Book Review: The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt by T. J. Stiles

During the summer I often like to tackle really big books, often history books.  This summer I took on a book that has already received a lot of acclaim:  it has won the Pulitzer Prize as well as the National Book Award.  These massive historical biographies are valuable not only for the insight they give into the lives of the famous people being highlighted, but also into the era and milieu in which they lived.  So it is with this

I can’t say that it reads like a novel, for a novel would not go into such detail about peripheral people, geography, economic and political history, and so on.  But for a
work of nonfiction that goes into great detail on its subject it is very readable and fast-paced.  Part of the reason is the fact that the subject is so fascinating, and part the author’s
skill in storytelling.

Vanderbilt truly did live an amazing, epic life.  He started out in steamships making runs from Staten Island to New York, then expanded his operations to include all of New
England.  Later, at the time of the California gold rush, he pioneered a steamship route from New York to Nicaragua, across Nicaragua, and then from there to San Francisco.  For a time he went into trans-Atlantic steamers as well.  And finally, he gave up the steamship business to concentrate on what was then state-of-the-art transportation:  the growing network of railroads.  On the way, he became one of the richest men in America and, in comparable values of the dollar then and now, one of the richest men ever in the United States.

He was a brash, bold, foul-mouthed, uneducated man, quick to seize opportunities or to punish enemies who got in his way.  The book chronicles the lives of many of the
important East Coast businessmen of the era, as well as Vanderbilt’s relationships with his personal family, which were often stormy.  As I read about his personal and professional
life I found myself double-minded in my reaction.  On the one hand, it is easy to see that in
many ways he was a reprehensible character:  selfish, self-serving, neglectful of others, domineering, vengeful, ready to forsake anything to pursue the gleam of wealth; on the other hand he was one-of-a-kind:  intelligent, complex, resourceful, and I found myself cheering him on in his battles with his many enemies and rivals.  It is a complement
to the skill of the writer, because no life is simple, and it is far easier to break everything down into black and white than to illuminate all the shades of gray as well.

Apart from the story of the man himself, the economics of the era and the growth of modern economic theory, the shift in the politics of government before, during, and after the Civil War, and how various modes of transport assumed such historical importance, what I found particularly interesting was the insight the book provided in the growth of New York from a small dirty village in the late 1700s to the great center of the United States economy that it became.  Last summer I visited New York and spent a few days wandering the streets of Manhattan and taking it all in, and it is truly intimidating and awe-inspiring.  Perhaps someone who has lived there or visited it frequently might be more jaded and see things differently, but for me New York was fascinating and I enjoyed reading how it got the way it is.  That’s the fun of a gigantic, well-researched, well-written history book like this one:  it can be enjoyed on many levels, and offers insight far beyond that of its primary subject.

So yes, I would recommend this book.  I realize that many people are intimidated by big books like this one, but there is no reason to be.  I have found when preparing to tackle a book of this length that it pays to not even worry about it.  Just start on page one and read a few pages, then a few more and a few more and so on.  Soon, if the book is worthwhile, you will find yourself well into it and hooked.  After that there is no problem continuing.  Personally I hate to put a book down once I have begun it; I do so only on very rare occasions.  So I am very careful about what I read.  I research ahead, read favorites lists, read reviews, read articles, read awards lists, so that when I finally buy or borrow a book and sit down to begin I know exactly what I am getting into.  That’s why I have begun writing reviews, so I can tip off other readers as to what might or might not be worthwhile in the world of books.  Of course, in the end a lot of it boils down to individual taste, but this particular book is tried and proven by many, and I add my voice to theirs.  It’s a good book.

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