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

T.J. Stiles' “state-of-the-art biography” credits Vanderbilt with creating the “unseen architecture” of American capitalism.

(Knopf, 719 pages, $37.50)

Cornelius Vanderbilt lived a high-profile life: building a steamship empire, then the nation’s biggest railroad, and amassing a personal fortune equivalent to one in every nine dollars of total U.S. wealth. But the bullish and unschooled son of a New York farmer “may have left his most lasting mark in the invisible world,” says biographer T.J. Stiles. Vanderbilt’s most transformative achievement was to create the “unseen architecture” of American capitalism, which in turn made the U.S. economy the envy of the planet. Before Vanderbilt, business was primarily a pastime of the gentlemanly elite, and corporations were typically formed only to carry out public-works-like projects. The “Commodore” viewed business as war. To him, shares in a company were tools of broader battles, and the emerging stock market was itself an arena ripe for vast profit making.

“Stiles has a gift for making readers admire unsavory characters,” said James Pressley in The author’s mammoth new book sometimes “resembles a five-course meal at a three-star restaurant: It’s not designed for rapid digestion.” But after some 700 “arresting” pages of “fistfights, shipwrecks, and market manipulation,” I wanted to raise a toast to Vanderbilt and “everything the old rascal did for the U.S.”

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His fingerprints can seem to be everywhere on our history, said Richard M. Abrams in the San Francisco Chronicle. Born while George Washington was president, he was still in his twenties when he defied another man’s monopoly over New York Harbor ferry rights and thus instigated a U.S. Supreme Court case that strengthened federal control of interstate commerce. As a middle-aged steamboat magnate, he helped open an alternate Central American route to California’s gold rush. He was manipulating markets decades before J.P. Morgan, Jay Gould, or John D. Rockefeller were even born.

“There are moments in any biography this size when your eyes are going to glaze over,” said Dwight Garner in The New York Times. Stiles’ account isn’t immune to those, even though the author is both a “clear-eyed” judge of Vanderbilt’s “amoral rapacity” and an energetic debater of the case that Vanderbilt has been too often vilified. The First Tycoon is “state-of-the-art biography.” Despite the occasional patch of deep weeds, it is “crisper and more piquant” than such a large book “has a right to be.”

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