'First Tycoon' recalls the robust Cornelius Vanderbilt

By Carlo Wolff
April 27, 2009
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How fitting that T.J. Stiles follow his epochal biography of the complex, unexpectedly modern outlaw Jesse James with "The First Tycoon," an epochal biography of James's more influential and far more legal contemporary, Cornelius Vanderbilt. Where James robbed railroads, Vanderbilt built them. Where James gamed the adolescent republic's divisions, Vanderbilt smoothed them over, monetizing them by way of his transportation empire.

Like James, Vanderbilt, whose career gave rise to the term "robber baron," changed and reflected the evolving American landscape. Like James, he played by his own rules. And, like James, he symbolized a nation growing into its often-contradictory character.

Unlike James, however, Vanderbilt was no crook. He was wily and imperious, no doubt. But for a man whose worth at the time of his death in 1877 was estimated at $100 million, he was singularly straightforward. In Stiles's view, Vanderbilt embodied confidence but was in no way a con man.

Vanderbilt's career was built on transportation and mirrored its evolution. He began with steamboats before the War of 1812 and ended in his 80s as head of New York Central, the nation's largest railroad system and the template for the modern corporation. Stiles depicts Vanderbilt's career as the intersection of politics and commerce, public and private. Vanderbilt, honest entrepreneur, frequently battled corruption.

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. It can be hard to follow. Readers must guard against losing track of the many characters, particularly relatives, who wandered in and out of Vanderbilt's life. It's also challenging to keep score of Vanderbilt's alliances and deals, particularly the ones he struck during Reconstruction, when he effectively invented the modern railroad system.

Until the 1840s, when Vanderbilt cemented his hold on the nascent steamboat industry, "the social, political, and economic elite had been one and the same; power and influence had gone together with social standing and family prestige," Stiles writes. "The democratization of politics and the unleashing of the market, however, had destroyed the functional purpose of social standing."

Vanderbilt was key to the Union victory in the Civil War, the growth of the banking system from regional hodgepodge to national network, and to the establishment of New York as the world's financial power center. His run-ins with the likes of the scheming Jay Gould and "pious, long-faced" oil refiner John D. Rockefeller; and with William Walker, the privateer who essentially ran Nicaragua in the 1850s, in a fascinating section derived from hitherto untapped archival resources, are particularly riveting acts within the dramatic arc of Vanderbilt's long, robust life.

As Vanderbilt's dominance expanded, so did his social influence. Even though this complex family man never could spell and was tongue-tied in certain social situations, he assumed an ever-larger role in New York society, racing his horses within the city and in the northern retreat of Saratoga even as he fostered his troubled, troublesome dynasty. Stiles's accounts of Vanderbilt's interaction with his sons, particularly flawed farmer Billy and gambling addict Corneil, attest to the man's gnarly humanity.

In the bibliographical essay at the end of the book, before 113 pages of footnotes, Stiles explains his motivation, criticizing earlier biographies of Vanderbilt. The latest one to which he grants legitimacy, Wheaton Lane's "Commodore Vanderbilt: An Epic of the Steam Age," was published in 1942, severely dating it, and Stiles slams the latest, Edward J. Renehan Jr.'s "Commodore: The Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt," which came out in 2007, five years into Stiles's own research into Vanderbilt. He blasts it for over-reliance on secondary sources and alleged factual errors, and Renehan's refusal to authenticate his sources left Stiles with a sour aftertaste.

"My motto is to research in terror, write with confidence, and publish with humility: terror, lest something escape me; confidence, lest the narrative seem weak and uncertain; and humility, because some sources and interpretations, not to mention perfect literary grace, always lie beyond the grasp of any writer," Stiles writes.

Such elegance of style and fair-minded intent illuminate Stiles's latest, expectedly profound exploration of American culture in the raw.

Carlo Wolff is a freelance writer.

THE FIRST TYCOON: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt
By T.J. Stiles
Alfred A. Knopf, 752 pp., $37.50