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The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt
by T. J. Stiles
736 pages
Knopf
Published: Apr 2009

The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt” is the first notable biography of Vanderbilt to be published in the last six decades and earned the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Biography. Stiles is also the author of “Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War” which was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2003. His most recent biography “Custer’s Trials: A Life on the Frontier of a New America” was published in 2015.

Cornelius Vanderbilt (1794-1877) may be the least-remembered – and possibly the most influential – of the nineteenth-century industrialists. This descendant of Dutch immigrants began modestly but eventually assembled the nation’s largest fleet of ships (earning a fortune in the process). In his second act he built, bought and consolidated a massive railroad enterprise headquartered in New York. He died in the early part of what we consider the Gilded Age.

In this masterful biography, Stiles exposes nearly every facet of Cornelius Vanderbilt’s life – from his early days scrapping for nickels to his final years spent handing control of his business empire to his oldest son. The 571-page narrative is underpinned by extraordinary research in an investigative effort made even more impressive by the fact that Vanderbilt did not maintain a diary and left behind no collection of papers to peruse.

Stiles’s writing style is often, but not always, fascinating and colorful. But readers will quickly observe that he is unusually skilled at embedding Vanderbilt’s actions – and the major events of his life – within the context of his era. In fact, I can think of few other biographies that surround their characters with as much historical context as Stiles.

As a result, anyone navigating this biography will become well exposed to the major political and economic forces prevailing between the presidencies of James Madison and Ulysses Grant. This includes keen observations on slavery, monetary policy, the rise of the corporate trust, the financial depressions of the 1800s and the California Gold Rush. And Vanderbilt’s view of the Civil War is especially interesting.

Other notable strengths of this book include the author’s consistent efforts to introduce key supporting characters, his ability to describe complex financial transactions and his frequent assessments of Vanderbilt’s strengths, weaknesses and impact on the economic and social fabric of the country.

In addition, the book ends with a compelling Bibliographical Essay which describes the author’s approach to researching his subject’s life and a thoughtful critique of an earlier (and controversial) biography of Vanderbilt. But the biography’s most notable strength may be its ability to analyze the strategic decisions Vanderbilt confronted as he built his business empire in the face of countless cunning competitors.

Readers seeking a consistently entertaining read may find this biography occasionally tedious or flat, however. In addition, the narrative can becomes so focused on context that Vanderbilt temporarily fades into the background. And while the conflict was important to Vanderbilt’s steamship operation, not all readers will be enthralled with the multi-chapter thread focusing on political unrest in Nicaragua.

Finally, Stiles’s focus on Vanderbilt’s family (which included two wives and thirteen children) is uneven, and the narrative does occasionally seem more like a labyrinthine business school case-study than like a biography.

Overall, however, T.J. Stiles’s biography of Cornelius Vanderbilt is simply marvelous. Readers requiring a carefree reading experience may be somewhat disappointed. But anyone interested in uniquely astute biographies, the Gilded Age, or nineteenth-century American history will find this a compelling choice. In a world where content is king “The First Tycoon” really shines.

Overall rating: 4½ stars