four-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
41-July-Aug-2009
By: 
T.J. Stiles
user_rating: 
0

The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt

A-The First TycoonHistorian T. J. Stiles’s award-winning first book, Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War (2002), was a New York Times Notable Book, and he has written many articles on American history. He also taught at Columbia University and served as a consultant for the PBS series The American Experience.

The Topic: Born in 1794 to a humble Staten Island farmer, Cornelius Vanderbilt established a transportation empire that would sustain the fledgling nation and lay the foundations of modern capitalism. An opportunist and shrewd entrepreneur despite his lack of education, Vanderbilt ferried passengers to and from Manhattan on his father’s boat as a teen and invested in steamship and railroad travel in later years. By selling stock in his companies, manipulating market values, engaging in price wars, and wielding considerable political influence, he crushed his competitors in an era that disdained competition as improper and unbecoming of a gentleman. His wealth and power were unequaled at his death in 1877, and his legacy lives on in America’s economy and in the evolution of the corporate world.
Knopf. 719 pages. $37.50. ISBN: 0375415424

Boston Globe 4 of 5 Stars
"By intertwining Vanderbilt’s (and the country’s) economic development with information and commentary on the social and political fabric of his day, Stiles has painted a full-bodied, nuanced picture of the man. … Such elegance of style and fair-minded intent illuminate Stiles’s latest, expectedly profound exploration of American culture in the raw." Carlo Wolff

Christian Science Monitor 4 of 5 Stars
"Vanderbilt’s story is indeed epic, and so is The First Tycoon. … The book’s length will intimidate many casual readers, as will the in-depth discussion of business strategies. But those who brave its heft will find many rewards." Randy Dotinga

Economist 4 of 5 Stars
"It is the description of Vanderbilt’s legacy to American capitalism, rather than his wealth, that makes T. J. Stiles’s long but superbly written and researched book worthy of its subject. … If this makes for good economic and social history, what brings life to the personal narrative is his relationship with the scheming gang of steamboat and railway owners who are at times Vanderbilt’s partners, at times his enemies."

New York Times 4 of 5 Stars
"There are moments in any biography of this size when your eyes are going to glaze over; I certainly did not wish The First Tycoon were longer. But I read eagerly and avidly. This is state-of-the-art biography, crisper and more piquant than a 600-page book has any right to be." Dwight Garner

NY Times Book Review 4 of 5 Stars
"Stiles, the author of a biography of Jesse James, writes with both the panache of a fine journalist and the analytical care of a seasoned scholar. And he offers a fruitful way to think about the larger history of American elites as well as the life of one of their most famous members." Michael Kazin

San Francisco Chronicle 4 of 5 Stars
"Vanderbilt was indeed ‘The First Tycoon,’ as T. J. Stiles calls him in the title of his very long, very detailed and very absorbing biography. … The book is filled with important, exhaustively researched and indeed fascinating details that would profit every student of American business and social history to read." Richard M. Abrams

Newsweek 3.5 of 5 Stars
"‘Probably no other individual made an equal impact over such an extended period on America’s economy and society,’ T. J. Stiles writes in his long but fascinating new biography of the Commodore. … Stiles clearly admires Vanderbilt’s genius, but he acknowledges that his subject’s legacy is complicated." Louisa Thomas

Critical Summary

Though Stiles’s admiration for the man who inspired the phrase "robber baron" shines throughout this extraordinary rags-to-riches story, he harbors no illusions about his vindictive and bad-tempered subject. Stiles is quick to set the record straight when the past has condemned Vanderbilt unfairly, but he details his unscrupulous business dealings and troubled relationships with equal aplomb. Stiles’s exhaustive research has resulted in a massive, carefully edited book, and critics were surprised by the author’s ability to keep most of them engaged from beginning to end. Filled with fascinating insights into the lives of Vanderbilt and his contemporaries, as well as America’s social, political, and economic climate, The First Tycoon is a fitting tribute to a remarkable life and a must-read for anyone interested in the making of American business.