FW: Booker on Hargrove, _Prisoners of Myth_ [TVA]
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Subject: Booker on Hargrove, _Prisoners of Myth_
H-NET BOOK REVIEW
Published by H-Tennessee@... (October, 2002)
Erwin C. Hargrove. _Prisoners of Myth: The Leadership of the
Tennessee Valley Authority, 1933-1990_. First published by Princeton
University Press, 1994. Knoxville: The University of Tennessee
Press, 2001. xx + 374 pp. Notes, index. $20.00 (paper), ISBN
Reviewed for H-Tennessee by Trent Booker <trentbooker@...>,
Department of History, The University of Memphis
Anatomy of a Corporate Culture in Flux: Standard Study of TVA
As the word "leadership" in the title makes clear, Erwin C. Hargrove
has written his history of the Tennessee Valley Authority from the
orientation of those situated at the top. He examines the
successive administrations of the men appointed as TVA board
members, beginning with the first feuding triumvirate chosen by
President Franklin Roosevelt: A. E. Morgan, chairman, and his
antagonists, board members David Lilienthal and H. A. Morgan (no
relation). Their internal power struggle for control over the
direction TVA would take in the 1930s was waged between competing
intra-organizational ideologies, which are generally described as
Utopian Social Planning (represented by A. E. Morgan) versus the
combination of Giant Power (Lilienthal) and Big Agriculture (H. A.
A. E. Morgan came to TVA from Antioch College, where he had been the
school's president. He also was an advocate of eugenics and
probably the country's finest hydraulic engineer. Lilienthal, a
veteran of the public versus private power fight, had served on the
Wisconsin Public Service Commission. A product of Harvard Law
School, he championed the anti-monopolist agenda of his mentors,
Supreme Court Justices Felix Frankfurter and Louis Brandeis, and had
become, arguably, America's foremost utilities law expert. Though
agriculturist H. A. Morgan was Canadian by birth, his presence on
the TVA Board expressed Roosevelt's desire to have local/regional
interests represented. A former president of the University of
Tennessee, H. A. Morgan--who proved to be the Board's swing
vote--implemented policies that favored the Valley's large-scale
farmers and interfaced TVA's efforts with those of the states'
land-grant colleges and universities (white only, however);
extension services; and county agents.
Lilienthal and A. E. Morgan spent the mid-1930s each maneuvering to
control TVA's mission. A. E. Morgan tried to replicate his Antioch
success in the Tennessee Valley by building the model community of
Norris. Implementing A. E. Morgan's ideas on a scale larger than a
college campus, however, proved impracticable, though he did
valuable and lasting work for TVA's engineering and construction
program and also in the area of labor relations. Seizing on the
dramatic issue of rural electrification and swaying the decisive
vote of H. A. Morgan, Lilienthal gained the advantage early on and
never relinquished it, though the eccentric, stubborn chairman
refused to recognize defeat and bow out. President Roosevelt
removed A. E. Morgan from the Board on March 23, 1938. With the
ascendance of Lilienthal--supported by H. A. Morgan, who was named
the new chairman--TVA's priorities were determined. Instead of A.
E. Morgan's vision of regional development inspired by cooperative
living and local cottage/craft industries, the Valley pursued power,
industrialization, and an agricultural program that relied on the
region's pre-existing institutions. Lilienthal resigned in 1946 to
head the Atomic Energy Commission, and H. A. Morgan retired from TVA
in 1948, when his second term expired. Yet the legacy of TVA's
original Board of Directors continued as a powerful ideological
force within the organization. So much so, Hargrove contends, that
their successors became "prisoners of [the] myth" they had created
Much of the TVA literature recounts and interprets this formative
feud and its lingering effects on the agency, but Hargrove's
research into TVA primary sources is perhaps unequaled. In addition
to oral histories, interviews conducted by the author, and numerous
original TVA documents--access to some of which required wrangling
with the agency's legal division--Hargrove was the first scholar to
make use of the "controversial" 1938 pro-A. E. Morgan report by
Herman Finer titled _The Administrative History of the Tennessee
Valley Authority_. Access to the Finer report (which was stored at
the National Archives) was withheld until the death of all three
original directors, the last of whom, Lilienthal, died in 1981.
Hargrove's book is about much more than merely the first three
directors. In fact, recounting their story only takes up about
one-third of the narrative, as he gives full treatment to the
tenures of subsequent boards and chairmen as well.
Two significant experiences prompted Hargrove, a political science
professor at Vanderbilt University, to articulate his queries
concerning institutional mission and organizational change during
the sixty-year period of TVA history under scrutiny. His first
involvement with the nation's largest public utility came in an
advisory capacity in 1979. That year, TVA consulted with him and
other social scientists concerning its non-power programs (i.e.,
agriculture, forestry, community/economic development, recreation,
etc.) in accordance with the agency's longstanding,
institutionalized belief that it should "be more than a power
company" (p. xv). Moreover, Hargrove was profoundly influenced by
Phillip Selznick's _TVA and the Grass Roots: A Study in the
Sociology of Formal Organization_, to the extent that he writes in
_Prisoners of Myth_, "Our two books should be read together" (p.
304). Hargrove does not ask the same questions as Selznick, but
he relies on the latter's delineation of TVA myths and sacrosanct
corporate beliefs (e.g., lower rates stimulate greater demand for
electricity), which would no longer prove effective by the 1970s and
80s. TVA was unable to imbue the construction of nuclear reactors
during recent decades with similar "heroic" associations such as
those evoked by town planning and dam-building in the 1930s, 40s,
and even into the 50s.
Selznick's displacement of TVA's grass-roots myth with his model of
"co-optation" has held up well over more than half a century.
Selznick calls "co-optation" the "often realistic core of avowedly
democratic procedures" and further defines the concept as: "The
process of absorbing new elements into the leadership or
policy-determining structure of an organization as a means of
averting threats to its stability or existence." Therefore, when
Lilienthal said "grass-roots," he actually meant "local elites," not
the sort of populist groundswell the term tends to evoke. Hargrove
points out that Lilienthal's grass-roots rhetoric was so universally
accepted that it made the inconsistencies in actual practice,
brought to light by Selznick and others, seem merely "academic"
(pp. 54-56). The idea that federal programs would be administered
locally was quite popular during the Depression, but language that
on its surface described a horizontal relationship between
federal-local entities often obscured what was, in reality, a
vertical one. Selznick's examples of TVA co-optation include the
Valley's organized agricultural establishment, discussed above, and
its electric power cooperatives.
However, the federal-local power relationship certainly is not one
in which TVA holds complete hegemony because the agency also must be
responsive to the concerns of its allied interests. For instance,
TVA power distributors nearly revolted during the chairmanship of S.
David Freeman in the late 1970s, angered by the high visibility he
gave the agency's solar energy program. Their fears were unfounded,
though, because TVA's main interest in having an alternative energy
program was in its value as a showpiece. Echoing Selznick's
critique of Lilienthal's grass-roots ideal, Hargrove's' assessment
of TVA's actual commitment to solar power was that "the reality did
not match the rhetoric" (p. 221). Instead, it was essentially a
public relations tool aimed at generating favorable public opinion
toward TVA as a forward-thinking "energy lab for the nation" (p.
221). In this episode, it is easy to see continuity, as Hargrove
does, with the role assumed by TVA in the 1930s as a test case,
demonstration area, and "yardstick" by which to measure private
electric rates and on which the nation's attention would be focused.
Freeman's attempt to revive this historical role for TVA in the
context of the 1970s failed not because he was out of step with the
times so much as because he was out of touch with TVA's actual
While Hargrove marshals much sound evidence and research to support
his conclusions, these summations sometimes come across as less than
earth-shattering. Although the story he recounts is a complex
one--involving many personalities and power
relationships--Hargrove's thesis is not complicated, and, to his
credit, he expresses it quite simply in the first sentence of the
first chapter: "Organizations may fail in their missions when they
seek to repeat glories of the past in changed conditions" (p. 3).
And his insight that "Personal political skill and a favorable
political environment reinforce each other so that each is stronger
than it would be alone" (p. xii) essentially restates the old truism
about being "the right man at the right time." Frequently, he
adopts the very specialized terminology of organizational theory,
explains a specific concept--such as "opportunistic surveillance"
(pp. 294-5)--and then applies it to some aspect of TVA history.
Overall, there is a good balance between learning the facts behind
what one already might have surmised and encountering new jargon.
Obfuscation is never Hargrove's aim. To avoid abstraction, he
illustrates his points with examples from the agency's actual
_Prisoners of Myth_ was first published in hardback by Princeton
University Press in 1994. The release of a paperback edition by The
University of Tennessee Press in 2001 was a welcome occurrence and
should make Hargrove's enduring study even more widely available to
scholars and libraries. The only new additional text is a brief
"Preface to the Paperback Edition," in which the author discusses
the hybrid nature of his methodological approach--one that combines
historical inquiry "with an eye to [political
science/organizational] theory" (p. xi)--and also raises some
as-yet-unanswered questions for exploration by future researchers.
No mention is made about the state of TVA's leadership during the
nearly ten years since Hargrove completed his study. After it was
left out of the hardback version, a separate bibliography or
bibliographical essay--listed apart from those references found in
the notes--would have improved subsequent editions. Unfortunately,
once again it has been omitted, but its absence is only a minor
annoyance in an otherwise well-written and engaging volume.
. Philip Selznick, _TVA and the Grass Roots: A Study in the
Sociology of Formal Organization_ (New York: Harper and Row, 1966).
. Selznick, p. 13.
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