by Eliza McGrawOctober, 2000
Heart of gold. Gold at the end of the rainbow. Goldilocks, gold rush, golden mean. In The Power of Gold, Peter Bernstein investigates the phenomenon responsible for so much love and theft, bloodshed and joy. Gold is as much a symbol to us as an actual precious metal (its symbol in the periodic table is Au, as in aurora, or shining like the dawn).
Its presence in myth bears this out, as Bernstein writes. He notes that we should not be too hard on Midas, the famous king whose wish that everything he touched turned to gold came true. Bernstein writes that Midas's rash wish was really just one for a shortcut, or "a choice made without regard to the consequences," something to which readers can relate, even if they have never turned anything to gold.
Bernstein not only tells the story of gold throughout the history of civilization, but discusses the very real ways in which it affected currency and monetary systems worldwide. He notes that to this day no tourists are allowed to enter Fort Knox, and observes that "As the need for money grows, it rapidly inspires innovation to make it function more efficiently and conveniently."But it is the sheer intrigue of the stories Bernstein tells, and not their efficiency, that makes The Power of Gold so interesting. He writes about the Byzantine emperors, Marco Polo, the London bank Baring Brothers, and the Gilded Age with equal liveliness. Those years of the Gilded Age, in particular, saw a paucity of monetary gold, and the American market rocketed around as a partial effect of this lack. Again, symbol followed history, as Bernstein writes of William Jennings Bryan in 1896, "Great decisions were afoot that would press down the crown of thorns on the brow of labor and crucify mankind on a cross of gold. What powerful language might Bryan have mustered had he lived to witness the outcome?"As for gold in the present day, Bernstein issues caveats after seeing the ravages that gold has created over the years. As he warns, "Gold and its surrogates make sense only as a means to an end: to beautify, to adorn, to exchange for what we need and really want."Eliza R.L. McGraw lives and writes in Cabin John, Maryland.