My Online Prose Portfolio

"Write out of love, write out of instinct, write out of reason. But always for money."
Louis Untermeyer


Wall Street: A History

Charles Geisst
Oxford University Press, 404 pp, 1997

This book took quite a bit of effort to get through. Although I understand the importance of investing for the future, the actual specifics of stocks, bonds, securities, etc, bore the pants off me. The minutiae of brokering and trading holds no appeal to me, much to the chagrin of my wife.

However, I am a history buff, and I read this book with the hope it would shed some light on a subject I know next to nothing about. I hoped to read of the great characters who made their fortunes on the Street, and in many cases lost them. I was also curious as to how Wall Street got its start, its name, and its practices.

Unfortunately, Charles Geisst, a Professor of Finance in the School of Business at Manhattan College, doesnít write with much flair or sizzle. Good history books come alive and read almost like a novel, such as Stephen Ambroseís Undaunted Courage and Arthur Quinnís A New World. While informative, the book was rather boring and very slow. Add to that Geisstís use of investment jargon that novices (such as myself) donít understand, and the result is a ponderous, textbook-like history book.

However, I did found out how Wall Street got its name. The street was originally a thoroughfare that ran beside a wall designed to protect lower Manhattan from unfriendly Indians. The original investors met in the street, outdoors, to trade and bargain.

Geisst traces the history of Wall Street from 1790 through 1996, covering the major players such as William Duer, judge, member of the Continental Congress, and signer of the Articles of Confederation. After making a quick fortune in land speculation, he landed in debtorís prison, bankrupt. A close friend of Alexander Hamilton, who at one point intervened in his behalf, he was perhaps the first celebrity merchant. Duer, before his fall, moved in the most fashionable and influential circles. He was a portent of the Goulds, Cookes and Morgans yet to come.

Geisst covers the so-called robber barons, Wall Streetís reaction to New Deal regulations, and generally laments the lack of government oversight over Wall Street for much of its history. While he goes into great, mind-numbing detail of the inner machinations and nefarious deals, he neglects to mention how great the country was doing during this time. He leaves the impression that Wall Street is a hidden, exclusive bastion of greed and corruption, untouched by the outside world. He blames Wall Street for the Great Depression and other recessions, but gives it little credit for the unprecedented creation of wealth that has made the U.S. the richest nation in history. Shockingly, he completely ignores the rise of the investor class in recent years, some 50 million Americans who now own their own piece of the Street through 401(k)ís, IRAís, etc.

Despite the bookís faults, and tediousness, Iím glad I read it. Any Wall Street buff would enjoy it.

Back to Book Reviews