Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The First Tycoon: Cornelius Vanderbilt - Book Review

Cornelius Vanderbilt was born on Staten Island, NY in 1794, the year George Washington began his second term as President of the United States and died in 1877 in an America that had gone from being a small, rural, farming country clustered along the Atlantic seaboard and with a leading landed gentry showing the way to a wealthy industrial nation spanning the continent which was tied together by the railroad empire Vanderbilt had forged.  At his death, Vanderbilt was estimated to be $100,000,000, a sum that doesn't particularly raise eyes today, but probably represented about one in every nineteen dollars of the United States' net worth.  Today's largest fortune, that of Bill Gates, by comparison is worth roughly one in every 138 dollars on the U.S. Gross Domestic Product.  Vanderbilt is reckoned to have been the second richest man in American history. 
In following the life of Commodore Vanderbilt (an eponymous title), T.J. Stiles has crafted a marvelous biography of the man and the era in which he amassed his great fortune.  The book was justly chosen for the 2010 Pulitzer Prize in biography and the 2009 National Book Award in non-fiction as well as a number of other distinguished awards.  This long book about a long and important life only very occasionally looses its narrative drive in the details of deals, wars, betrayals, and successes that characterized Vanderbilt's life.  He emerges as a complex, driving, demanding, principled, and, above all, far-seeing builder of first steam ships lines and then railroads, each of which built and then dominated the America of their eras.  As I read through this story, I came increasingly to admire the mind and character of Vanderbilt himself. Stiles takes an extremely complicated person who develops into a subtle and complex person and painstakenly follows the ins and outs of his business career.  A more difficult problem is trying to make sense of his personal relationship, which Vanderbilt guarded with extreme care.  He documents the advantages and difficulties of being the child of such a successful and demanding person, while always keeping Vanderbilt's essential humanity in the forefront.  Stiles' writing is smooth and lucid, opening the people and the culture up to allowing the reader to construct a sense of the times and how they changed over the long life of this first American tycoon. 
A Brief Detour

Just before beginning to read Vanderbilt I had been reading Edmund Rutherford's historical novel New York.  I had read other works by Rutherford with pleasure.  Sarum, London, and The Forest were all massive historical novels modeled after the James Michener's works like Hawaii and Centennial, and The Source, all of which followed the lives and fortunes of several contrasting families as they progressed through generations of history in the Hawaii, the American west, and Israel.  I had enjoyed Rutherford's books, but they never measured up to the best of Michener.  New York, however, set a new low in this kind of broad sweep historical novel.  The characters are sterotyped and wooden, the history stilted and preachy, and the story filled with more coincidences and inconsistencies than could possibly turn into a good story.  On the whole, the novel seems rushed and Rutherford uncomfortable writing about a culture with which he is not entirely familiar.  I finally put it down on page 699 when the melodrama became so forced I was unable to continue. In fact, I haven't (and won't) return to see how he solved the problem he created, because there's nothing about this very bad book that draws me back.  Don't even ask why I read as far as I did.  Just habit and pride, I guess.

And Now...Back to the Subject at Hand....

Cornelius Vanderbilt
Vanderbilt was born on Staten Island, now a borough of New York City, which was separated from Manhattan by the Hudson River.  As a teenager he began business ferrying passengers from his home island across the river to the small city then clustered around what is now known as the battery.  This was a rough and tumble sea-faring life to which Vanderbilt, a large, strong, athletic man was well suited.  In his early business life he triumphed through his physical skill and courage as much as his wile and brains.  Over a period of nearly fifty years this small and inauspicious start turned into a large and powerful steam-powered shipping company that dominated the Hudson River and the routes between New York and Boston.  With the discovery of gold in California, Vanderbilt established an alternative shipping route between New York and San Francisco using Nicaragua as the crossing point.  The battles that proceeded from this growth were a matter of international dispute as well as the struggles between private industrial armies.  Somehow, Vanderbilt, through nerve and calm perseverance managed to prevail, and by the mid-1850's controlled the routes to San Francisco as well as the trans-Atlantic shipping business.  He was active in supporting the Union's sea effort during the Civil War.  Meanwhile, he began to divest himself of shipping interests and devote an increasing amount of time and money to railroads, which he had begun to own and manage in the 1830's.  

After the Civil War, Vanderbilt saw the importance of America's westward movement and realized the need for efficient transportation from the west to New York, through which a majority of export commerce and money had long flowed. He invested in and gained control of smaller railroads, gradually accumulating control of the routes along the Hudson River, across New York state, and eventually along the Great Lakes to Chicago.  The names of the people he competed with and, sometimes, partnered with is a catalog of the great industrial names in the post-Civil War era - Jay Gould, James Fist, Daniel Drew, John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, and more - still ring in our ears as we think about the growth of America in the nineteenth century.  The later great excesses of the Gilded Age were engaged in by Vanderbilt's descendants. He himself, while leading quite a lavish life by any standard, seems to have been relatively abstemious in his personal habits, his only real extravagance being his love of owning and racing fast horses.  Vanderbilt dies in 1877, leaving the bulk of his huge estate to his son William, who followed in his stead.

The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt by T.J. Stiles is published in trade paperback by Vintage Books, a division of Random House, and is available at all the usual on-line sources, as an e-book, and at your local independent bookstore.  It's extremely readable.  At 719 pages, it's rather long, but over 111 of those pages are acknowledgments and annotation.  At no time does this feel like a lengthy or tedious book.  If you're interested in the development of American capitalism, you need to understand the role of Cornelius Vanderbilt in creating the structures that became the corporation we know today.  This is not only a highly readable, but a very important book.