“In this whacking new biography of Vanderbilt, T. J. Stiles demonstrates a brute eloquence of his own. This is a mighty–and mighty confident–work, one that moves with force and conviction and imperious wit through Vanderbilt’s noisy life and times…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, The New York Times
A gripping, groundbreaking biography of the combative man whose genius and force of will created modern capitalism.
Founder of a dynasty, builder of the original Grand Central, creator of an impossibly vast fortune, Cornelius “Commodore” Vanderbilt is an American icon. Humbly born on Staten Island during George Washington’s presidency, he rose from boatman to builder of the nation’s largest fleet of steamships to lord of a railroad empire. Lincoln consulted him on steamship strategy during the Civil War; Jay Gould was first his uneasy ally and then sworn enemy; and Victoria Woodhull, the first woman to run for president of the United States, was his spiritual counselor. We see Vanderbilt help to launch the transportation revolution, propel the Gold Rush, reshape Manhattan, and invent the modern corporation—in fact, as T. J. Stiles elegantly argues, Vanderbilt did more than perhaps any other individual to create the economic world we live in today.
In The First Tycoon, Stiles offers the first complete, authoritative biography of this titan, and the first comprehensive account of the Commodore’s personal life. It is a sweeping, fast-moving epic, and a complex portrait of the great man. Vanderbilt, Stiles shows, embraced the philosophy of the Jacksonian Democrats and withstood attacks by his conservative enemies for being too competitive. He was a visionary who pioneered business models. He was an unschooled fistfighter who came to command the respect of New York’s social elite. And he was a father who struggled with a gambling-addicted son, a husband who was loving yet abusive, and, finally, an old man who was obsessed with contacting the dead.
The First Tycoon is the exhilarating story of a man and a nation maturing together: the powerful account of a man whose life was as epic and complex as American history itself.
About T. J. Stiles: T. J. Stiles has held the Gilder Lehrman Fellowship in American History at the Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library, taught at Columbia University, and served as adviser for the PBS series The American Experience. His first book, Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War, won the Ambassador Book Award and the Peter Seaborg Award for Civil War Scholarship, and was a New York Times Notable Book. He has written for The New York Times Book Review, Salon.com, Smithsonian, and the Los Angeles Times. He lives in San Francisco.
From our interview with T. J. Stiles:
Q: Your last book was a biography of Jesse James. What drew you to Cornelius Vanderbilt as your next subject?
A: I was drawn by who he was as a person, the lack of writing about him, and the historical themes that defined his life.
Like Jesse James, Vanderbilt was man of action—decisive, dramatic, and always interesting. He courted physical danger, fought high-stakes financial battles, and always set the terms of his existence. Like Jesse James, Vanderbilt has not been the subject of much serious research. And like Jesse James, Vanderbilt opened a window on the making of modern America. Vanderbilt was central to the rise of the corporation, the emergence of Wall Street, and the birth of big business. His was a dramatic life played out on an enormous stage.
Q: How long have you been working on this book and what kind of research went into it?
A: I worked on it for more than six years. My research was challenging because Vanderbilt kept no diary, preserved no letters, and left behind no collection of papers. Second, the last serious biography about him was written in 1942. The increasing digitization of newspapers and Congressional documents helped, but I did most of my work the old-fashioned way, digging through archives and sitting in front of microfilm readers. My biggest discovery came when I stumbled upon the Old Records Division of the New York County Clerk’s Office; I spent months there going through original lawsuit papers from as early as 1816. I uncovered entire episodes of Vanderbilt’s life that no one ever suspected—fistfights, steamboats ramming each other, inside trading and noncompetition agreements, details about his physical office and epic tales of betrayal. I also focused on Vanderbilt’s associates and rivals, and found priceless letters about him in their papers. Of course, I spent months more going through the papers of his various railroad corporations at the New York Public Library. I found so much new material that I decided to include a lengthy bibliographical essay.
Click here to see T. J. Stiles’s tour dates.