The Blog

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.

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.