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.
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.
November 2, 2010
You can now buy my first biography, Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War, as an e-book. Amazon has it for sale here. Barnes & Noble has it for sale here.
Why now? After all, the book is eight years old. Because I urged my publisher to release an electronic edition, and the company agreed. I mention this because some may have formed the impression that I am some kind of Luddite, thanks to my posts about e-book pricing. No, I am not opposed to e-books. If anything, the rapid rise of e-books shows that interest in books remains alive and well, despite our click-click short-attention-span digital culture. That's good. I like people reading, no matter what format.
Do I still have qualms about digital pricing? Oh, yes. I can't stand blather on Amazon customer reviews about how "it stands to reason" that packaging, warehousing, and shipping comprise the bulk of a book's cost. That's simply uninformed nonsense. If that's so, why does Microsoft charge $150 for its Office product, when its cost of packaging, etc., is radically less than that of a heavy $35 hardcover? More important, why do you pay $150? Why pay $55 or more for a video game? Both software and books are intellectual property—what gives them value is not the delivery system, but the fact that they embody creations of the human mind. You don't imagine that you're mainly buying CDs when you buy software, nor should you imagine that you're mainly buying paper when you buy books. I've never heard of anyone who was enjoying a good book looking up and saying, "Gosh, honey, this book is printed on such nice paper! You should see this—the ink is fantastic!" No, you quote the passages that you like.
The value is in the content. And the content is the same no matter what the format, e-book or physical book.
Of course, I recognize that, under current conditions, digitization will tend to depress the price of books. Currently, the main force is downward. Yes, there are some savings with digital books, though nowhere near as much as people think. But most of the downward pressure is exerted by competition among retail outlets, particularly Amazon, which is willing to absorb losses in return for market share. Be warned: This downward pressure is building up resistance, which will spring back upward before too long. For one thing, Amazon cannot continue to absorb losses forever. But even if it succeeds in setting all e-book prices at $9.99, the spring back up will inevitably occur. That, or certain books will disappear from the marketplace.
A research-intensive book of the kind I write requires an upfront investment from the publisher in the form of an advance. Then comes a major investment of time and money on the part of the author, followed by lots of product improvement by the publisher—editing, copy-editing, design, etc.—as well as marketing. Unless a radically larger number of units sell at Amazon's magical $9.99 price point than have been selling in physical form, that $9.99 price will lead to a loss for the publisher, and ultimately the author. Already there is intense downward pressure on advances, and it will only grow worse as revenue from books falls. The inevitable result will be that serious, research-intensive nonfiction will be abandoned to academics (who are not rewarded professionally for writing well), or else book prices will go up. It's the fierce law of the market.
I couldn't have written The First Tycoon in my spare time. Nor could I have undertaken it if the list price on all copies sold was $9.99. It wouldn't have been possible. Self-publishing? I'm sorry, but that doesn't fly with my kind of work. For multi-year, research-intensive books, the self-publishing business plan goes like this: "First, be rich. Then, live off your wealth while you write."
But my point is this: Books are not interchangeable. The effort and process of writing them, let alone the experience of reading them, is radically different from book to book. None of that has anything to do with whether the book appears on paper or in digital form. There is no earthly reason why a one-size-fits-all price should apply to e-books. Yes, I want books to be cheaper, too, but readers should accept varied prices, and not be fooled into thinking $9.99 is a natural price for all e-books.
October 30, 2010
On Sunday, October 30, 2010, the San Francisco Chronicle will publish a review I wrote of H.W. Brands's history of the United States in the late nineteenth century. You can find it here. This follows a review I wrote of Ron Chernow's big new bio of George Washington, published the week before by the Washington Post. You can read it here.
On reading the comments posted on the Post's website, I'm struck by how the readers' reactions reflect our modern politics, rather than the eighteenth century. I'm betting that many readers will react similarly to my review of Brands's book. There's an irony to this: My most important point, in both reviews, is to say that we must understand historical figures in the context of their times, not ours.
And yet, when political passions run high, as they do now, it is inevitable that many readers will not follow this advice. Politics tends to dirty up the historical waters—not because politics itself is bad or dirty, but because it is so filled with emotion, with passion. It's difficult to step outside of the urgency of now to coolly understand the very different world of yesterday. I guess that's why I get paid the, er, small bucks.
But my job, as a biographer, is to try to bring readers along with me when I try to move inside the contemporary mindset of the past. Not everyone will be willing to follow; many will insist on seeing the past in terms of the arguments of the present. But we can't really understand the present unless we see how it emerged from the past. Things do change, and we'll never really see where we are unless we know where we came from to get here.
October 1, 2010
On September 29, 2010, I was honored to deliver the Chancellor's Lecture at Vanderbilt University. You can watch a video of the lecture (which, with questions, runs for one hour) by clicking here.
The lecture explores the nature of the Commodore's patriotism, and how it led him to endow a major university in the South after the Civil War. It's a sentiment that has often been belittled by historians, I think, because it seems to be at odds with his transparent self-interest, the driving force in his life. Yet, as I explain in the lecture, he came of age at a time when self-interest was becoming identified with the public interest—with patriotism, as it were. This is a theme developed brilliantly in Joyce Appleby's work, which I highly recommend to readers with an interest in history.
September 11, 2010
One thing that drives me crazy is the misuse of history to make political points.
I've seen Tea Party conservatives doing this—claiming that they have the true interpretation of the founding of this country, and that it means their political opponents are illegitimate. And I've seen left-wingers do it, too. History is history—it took place under sets of circumstances that rarely apply to today's world. It's important to understand how our history unfolded, how our times came to be, but it shouldn't be treated like holy scripture in a theological debate. History must be understood in its own context, not our own.
Here's an example from the political left, one that warps a tale from the life of Cornelius Vanderbilt to make a point about American "imperialism." You can read it over at the Daily Kos.
It's convincing, because it gets many of the details right. But it gets important things wrong. Most of all, it leaves out huge facts that completely change the nature of the episode. Here are a few of the main errors and omissions (you'll have to read the story to make sense of these corrections):
1) Doesn't mention that Vanderbilt offered far lower rates to California than the federally subsidized Panama steamship route, which isn't identified in the story.
2) Doesn't mention the fact that the British had seized Greytown/San Juan del Norte from the Nicaraguans to prevent Americans from building a canal there. It was an outpost of British imperialism.
3) Doesn't mention that both the British and Nicaraguans agreed that Vanderbilt's ships shouldn't be charged port fees.
4) Doesn't mention that the town was populated mostly by Americans who had gone there hoping to cash in on the transit route.
5) Doesn't mention that Vanderbilt was not involved in the management of the company during the bombardment; Joseph White, who was counsel, not chairman, did indeed request the destruction of the town. He was Vanderbilt's enemy.
6) Doesn't mention that Vanderbilt fought William Walker, and organized and funded the operations that kicked him out and restored Nicaragua to the Nicaraguans.
7) Doesn't mention that Vanderbilt's route across Nicaragua never reopened because the Nicaraguans didn't want to risk having North Americans in the country again.
8) Doesn't mention that the noncompetition payment made Vanderbilt's rivals immensely profitable, since it gave them a monopoly. He later competed against them and again radically lowered the cost of travel between America's coasts.
9) In sum, without claiming that Vanderbilt was a moral hero or that the people of Greytown really deserved to have their town wiped out, we can say that this isn't a story of good guys and bad guys, or even of American imperialism. It's more like a story of the United States recklessly punishing some civilians, many of them vandals, by way of interfering with British imperialism.
Please, study history for enrichment and understanding—don't wield it like a weapon.
September 8, 2010
Is it true that I haven't posted on this blog since July 21? Well, it's been a busy summer, mostly with personal matters. But autumn is upon us.
If you go over to the Tour & Talks page on this website, you'll notice new events for just this week, and later this month. I'll be speaking in St. Louis; Wilmington, NC; Nashville; and my own San Francisco.
Do I give the same talk in each place? Not at all. In St. Louis, I'll be giving a talk at the Washington University Law School about what Cornelius Vanderbilt's life tells us about the emergence of the modern corporation. In Wilmington, I'll be talking about both Jesse James and Commodore Vanderbilt, and what their lives tell us about the Civil War, and how the Civil War affected them.
I could, of course, simply retell the life stories of these fellows over and over again. But my approach to biography is contextual. I want to use a life to understand the times, and use the times to understand a life. In the thirty to forty-five minutes available for a given talk, I usually can focus on only one salient aspect.
It means more work for me, as a public speaker, but it's also much more interesting, and truer to what I do as a writer.
July 21, 2010
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:
June 26, 2010
I've had a very busy spring, with Vintage's publication of the paperback edition of The First Tycoon and requests for public speaking. So allow me to direct your attention to my Media Center page on this website. There I'm posting audio and video clips of my public appearances.
Most recently, I appeared at the Printer's Row Lit Fest in Chicago. Even though I was born in the country, I love great cities, and Chicago is one of the greatest. My only regret is that I wasn't able to stay in town longer, and enjoy the festival (and the rest of the town) for myself.
You can watch a clip of my 45-minute talk/conversation on C-SPAN's BookTV website, here: http://www.c-spanarchives.org/program/294033-8. And don't forget to check out my Media Center page for other interviews or talks.
June 11, 2010
I've been neglectful of late, when it comes to updating this blog. I do have a defense: I've been on the road, both for business and pleasure. In fact, this last Monday I returned home to San Francisco after two weeks away, a trip that began with the Pulitzer ceremony at Columbia University in New York.
As I've mentioned before, the Pulitzer and National Book Award really have filled me with a renewed sense of humility. I'm in daunting company. And, as I often say, I don't kid myself that I was the only possible choice—far from it. But it's also really a wonderful thing, especially because it's a kind of ratification of my highest hopes for this book: that it would be a work of literature, in some way, as well as scholarship.
The irony, of course, is that the Commodore loathed writing. It has been suggested to me that he was dyslexic, which is quite possible, if impossible to properly diagnose over this span of time. He read well enough, and could write (though he spelled phonetically). Still, he didn't like to write, as he admitted in one letter. He pitched letters that he received into the fire after he read them, and left no collection of papers behind.
Lucky for me that he left a far larger paper trail behind than previous historians and biographers had suspected. Though it didn't seem so lucky when I was five years into the project, with still no end in sight...
May 26, 2010
Thursday, May 27, 2010, is the 216th birthday of Commodore Vanderbilt. With a National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize on my shelf, I can only wish him a happy birthday.
Not that he was an easy man to like. Vanderbilt fought his way from near the very bottom to the absolute top (in fact, you could say he invented a new top), and he was nothing if not fierce. He embodied profound conundrums for the American republic, as he both created enormous wealth for his fellow countrymen and pioneered a severely polarized society, amassing power never before seen in private hands.
Yet let's give him due credit: He was truly self-made, earned his pride in himself, and, if ruthless, was also honest, and promoted the interests of the stockholders of his corporations as did no other chief executive of his day (or perhaps ours). As a biographer, it's my duty to follow a balanced approach to my subject, rather than preach a message, using my subject as a mere vehicle for preconceived views. Vanderbilt has suffered far too much of the latter over the decades.
I have another reason to wish the Commodore well. I suspect that his ghost tried to put a stop to my biography early on. In October 2003, when I had been at work on The First Tycoon for a year already, I was a passenger on the Staten Island Ferry boat Andrew Barberi when it crashed.
Let me stress, though, that I don't mean to make light of that event. Eleven people tragically died, amid horror that I was unaware of as I rode on the upper deck, where none were harmed.
They don't allow you to dedicate Pulitzer Prizes, the way you do books. So let me just say, on the 216th anniversary of the Commodore's birth, that I'm honoring the people who didn't make it across New York harbor on that windy day in 2003.
May 5, 2010
On April 20, Vintage released the paperback edition of The First Tycoon, as shown in the sidebar column of this webpage. That begs the question: What's different about the paperback, compared to the hardcover? Almost as significant: What's the same?
First, what's the same, starting with design and reproduction. When I was preparing The First Tycoon for publication, I selected an unusually large number of illustrations—a total of seventy-nine. Rather than distribute these around the book, I asked that they be reproduced in special inserts. Often an illustrated book offers eight pages of illustrations, in just one insert section. In The First Tycoon, there are two eight-page inserts and one sixteen-page insert.
Why special insert sections? They make the illustrations easier to find, of course, but most important is the reproduction quality they offer. They are on heavier stock, which allows for sharper images and prevents bleed-through, where you can see the photo on the reverse page.
Normally Vintage reproduces these inserts in paperbacks on standard-stock paper. Don't get me wrong: Vintage does a very good job of it. But the publisher agreed, on my request, to print them on the heavier stock for the paperback of The First Tycoon, to provide higher quality reproduction, just as in the hardcover. And, of course, the paperback features the same maps and outstanding interior design as the hardcover. The front cover is slightly different, but the beautiful spine from the hardcover appears on the paperback as well.
That's what's the same. What's different? Even though I'm proud of the first edition of my book, as a particularly clean product, there were still a few minor errors here and there. These were cleaned up even before the paperback, in subsequent printings of the hardcover. But there is one case where I made a change for the paperback that may be worth further discussion.
If you compare pages 458 and 459 of the hardcover and paperback editions, you will note that two paragraphs have been switched. This is in a description of the height of the stockmarket battle known as the Erie War, when Vanderbilt was struggling in 1868 to corner the market in Erie Railway stock. His enemies (Daniel Drew, Jay Gould, and Jim Fisk, among others) created new stock that was frankly unlawful, and dumped it on the market to defeat the corner, which Vanderbilt would have successfully carried through otherwise.
I was discussing this episode with another historian, who pointed out that March 10 was the critical day, in which it became clear that there was new stock being manufactured, and on which the Erie people (Drew, etc.) carried out a "lock-up," withdrawing a massive amount of money from bank accounts in order to cause a freeze-up of credit on Wall Street. These two things effectively stopped the trading in Erie on the stock exchange.
In the hardcover, I mention March 10, and then go on to describe Vanderbilt as continuing to buy the stock. Why? Because I didn't want to get too far down into the weeds of this affair. Other historians, notably Maury Klein and John Steele Gordon, have described the day-by-day details very well, and I saw no need to describe every single maneuver in extreme close-up. After my conversation with the other historian, though, I decided my general description was just a bit too general in this case, since I specifically mentioned that date of March 10.
By switching the paragraph that starts "But Vanderbilt continued to buy" so it appears before my mention of the crisis of March 10, it's clearer that that date marked a turning point, in which the battle on Wall Street screeched to a halt, and the conflict shifted almost entirely to the courts and legislature.
Reading the accounts through, it's clear in both cases that I am offering a general description of the events of those days, rather than a day-by-day, hour-by-hour narrative. Because of that, the original version is not exactly wrong. However, that small change made it more precise for the paperback. And precision matters a great deal to me.
April 15, 2010
Thanks to the Pulitzer Prize, the paperback of The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt will be published early—on April 20, in fact. As of this writing, that's only five days away.
For those of you who want to acquire a copy of the gorgeous hardcover, time is running out. It will be unobtainable before long. (Excuse me for calling my own book "gorgeous," but I had nothing to do with the design and production quality. Well done, Knopf.)
For those of you holding onto your money, waiting for the paperback, your long wait is about to end, almost exactly one year after hardcover publication.
Where should you buy? I encourage you to seek out your local independent bookseller. Reserve a copy! Why not Amazon or Barnes & Noble or Borders, you ask? I am not against any of these retailers. I think the world of books needs them all. But if I'm not anti-Amazon or anti-chain, I am definitely pro-independent. The independent neighborhood bookseller is where readers can interact with well-informed staff, get intelligent recommendations, and discover new and unknown writers. Independents are where writers actually meet readers in face-to-face appearances.
I say this not so much for my sake, since the prizes I've been honored with guarantee that readers can find my books, wherever they shop. Rather, I'm speaking for the legions of writers who deserve an audience, and are waiting to break out. And when they do break out, it's usually through independent bookstores—an essential part of the culture of the written word.
So if you order from Amazon or Barnes & Noble or Borders, you won't get a complaint from me. Buying books is good, no matter where. But if you support your local independent bookstore, then consider this a pat on the back. Well done.
Oh, and thanks again to Mr. Pulitzer. Your forethought, sir, has had a big effect on my life.
April 12, 2010
Today—Monday, April 12—my book The First Tycoon was named the winner of the Pulitzer Prize in biography.
To say that I am honored is to indulge in extreme understatement. Frankly, I'm a very lucky man. The First Tycoon previously won the National Book Award for nonfiction, which boggled my mind. I hardly expected it to win the Pulitzer Prize as well. This is not false modesty. Some of our greatest writers have never won either prize, let alone both in one year.
This is not to slight the selection process, either. Winnowing a field down to just one book can be absurdly difficult, even arbitrary at a certain point. Last year saw an array of truly outstanding biographies, from Cheever and Woodrow Wilson (both finalists for the Pulitzer) to Koestler. Both the National Book Critics Circle and the Los Angeles Book Prize jury left my book off their short lists—and there were no mobs in the streets, chanting protests. A writer is never owed a prize, and should never expect one when the field is so crowded with excellence.
What I take from this honor is not a sense that my book is the best one out there. Rather, I feel as if the jury is saying that I succeeded in meeting my ambitions for my book. I've been included in a small group who have won both the NBA and the Pulitzer for the same book. This select bunch includes two writers who have, in many ways, served as models for me: Richard Rhodes and Robert Caro. I admire how they combine literary and scholarly virtues in their work. Their research and analysis is first-rate, but they also craft beautifully written narratives with compelling stories and three-dimensional characters. Frankly, I don't think I write at their level, but I am inspired by their example. Winning the Pulitzer tells me that this kind of writing is still highly valued. And for that I'm grateful—as a writer and a reader.
December 29, 2009
Today NPR's "Morning Edition" ran an interview with me about Cornelius Vanderbilt.
You can listen to it here.
October 14, 2009
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.
September 29, 2009
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.
September 4, 2009
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.
August 8, 2009
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.