Andrew Carnegie’s Own Story for Boys & Girls

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Fairy tales [have] been used by psychological historians and biographers . . . to understand the “life-story” or “life-plot’ someone has chosen for himself. Perhaps no work lends itself so well to this technique as Andrew Carnegie’s “Own Story for Boys and Girls”. . . . . Carnegie’s autobiography closely  resembles . . . “Jack and the Beanstalk” 

Since the appearance of Bruno Bettleheim’s The Uses of Enchantment,(1) more attention has been directed to the way fairy tales may be put to use in early education. Among other things, Bettleheim argues that fairy tales can supply plots which give order to the inchoate fantasy lives of children and that the tale’s heroes and heroines provide models that children can emulate when working through their own problems. Such pragmatic and therapeutic uses of the fairy tales are, however, not a boon available only to children; James Hilman, the Jungian therapist and thinker, explains that adults may use the tales for similar benefits.(2)

Besides suggesting ways to shape a life, fairy tales can also be used by psychological historians and biographers in a reverse fashion—to understand the ways a life was shaped or (to use the fashionable language of some recent bestsellers) to understand the “life-story” or “life-plot’ someone has chosen for himself. Perhaps no work lends itself so well to this technique as Andrew Carnegie’s Own Story for Boys and Girls,(3) a book that used to be quite popular in the early part of this century and was a familiar item in many school libraries. While lives are never so orderly and as free of clutter as a fairy tale, what is striking about Carnegie’s autobiography is how closely it resembles a familiar childhood story.

JackBeanstalkYou know the story of “Jack and the Beanstalk”: hard times force Jack’s family to sell their cow for some beans which turn out to be magical; plucky Jack climbs the beanstalk and somewhere in the sky he discovers the giant’s castle from which, on three trips, he steals a bag of gold, a goose that lays golden eggs, and a harp that plays itself; on the last trip, however, the giant gives chase, but Jack saves himself by chopping down the beanstalk and the giant crashes to his death. You know Jack’s story.(4) What you may not know is that it is also Andrew Carnegie’s.

A child reading Andrew Carnegie’s Own Story for Boys and Girls cannot help but be impressed by how Carnegie speaks of climbing and air castles. If Don Quixote looked at windmills and saw challenging giants, Carnegie looked at the world and saw ladders, towers, mountains, inclines, problems to surmount, opportunities to ascend, and elevating pursuits. He had a topographical imagination, an aptitude for altitudes. One can only wonder if F. Scott Fitzgerald had Carnegie in mind when he wrote:
“Gatsby saw the sidewalks really formed a ladder and mounted to a secret place above the trees—he could climb to it, if he climbed alone.”

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03. February 2015 by Jerry Griswold
Categories: People | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment