Five Best Books on the Rise and Fall of Dynasties

From a Wall Street Journal story by Joseph Sassoon headlined “Five Best: Books on the Rise and Fall of Dynasties”:

Buddenbrooks
By Thomas Mann (1901)

1. Thomas Mann’s greatest work, for which he won the 1929 Nobel Prize in literature, depicts the decline over four generations of a bourgeois family of German grain merchants. With documentarylike precision, Mann details the lives of the members of the Buddenbrooks family during wars, revolutions and, in 1871, the establishment of the German empire. His portrayal of marriages, feuds and jealousies is the kind that causes a reader to feel intimately immersed in the life of this family. He proffers commentary on the conduct of life: “Happiness and success are inside us,” he writes. “We have to reach deep and hold tight.” His description of the stages of the family firm’s decline, of the emotions that erupt as a result, is irresistible in its clarity. Here are family members who are prisoners of the past. The history of their ancestors had dominated their lives at every stage. But when the demise of the business became definite, there was the realization that they were left with no sense of identity and there was, now, “almost nothing to be said about the future.”

Au Bonheur das Dames (The Ladies’ Delight)
By Émile Zola (1883)

2. Written in 1883, “Au Bonheur des Dames” depicts the emergence of a new economic entity and its impact on smaller merchants. Émile Zola models his story after Le Bon Marché, one of the world’s first department stores, which was the initiative of Aristide Boucicaut and his wife, Marguerite. (In 1984, LVMH acquired Le Bon Marché.) The story is a microcosm of Parisian society at the end of the 19th century, and highlights issues of fashion, advertising, town planning, as well as the role of women and their exploitation by department-store managers. We follow Denise Baudu, a 20-year-old woman who moves to Paris to find a job as a saleswoman. Her story plays out against the career of the store’s boss, Octave Mouret, whose innovations and expansions threaten the existence of neighborhood businesses. Octave wants to build the best “commercial cathedral” in Paris, a kind that would entice female customers with its fashionable yet modestly priced dresses, coats, gloves and lingerie. The book delivers its own enticements, with its colorful portrait of employees in a world filled with conflict, gossip and malicious infighting.

The Lehman Trilogy
By Stefano Massini (2016)

3. Stefano Massini’s epic 700-page novel, written in verse and based on the history of the Lehman family dynasty, has been produced in theaters around the world. The story begins with the dynasty’s founder, Henry, who moved to Alabama from Bavaria and entered the cotton business. With Henry’s brothers and, later, their sons, the Lehmans expanded their business to coffee, oil and coal before eventually entering the banking world. This is both a tale of capitalism and a tale of Jews in America, of immigrants dreaming of a future in a new country. One of the Lehmans would be elected governor of New York for four terms. Not unlike other dynasties, the Lehmans initially employed only family members. By the time they began hiring outsiders, their concern with the business had waned, according to Mr. Massini; horse racing and grand homes had become more vital to them than their commitment to business.

Dynasties
By David S. Landes (2006)

4. David S. Landes, an emeritus professor of history and economics at Harvard until his death in 2013, explores why some dynasties endure for decades while others fall into chaos after one generation. His book is divided into three parts: “Banking” analyzes three families—the Barings, Rothschilds and Morgans. “Automobiles” looks at the Ford family; the Agnellis, one of the founding families of Fiat; as well as the Peugeot, Renault, Citroën and Toyoda families. The third part is what Landes describes as “Treasures of the Earth,” families that made their wealth from natural resources such as timber, metal ore and petroleum. Among them are the Rockefellers, the Guggenheims, the Schlumbergers and the Wendels. In Landes’s view, these dynasties, which have much in common, were mostly reinforced by marriage ties. He cites three major factors behind their success: The availability of capable descendants, the ability of the family members to work together, and the values of the society in which they lived. As one French silk manufacturer wrote to his children in 1894: “I shall leave you factories that will ruin you or enrich you, depending on whether you are ready to work diligently and tenaciously.”

A History of the Family Business
By Andrea Colli (2003)

5. A slim but rich volume that gives a historical and comparative perspective of family businesses. Andrea Colli examines the relationships within family enterprises over time, compares the performance of family businesses with that of other economic organizations and measures what it is that family businesses contribute to the economy. He analyzes the impact of family concerns in an industrial society, and shows how the distribution of these family firms by industry and by size are influenced by technological forces as well as by cultural patterns. He then focuses on the problem of introducing managerial hierarchies into family-owned enterprises, and demonstrates how corporate governance becomes a bigger and thornier issue the more an enterprise expands. Mr. Colli aims to dispel the notion that family businesses are suitable only for small- or medium-size companies. Family firms, he believes, can be particularly effective in long-term investments and can be truly diverse.

Joseph Sassoon, born in Baghdad, is Professor of History and Political Economy and Director of the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown University.

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