- Brahmin Capitalism: Frontiers of Wealth and Populism in America's First Gilded Age by Noam Maggor
Noam Maggor's book should be grouped with the plethora of new studies in the history of capitalism that have become commonplace since the global financial meltdown of 2008. Like most of these works, Maggor's study would probably not be embraced by most economic historians, whose reliance on quantitative methods has split them off from the mainstream of the historical profession for decades (they also do not tend to put much stock in "fuzzy" abstractions like capitalism). But at the same time, most of the dwindling number of historians who work in the Marxist tradition also stand apart from this recent trend as well. Practitioners of the "new" history of capitalism tend to be proudly eclectic (although they prefer to term it "interdisciplinary"); like Maggor, many are more or less explicitly contemptuous of Marxist approaches (see 211); and very few seem interested in defining what they mean by capitalism. In fact, much of what these young scholars do might be better regarded as studies in political economy—which is not quite the same thing, of course.
For such a compact book (only 211 pages of text), Maggor's study is surprisingly ambitious, yet for the most part, it succeeds. It is difficult to isolate a single thesis driving the work, however, and its individual chapters sometimes read like disparate studies that are a bit too loosely connected. Broadly speaking, Maggor seeks to elaborate how capitalists in post–Civil War Boston reoriented their investment portfolios away from cotton manufactures toward a wide variety of aggressive modernization schemes in the western states, from copper mining in Michigan to stockyards in Kansas City. In other words, throughout the book, Maggor describes how a new generation of Boston Brahmins transitioned from being industrial capitalists to primarily financial ones. Although Maggor never really notes it explicitly, he echoes classical thinkers from Adam Smith to Karl Marx who argued that different types of capital deployment—mercantile, rentier, industrial, financial—foster distinct cultural and political concomitants.
Indeed, for readers of this journal, one of the most valuable aspects of Maggor's study are its explorations in the neglected social history of American upper classes. Maggor is explicitly interested in describing a "new geography of capital" (7) with regard to burgeoning western connections to major cities on the eastern seaboard, but this approach is not as novel as he seems to think, [End Page 1415] since the subject has previously been explored by scholars from Douglas Dowd to William Cronon. However, this same fascination with spatial analysis leads to some very suggestive passages about matters such as Brahmin patterning of exclusive upper-class enclaves like Back Bay and Brookline. He also devotes a fascinating chapter to showing how the movement to remake Boston Common "into a space exclusively for quiet leisure was intertwined with the process of bourgeois class formation" (146), and in the process he shrewdly illuminates the emergent "cultural hierarchy that separated [elite] high intellectualism from [the] debased materialism" of the working class (152). In a similar vein, he shows the ways that patterns of elite endowments and philanthropy in Boston helped fashion "a community of bourgeois wealth owners unmatched in its internal cohesiveness" (30).
Maggor is up to a great deal more in this compact but persuasive study. For example, another major theme is how gradual and uneven "market integration accelerated a contradictory trajectory of political fragmentation" during the late nineteenth century (5), a view that runs contrary to more common understandings of the consolidation of a central-state leviathan during and after the Civil War. However, Maggor's insights into the activities and mentalities of the postwar Brahmin class in Boston also serve as a valuable reminder of how much remains underexamined about the social and intellectual history of elite wealth-holders in the United States. [End Page 1416]