A friend of mine bought some Hershey's chocolate on sale and brought several bars to a park gathering for all of us to share. She apologized for its not being exactly high-end goods, and though we all brushed her words aside, it was true that we'd all come a long way from the time that a handful of Hershey's bars would have been the best chocolate that day or any other could offer. The sweetness we'd grown up with now seemed oversweet, the texture a little off.
"I guess they have to put a certain amount of wax in so they can stamp the Hershey's logo on it," one of us joked. Another friend wondered aloud if anyone could tell the difference between a Hershey's bar that had been sitting on the shelf for ten years and one that was fresh from the factory.
It's important to remember, though, that the qualities we might not enjoy about Hershey's chocolate are exactly what made it such a huge success in America: its sweetness, its cheapness, its mass availability, even its durability. Like it or not, Hershey's success story is an important one.
Michael D'Antonio gives us that story in his readable and engrossing Hershey: Milton S. Hershey's Extraordinary Life of Wealth, Empire, and Utopian Dreams. This is a biography as much of a time and a place as it is of a man and his triumph over the odds.
The writing is deft -- supplying fascinating detail without drowning the reader in minutiae. We learn not merely about Hershey's parents and how and why they played crucial roles in his business life, but just enough about the Mennonite faith they were both raised with to whet our interest. We learn about the Pennsylvania "oil rush" because it was important to Hershey's father, and to the state that Hershey would have such a huge impact on himself.
D'Antonio knows, however, that the reader's deepest interest is going to be in its title subject. We already know how the story will end: the pauper will become a prince and live happily ever after. What we really want are the details. How did a man with such outwardly ordinary origins become a household word?
It's not, after all, as if Hershey were the only boy born to a dreaming, impractical father and a cooler-headed mother who learned bitterly that she had to be the earner and provider as well as the homemaker in this mismatch of a marriage. Certainly Hershey wasn't even close to being the only deeply ambitious man in what came to be known, thanks to Mark Twain, as the gilded age.
Hershey's success was an odd combination of dumb luck and sheer hard work. We like to give the latter all the credit, but how on earth could the man have so much faith in the idea of mass-producing milk chocolate that he would begin to build a factory to do so before he'd actually figured out the process? This is the kind of engaging, almost enraging detail that holds the reader incredulously in place until the end of the book.
We get a vivid picture of the town of Hershey as well as the man who created it. This man seemed to have had a particularly huge stroke of luck in possessing a name so suitable-sounding for his product, since his instincts in the naming department were atrocious. In the contest he held to name the factory town while it was still new, Hershey had to be talked out of awarding the prize to a woman who suggested Hersheykoko.
Once Hershey's chocolate was a huge success, Hershey took a personal dislike to William Wrigley Jr. and tried to make a go of a gum that would rival Wrigley's. He called it Easy Chew. Perhaps not surprisingly, it failed. Hershey also came up with two chocolate bars in the '30s: one was called Mild and Mellow, the other Not-So-Sweet.
These anecdotes illustrate the strength of the book -- its lively readability -- as well as its perhaps inevitable weakness. Hershey's accomplishments (and failures) are given to us in brisk, enjoyable prose; but we never really get a sense of who this man was. He was, we're told, often regarded by those who worked with and for him as a saint, an angel, even a god; but Hershey himself never really crystallizes for the reader.
This is a shame. A huge part of Hershey's success seems, according to this book anyway, to have been his innate ability to inspire those around him to work their hardest in his cause. He was a personality -- a charismatic leader, rather than simply a successful businessman. Charisma is easier to acknowledge than to delineate, but surely it's the job of the biographer to leave his readers with a vivid picture of the subject in question.
Taken as a story rather than a life story, though, this book is a great success and a riveting read.