was old enough to ride a bicycle,” John says, “I knew what it meant to sell short”), and not just the events he’d witnessed, like the Northern Pacific corner of 1901, but tales from the earlier bare-knuckles generation.

The lessons took. “I have never worked on Wall Street,” writes John, “for it was my fate to inherit my grandfather’s love of history, not his financial acumen.” But as American Heritage readers can testify, that’s no mean bequest. John started writing “The Business of America” in March 1989, and his lengthier articles have generated increasing comment and respect—most notably for the superb profile of Alexander Hamilton that ran last July. In this issue he examines the savings and loan debacle and in so doing tells what some might consider an austere story—the history of American banking—with a brio that Ham Martin would have appreciated and envied.

Richard F. Snow
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