Americans have experienced a love-hate relationship with Wall Street for two hundred years. Long an object of suspicion, fear, and even revulsion, the Street eventually came to be seen as an alluring pathway to wealth and freedom. Steve Fraser tells the story of this remarkable transformation in a brilliant, masterfully written narrative filled with colorful tales of confidence men and aristocrats, Napoleonic financiers and reckless adventurers, master builders and roguish destroyers. Penetrating and engrossing, this is an extraordinary work of history that illuminates the values and the character of our nation.
Tracking the changing and often conflicting public attitudes toward Wall Street through myriad forms of American popular culture, Fraser (Labor Will Rule) renders two centuries' worth of opinions, and shows how the country's orientation toward "the street that runs from a river to a graveyard" has affected the nation's politics, its fashion and its morality. Fraser uses a wealth of primary and secondary sources (from the Constitution of the New York Stock Exchange and Walt Whitman to Kevin Phillips's Wealth and Democracy) to detail the first hundred years, from the Buttonwood Tree trading of 1792 (where 24 men gathered near 68 Wall Street) to J.P. Morgan. His selections from the last quarter-century result in a narrow and not very coherent opinion piece on the tech boom; the strength of the book is the period from 1890 to 1980. Fraser draws on cartoons, popular songs, promotional literature as well as more conventional material to sketch hundreds of stories detailing the image of Wall Street as it rises and falls in the public imagination. Almost every page contains wildly mixed metaphors and other excesses of enthusiasm over clarity, but Fraser tells a monumental story with real energy: moral disapproval of usury, gambling and single-minded moneymaking fade as bankers come to embody the hope and threat of the future. Careful consideration of subtle changes in popular notions makes good sense of the transformation from Gilded Age to Information Age, and of the complex conflicts many people still feel.