October 17, 2012
After the presidential debate, I was able to watch the History Channel's new quasi-documentary series, "The Men Who Built America". I was interviewed for the first episode. And I'm alarmed by the result.
First, let's dispense with the re-enactments: These don't really bother me. They're standard in historical documentaries these days, and the producers put a lot of money into them. True, I'm disappointed that the real visual imagery was more dramatic than the re-enactments, for the most part. Cornelius Vanderbilt was taller in real life. He did not have a beard (and wore a white, not black, tie). The blockade of the Albany bridge in 1867, an episode depicted in the show, was actually in a howling blizzard, with passengers and freight piling up on the western banks of the frozen Hudson—and no one aimed a rifle at the oncoming trains. When the show got to Jay Gould and Jim Fisk, it depicted Gould drinking and carousing with what appeared to be a prostitute—behavior characteristic of Fisk, but never Gould.
So there were inaccuracies, but such is the state of the genre these days.
Second, and more important, the show presented fiction as if it were fact. Now, I expect simplification. And, if this were presented as a fictionalized miniseries, I would expect some invention as well. But this episode went beyond simplification. It invented events wholesale, and sold them as fact. I had the impression that the producers read my book (and viewed my lengthy interview), and decided to present the opposite. That's one reason why I'm so alarmed.
Let's take some examples:
• The story of the war over the Erie Railway in 1868 was presented as Vanderbilt's scheme to monopolize America's railroads. As I show in the book, this is demonstrably false—though it was claimed by his opponents. The key player was Daniel Drew, who never appeared on screen. He was an old friend of Vanderbilt's on the Erie board who betrayed him and his allies on the stock market in a deal concerning Erie stock. So Vanderbilt tried to corner the market to punish Drew for his treachery. That drew in Gould and Fisk (new members of the board, not "middle management," as the show claims), who didn't care about Vanderbilt's motives. They issued massive amounts of new stock to drive down the price and defeat Vanderbilt's corner. The show claimed the Erie could issue new stock without shareholder approval thanks to some "fine print." Not true. Strangely ignored in the show was an epic battle in the New York state legislature over the legalization of the new (and blatantly illegal) stock. The battle ended when Gould bribed the legislature wholesale—though Vanderbilt still managed to force Erie to repay his losses. The real drama was disregarded in favor of a less interesting fictional version. (And don't get me started on the show's misrepresentation of "stock watering," which they called "watering down stock," a term that is not only historically inaccurate but shows a misunderstanding of what contemporaries were complaining about.)
• The relationship between young John D. Rockefeller and Vanderbilt was just made up to inject conflict (at the expense of actual conflicts in both their lives). The show depicted Vanderbilt "making" Rockefeller after "summoning" him to New York, followed by an epic battle between the two. All false. Rockefeller, already rapidly rising, had an office in New York; when he was in town, Vanderbilt asked to see him, but Rockefeller actually saw and negotiated with an underling. Later the two did not clash, but rather joined together with Tom Scott of the Pennsylvania and with the post-Gould Erie to create the South Improvement Company, a notorious device for dividing traffic and giving preference to Rockefeller's Standard Oil. Given Rockefeller's highly favorable relationship with the railroads, he did not pioneer pipelines, because initially they actually harmed his competitive advantage. Apart from some routine squabbling, Vanderbilt maintained a healthy relationship with Rockefeller to the end of the Commodore's life. The story told on the small screen was simply not true.
Third, I'm alarmed at the celebratory nature of the show. One of the elements of Vanderbilt's life I spent a great deal of time discussing in my interview, and in my book, was the controversy he created. But the show's producers seem to be uninterested in anything at all negative when it comes to these industrialists and financiers. I half expected to see Ayn Rand listed in the credits for "The Men Who Built America."
True, I admire Vanderbilt as a businessman, and think he did a lot of good. He was honest in running his businesses, made money for investors, vastly improved transportation, and lowered costs for shippers and consumers. But the very things that made Vanderbilt so hugely rich—his success in creating larger and larger enterprises—changed the way Americans argued about politics and the economy.
As I note in the book, Vanderbilt came of age in the Jacksonian era, when there was no big business. Political radicals believed in laissez faire, to give everyone a fair chance at competing, while conservatives wanted government sponsorship of enterprise, to develop the young economy without destructive competition. By helping to create big business, Vanderbilt helped spin the political spectrum 180 degrees.
By the end of his life, laissez-faire meant (in radicals' eyes) allowing big business to run roughshod over everyone else; government intervention in the economy came to mean regulation of giant enterprises, to protect the little guy. Vanderbilt himself always believed in laissez faire (and proved how much wealth it could help create at its best), but he also demonstrated the power that private interests could have over the public, especially when he closed the Albany bridge in 1867. His views went from radical to conservative over his lifetime without ever changing, because he helped to change the political landscape itself.
"The Men Who Built America" is only interested in one side of the tale, and even bungles that part of it. It's too bad, because the industrialists and financiers it focuses on have very good stories, stories that can make us think about who we are and what we want from our economy today.
October 17, 2012
I'm not against e-books—not at all. I just don't have an e-book reading device, apart from my iPhone, which I don't use for books. But when one reader complained that the e-book edition of The First Tycoon lacks the many illustrations that enhance the book—illustrations I hunted long and hard for, and for which I paid for reproduction rights—I investigated.
My publisher informed me that, when the book was released digitally in 2009, the leading reading device lacked the ability to display the illustrations. But this is 2012, I noted; most devices can handle them now. My editor agreed. The crew at Knopf and Vintage went to work, putting in some hard effort to quickly produce a new e-edition. It's now available.
Thanks again to one reader who spoke up. I immediately read every e-mail I get, and I do my best to meet your concerns.
May 3, 2012
Despite my long absence from my own blog on my own website, I am still alive, deep in writing my next book. Meanwhile my shorter work comes out from time to time. After a conversation with the head of the engineering school at Vanderbilt University, he asked me to write something about Cornelius Vanderbilt's career as a self-taught engineer. I produced a short piece that's now available online: click here to read it. The Commodore was controversial for his power and ruthlessness, but the man was brilliant.
November 3, 2011
As is pretty clear, I haven't been updating this blog. I'm well along in work on my next book, a biography of George Armstrong Custer. So stay tuned for a new book, and a subsequent revamping of this blog. In the meantime, you can keep track of my doings at my official author page on Facebook, here.
June 14, 2011
Even though I spent about seven years working on The First Tycoon, I made some mistakes. I hate making mistakes, but sometimes they're inevitable. Fortunately, there haven't been many, and none that I've found so far are particularly significant (most are typos). But I try to fix them nonetheless.
Future printings of the book should include the biggest correction, regarding the military career and death of Commodore Vanderbilt's youngest son, George Washington Vanderbilt. George died young, during the Civil War, and so he was never a central character. Because of that, unfortunately, I stopped my research on him one step short of where I should have gone.
I wrote that he never saw the front lines, that he got sick while on recruiting duty in Boston. This is what the newspapers suggested, and what I gathered from General Cullum's Biographical Register, generally regarded as the authoritative source on West Point graduates. However, in the army's Commission Branch files at the National Archives, I recently found original documents that show that George briefly served as a staff officer to a brigade commander in the Corinth campaign, as often stated in the past. The conventional wisdom was right; I was wrong.
He didn't serve there long. He very soon fell ill with dysentery and "inflammation of the right lung," possibly TB, according to a signed statement by Dr. Jared Linsly, the family doctor. He died in France on January 1, 1864, according to a letter from the Commodore himself, and not on December 31, 1863, as I wrote in my book.
Future editions will correct these errors. Fortunately, it has no effect on the narrative or my judgments about these events. But it's important to recognize and correct errors, I believe. Since no one is always right, admitting when you're wrong only helps your credibility. We want the closest thing to the truth we can get—whether it adds a few scuff marks to our reputations or not.
April 11, 2011
It has been announced that I have been selected for a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation fellowship.
To say that I am honored, humbled, and grateful is an understatement. For a fuller statement of my reaction to my good fortune, see my Biographer's Blog, here.
My deep thanks to all who supported my application, and who have given me so much assistance and encouragement in my career.
February 5, 2011
I thought of this last night, when I was listening to BBC World News on my local public radio station, KQED. A reporter was interviewing a Chinese economist about the capital market in China. Sounds boring? It wasn't. The economist pointed out that, though there is a lot of capital available for investment in his country, loans are often handled privately, leading to far higher interest payments and an inefficient market. What China needs to continue to grow, he argued, was a transparent (and thus efficient) capital market. When businesspeople know where capital is available, when open competition sets in for investment opportunities, the cost of capital will fall. Transparency=efficiency=productivity=growth.
But the economist noted that a transparent capital market can only exist with a free press. A free flow of information is the fundamental element in transparency of any kind. In other words, the self-interested demands of Chinese capitalists may result in a more open Chinese society, with potentially profound political consequences.
Without studying the subject, I tend to think the gentleman on the radio was quite correct. Looking at our own national history, early American newspapers tended to consist largely of lists of prices and announcements of ship arrivals or departures (hence the illustration). A free and vigorous press was driven, at least partly, by mercantile demands for information about trade. Of course, the public also demanded political information, entertainment, etc., but business helped make the free press an economically viable institution, one central to American culture. Business affects politics, society, and culture in profound ways. I saw many ways in which the career of Cornelius Vanderbilt directly affected the non-economic aspects of the American republic.
Now, we cannot jump to simpleminded conclusions, such as the notion that a free market automatically leads to an open society. The Chinese Communist Party has been enormously adept at maintaining its rule even as the economy has opened up. But the pressures created by a rising market economy can be identified, and clearly they go beyond business into politics, as they did in early America. Again, this does not mean we have to become cheerleaders for capitalism. Any honest assessment of the rise of China's economy must include the huge disparities in wealth and the social disruptions that have resulted. But it's fascinating to watch.
January 20, 2011
One of my favorite English writers is a man who grew up speaking Polish: Joseph Conrad. And one of my favorite Conrad novels, one I reread when writing The First Tycoon, is Nostromo: A Tale of the Seaboard. (The link will help you find it at your local independent bookstore.)
Conrad has received a lot of grief as an imperialist, Eurocentric writer who treated the peoples of the rest of the world as a lot of savages. I think this beef is largely wrong, often drastically wrong, even though no writer is above criticism. My advice is that everyone read him and then debate him—because he's really worth reading.
Conrad shares many of the characteristics of great writers. He thinks deeply about the human condition, and probes human nature under often extreme circumstances. He can inhabit radically different characters, making them fully alive on the page (many of those characters being non-Europeans). He creates rich, believable worlds. As he once wrote, his goal was, above all, to make you see. In our visual age, that capacity for cinematic imagination should be appreciated more than ever.
In Nostromo, Conrad tells a tale of high politics, family struggle, and intense drama, set in a fictional South American country. He brilliantly depicts radically different perspectives on fast-moving events—from the old Italian revolutionary to the Englishman who shakes up the country by opening a lucrative silver mine, from a brutal dictator to a San Francisco financier to the heroic stevedore whose name provides the title.
I came to see my book, though nonfiction, as following the pattern set by Nostromo, an epic tale of business, politics, war, and adventures at sea, populated by an enormous range of characters, each with his or her own agenda and impulses. I didn't try to mimic Conrad, of course, but I wanted to capture some of the qualities that make Nostromo such a treat for me. After all, they say that writers ultimately write their books for themselves. If they didn't, then writing would seem like working for a living.
January 6, 2011
As promised, here are a few books that influenced me as I wrote The First Tycoon.
Some of these books included essential information, of course. I'm thinking, for example, of James McPherson's Battle Cry of Freedom, his splendid one-volume history of the Civil War era, or Maury Klein's The Life and Legend of Jay Gould. But I'm not speaking at the moment of sources, but rather literary influences. McPherson combines narrative momentum, contextual discussions, and character sketches in such a marvelous manner that (as one reviewer put it) you read this book rather breathlessly, as if you don't know how it will all come out. Klein's elegant work matches tremendous research and scholarship with crystal-clear explanations of business matters and, again, a brisk narrative pace. He balances Gould's private and business lives wonderfully, creating a real model for a biography of a business figure.
In the realm of nonfiction, Robert Caro, too, sets the standard. I read Master of the Senate when I was writing The First Tycoon, and I was overwhelmed by his ability to create real, believable characters from his research. More than that, he brings to life secondary characters, an overlooked component in many biographies, so that the reader clearly sees the interplay of egos, emotions, and agendas in Lyndon Johnson's life.
I believe in reading fiction as nourishment for my writing. I've written elsewhere of Tolstoy's riches, so visible in his two giant novels. Let me add here that Conrad is a favorite as well. I re-read Nostromo when writing The First Tycoon. It almost seems to be a fictionalization of Vanderbilt's Nicaragua venture, for one thing. For another, it, too, creates a rich, believable world, immersing the reader in seemingly real people, scenes, places, businesses, and cultures. The fast-paced plot and the range of characters (from the stevedore Nostromo to political kingpins to a San Francisco financier) inspired me.
Stay tuned for more.
January 1, 2011
Over at my general biography-writing blog, I'm starting to post reading recommendations for the biographer—a range of fiction and nonfiction.
In a future post, I'll discuss the books that influenced me in writing The First Tycoon—that is, books that inspired me, rather than simply gave me information. I think it's vital for a writer with artistic aspirations to read broadly, and infuse the insights and virtuosity encountered there into his or her own work. Often in my writing, I cite a novel or essay that is not directly relate to my topic, or even deliberately echo a well-known passage from a work of literature. Hopefully this enriches the writing, and places the book in a broader cultural continent. Or it sounds pretentious—one of the two.
Stay tuned for more.