This Week’s Column:


One of American history's most famous financial titans, Jay Gould, advised smart people to stay out of publishing . . .

a MobyLives guest column

by Edward J. Renehan Jr.

23 JULY 2005 — While researching my latest book — Dark Genius of Wall Street: The Misunderstood Life of Jay Gould, King of the Robber Barons — I came upon a sidebar that might be of interest to my colleagues in the business of authoring and publishing books.

It appears that Gould — who died in 1892 at age 56 after mastering the Union Pacific, the Missouri Pacific, the Western Union, the Manhattan Elevated, and other related properties totaling a value of some $72 million — took a dim view of publishing as a trade. Although he once briefly owned a newspaper (The New York World, which came as part of a deal for a railroad Gould was more interested in possessing), he otherwise refrained from any business dealings that involved media of any kind.

Gould's rationale for his anti–publishing bias is best documented in the record of his association with another remarkable character. It was in the offices of the Western Union in the early 1880s that Gould first made the acquaintance of a thoughtful, bright, well–trained stenographer whom he made his personal secretary and sought to mentor. One year later, when the 19–year–old Edward Bok — destined for a long and highly successful career in magazine and book publishing — gave Gould his notice, the mogul offered him a large raise to remain with the firm.

In answer, Bok explained that the salary, while of importance, did not interest him so much as his desire to secure a position in another field to which he aspired. "And what business is that?" Gould asked. "The publishing of books," replied Bok, who years later wrote up the conversation in his Pulitzer–prize winning memoirs, The Americanization of Edward Bok.

"You are making a great mistake," Gould answered. "Books are a luxury. The public spends its largest money on necessities: on what it can't do without. It must telegraph; it need not read. It can read in libraries. A promising boy such as you are, with his life before him, should choose the right sort of business, not the wrong one."

Nevertheless, after Bok insisted, Gould wished the boy well and even gave him a bonus check as a going–away gift.

Seven years after that conversation, fate led Bok to another encounter with Gould. During 1889, Bok was helping sail a yacht on the Hudson one afternoon when the sight of Jay Gould's Lyndhurst estate "awakened the desire of the women on board to see [the] wonderful orchid collection" housed in Gould's famous greenhouse. Upon hearing this, Bok explained his previous association with the financier and offered to recall himself to Gould in an attempt to gain access to the grounds. Soon one of the young men of the party — not Bok — rowed to shore bearing a note for Gould, and shortly the answer came back that they were welcome to visit the greenhouse.

Gould himself received the sailors. Then, after placing the balance of the group under the personal care of his chief gardener, Ferdinant Mangold, Gould pulled Bok aside for a chat.

"Well," said the financier, once the others were gone, "I see in the papers that you seem to be making your way in the publishing business." When Bok expressed surprise that Gould had followed his work, Gould answered: "I have because I always felt you had it in you to make a successful man. But not in that business. You were born for the Street [Wall Street]. You would have made a great success there, and that is what I had in mind for you. In the publishing business you will go just so far; in the Street you could have gone as far as you liked. There is room there; there is none in the publishing business. It's not too late now, for that matter."

Bok declined the offer. It should be added that he was always more than content with his career in the world of literature, just as he was always grateful for Gould's genuine interest in him and his prospects.

Ironically, Gould made his own first mark in the world as a self–published author. In 1856, when he was just twenty years old and still living in the rural Catskills hamlet where he'd been raised — Roxbury, in New York's Delaware County — Gould researched, wrote and published History of Delaware County and the Border Wars of New York, a detailed and still–much–respected work of regional lore.

Furthermore, Gould's best friend from boyhood was his Roxbury neighbor, John Burroughs (1837–1921), who served as one of Walt Whitman's intimates over the course of thirty years, authored close to thirty volumes of literary criticism and nature appreciation, and became one of the most highly respected writers of his generation.

"It is a curious psychological fact," Burroughs wrote after Gould was dead, "that the two men outside my own family of whom I have oftenest dreamed in my sleep are Emerson and Jay Gould; one to whom I owe so much, the other to whom I owe nothing; one whose name I revere, the other whose name I associate, as does the world, with the dark way of speculative finance."

And so it goes.

Edward J. Renehan Jr. is the author of The Kennedys at War (Doubleday, 2002), The Lion's Pride (Oxford University Press, 1998), The Secret Six (Crown, 1995) and John Burroughs: An American Naturalist (Black Dome Press, 1992). His comments on history, book technology, and the art of biography appear regularly in The Wall Street Journal, American Heritage, on C–Span and the History Channel, and on his website.

©2005 Edward J. Renehan Jr.

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KADARE IS NO SOLZHENITSYN . . The winner of the first Booker International Prize trashed "untrue" dissident writers for keeping silent. Guest columnist Renata Dumitrascu asks if he was really part of their suppression.<

GOOGLIZATION AND YOU . . Librarian Christopher Allen Waldrop says in a guest column that Google Print does more than break copyright laws — it opens the records of patrons up to more widespread scrutiny than the PATRIOT Act.

BOOKSELLER AT LARGE . . Guest commentator Dan Bloom says he moved to Taiwan and wrote a book that sold thousands of copies — after he took to the streets yelling, "Buy my book!"

ENOUGH ALREADY WITH THE MFA BASHING . . . Regular contributor Steve Almond, an MFA grad who also teaches creative writing, responds to Elizabeth Clementson's column about the influence of MFA programs.

DOWN WITH MFAs . . . In a guest column, MFA dropout and publisher Elizabeth Clementson say MFA programs are ruining literature and the publishing buisness.


All material not otherwise attributed ©2000 – 2005 Dennis Loy Johnson.