The Blog

Nostromo A Go-Go

January 20, 2011

Tags: The First Tycoon, T.J. Stiles, Cornelius Vanderbilt, Commodore Vanderbilt

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.

Interview with T.J. Stiles

July 21, 2010

Tags: T.J. Stiles, biography, writing, history, Cornelius Vanderbilt, Commodore Vanderbilt

The website Big Think has posted an interview in which I discuss the art of writing biography, research, the character of Cornelius Vanderbilt, and the fraught question of the uses of history for the present.



You can find the webpage, with shorter excerpts, here:
http://bigthink.com/tjstiles.

On "Morning Edition"

December 29, 2009

Tags: NPR, Morning Edition, T.J. Stiles, Cornelius Vanderbilt, Steve Inskeep, The First Tycoon

Today NPR's "Morning Edition" ran an interview with me about Cornelius Vanderbilt.

You can listen to it here.

National Book Award Finalist

October 14, 2009

Tags: National Book Award, T.J. Stiles, Cornelius Vanderbilt, Commodore Vanderbilt, The First Tycoon


The National Book Foundation announced that my new book, The First Tycoon, is a finalist for the National Book Award.

I'm flabbergasted—overjoyed, stunned, and humbled all at once. Yes, humbled, corny as that sounds. I'll be honest: I try my best to write at a level that would merit this kind of recognition, so this honor is a dream come true. But I really do believe in publishing a book with all humility, and this only drives that point home. There are hundreds of fine nonfiction books being published this year, and dozens that merit serious consideration for a national prize. Being singled out is a gift, plain and simple.

Talk at the Miller Center

September 29, 2009

Tags: T.J. Stiles, The First Tycoon, Commodore Vanderbilt, Cornelius Vanderbilt

I recently spoke at the Miller Center at the University of Virginia. Here's a Flash video of the event, which can also be downloaded in other formats at the Miller Center website.


The Optical Illusion of a Big Biography

September 4, 2009

Tags: Cornelius Vanderbilt, Commodore Vanderbilt, The First Tycoon, T.J. Stiles, biography


Recently two very different reviews appeared of my book. The contrast between them says a lot about the optical illusion that the size of a biography can create.

One is in Foreign Affairs, by noted writer and critic Walter Russell Mead. I'm happy to say it's very positive. Mead has good things to say about my "ability to integrate economic, technological, intellectual, and political history."

The other is in the Anniston Star, by Alsie White, "grandmother and an avid book reader". For the history presented in this book, her reaction was: "Yawn!" According to Ms. White, "We learn very little about the private man."

I naturally prefer Mr. Mead's view, but Ms. White's reaction to the book is worth paying attention to, because she's also a reader, like many others. I'm not writing this to beat up on her. My point, rather, is that she formed a false impression, thanks to a sort of optical illusion.

There will likely be a better book published someday about Commodore Vanderbilt, but it will probably be a while before we see more information about "the private man." I found far more than I ever imagined I would (as he left no papers), and his private story is woven throughout every chapter of the book. But, to Ms. White, it feels like there isn't much, because this is a biography that pays a great deal of attention to the historical context. I wasn't content to just write about what he said and did; I wanted to understand (and explain) why he was significant.

All that other material, I hope, makes my book more interesting and important than it otherwise would be. Walter Russell Mead thought so, which is highly gratifying. For him, my approach worked.

For Ms. White, the proportion of space devoted to contextual description, to my reflections and analysis, created the misleading impression that the absolute quantity of personal information is small. It isn't.

Does that mean that everyone must read and like my book? Of course not. It wasn't the book Ms. White was hoping for, and that's perfectly fine—happens to all of us. But her very desire for one element of the book ironically made it seem like there wasn't much of it, because it was embedded in another element that she didn't want. Funny how that works.

Cities as Characters

August 8, 2009

Tags: Cornelius Vanderbilt, Commodore Vanderbilt, New York, San Francisco, The First Tycoon, T.J. Stiles


I've read that, in certain works of fiction, a city can be as much a character as any person in the story. Certainly cities and localities have played much the same role in my biographies.

In Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War, for example, rural western Missouri emerges as a living, changing thing, as essential to Jesse James's story as his mother or brother Frank. And, in The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt, I tried to tell the story of the emergence of two great American cities: San Francisco and, in particular, New York.

Without New York, Commodore Vanderbilt never would have achieved the staggering success that marked his career. And without Vanderbilt, New York would have had a harder time clawing its way to the top. I tried to give the full flavor of the city as it changed in the nineteenth century: it went from being "an overgrown seaport village" (as a Scottish visitor called it, before the War of 1812)—rife with herds of roaming pigs and packs of wild dogs, with backyard privies and yellow fever epidemics—to an island of tenements and factories, mansions and banks.

As I see the story (and tried to write it), Vanderbilt and New York grew up together. He took on the aristocratic, landowning merchants who presided over the "culture of deference" in the early nineteenth century, championing an individualistic, commercial, competitive culture that came to define American society. And he went on to inaugurate the Gilded Age, with the vast polarization of wealth between himself (along with a handful of other super-rich New Yorkers) and the desperately poor, who lived a short distance from his Washington Square mansion, crowded into decrepit housing in Five Points and other slums. It's a story both exhilarating and hearbreaking, much like New York itself.

Vanderbilt also played a central role in the birth of San Francisco. More than a decade before the completion of the transcontinental railroad—and half a century before the Panama Canal was begun—he ran a steamship line between San Francisco and New York, with a land crossing at Nicaragua. By lowering fares and speeding up service, he promoted migration to California, and magnified the impact of the gold-rush gold in the financial system headquartered in New York. Though he never set foot in San Francisco, he became a major presence there, praised and condemned in newspaper editorials and sidewalk conversations on Market Street. The character of early San Francisco—a city of hustlers and con artists, of schemers and quick-to-shoot miners—shaped a major part of Vanderbilt's own life, and I tried to bring it out in all its brilliant colors.

Though Vanderbilt's greatest corporation, the New York Central & Hudson River Railroad, is long gone, the infrastructure he built has left a lasting mark on New York. His massive St. John's Park freight depot (where the exit of the Holland Tunnel is now) reshaped lower Manhattan, giving it the particular character it has today, with its massive nineteenth-century warehouses. He constructed the original Grand Central, which anchored Midtown, and made 42nd Street into a grand crosstown artery. He sank the railroad tracks that led to Grand Central beneath the surface of 4th Avenue, allowing it to blossom into Park Avenue. And he helped to make Wall Street the most important and sophisticated financial market in the world.

For good reason his statue remains outside of Grand Central Terminal today, looking south toward Wall Street. In many ways, he made the modern city, and with it the modern economy of the United States.