Maia Nguyen’s Book Critique

This book critique was written by Maia Nguyen for her History 147:  U.S. History II course in Spring 2015.

Renehan, Edward. Dark Genius of Wall Street: The Misunderstood Life of Jay Gould, King of the Robber Barons. New York, NY: Basic Books, 2005.

Inspired by the influential businessman Jay Gould, author Edward J. Renehan attempts to take a different approach to the often criticized figure in his book, Dark Genius of Wall Street.  Decades after his lifetime, Jay Gould was portrayed as the most cunning, deceiving robber baron of his time.  Renehan seeks to showcase Gould’s intelligence, and commend him as one of the most influential people in the business world.  He argues that Gould was more than just a devious businessman by illuminating new facts about Gould’s early life.  Renehan gathers evidence from multiple newspapers, journals, and previous books to prove his point.   He spends the first half of the book analyzing Gould’s early career as a financer and supports his thoughts with statistics.  The next half adds to Gould’s credit as a major strategist; however, a critical reader would realize that too much time was spent on his initial career as opposed to his major accomplishments.

From the preface of this book, the author assumes that everyone shares the same view of Gould as a wretched capitalist.  He writes this book for an audience that he believes will disagree with his views in an attempt to change their minds.  These assumptions cause Renehan’s readers to feel critiqued and leads to an offended audience.  At the beginning, Renehan makes it clear that his point of view will be different from other biographers of Jay Gould; however, he ends up contradicting his own words when he retells the same stories others have used.  For instance, in chapter fifteen, Renehan recounts the Erie War, a major event involving stock manipulations, but fails to bring any new evidence to support his thesis.  Concluding the novel, Renehan displays Gould’s business influence on the public and those around him.  While he proves his point successfully by providing examples of how Gould controlled other capitalists, he does not bring an accurate image of how Gould was viewed in his time.  The author could have made a better argument if he had included more details about Gould’s business dealings.

Overall, this book is informative of Gould’s early life, but does not focus on his business career.  More than half of the chapters describe the build up to his career take off in the 1870s, when he started to form the Union Pacific Railroad.  Although Renehan promises a new take on the masterfully deceiving character, he is only able to deliver this point of view by skipping through some of Gould’s most notorious actions while emphasizing his strategic business skills.  Based on the title of this book, one would expect to learn about a robber baron that was wrongfully labeled as a villain and misrepresented in the past.  Yet, by the end of this book readers may not be convinced, because Gould in fact tried to preserve his evil image.  Jay Gould never made any public attempt to atone for his wrong doings; he wanted to be able to get away with manipulating stocks and government while being acknowledged for his strategic superiority.  Renehan makes a point that Gould’s intelligence is occasionally overlooked by the public because of his reputation as a cruel robber baron.  However, his character cannot be defined by a good image over a bad one.  Gould was both a commendable business man and a despicable industrialist.

Last Updated January 7, 2022