Reviews, Awards, and More Information
Click here for the Media Center, featuring book reviews by T.J. Stiles as well as video and audio clips, including talks and interviews.
And on this page, below, you will find reviews and awards received by T.J. Stiles's two biographies, The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt (2009) and Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War (2002), both published by Alfred A. Knopf, and now available in paperback and digital format from Vintage.
Honors for The First Tycoon
Winner of the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Biography
Winner of the 2009 National Book Award for Nonfiction
Selected as One of the Best Books of the Year:
New York Times Book Critic Dwight Garner's 10 Best Books of the Year
New York Times Book Review's 100 Notable Books of the Year
Financial Times's Best Books of the Year
Barnes & Noble Review's Best Lives of 2009
Amazon.com's 10 Best Biographies and Memoirs
Christian Science Monitor's Best Books of the Year
Boston Globe's 8 Best Nonfiction Books of the Year
The New Yorker's Reviewers' Favorites from 2009
Washington Post's Best Books of 2009
Philadelphia Inquirer's Editors' Picks for Best of the Year
Barnes & Noble's Best Nonfiction of 2009
Bloomberg's Best Business Books of the Year
Reviews of The First Tycoon
Foreign Affairs, September/October 2009
by Walter Russell Mead
"This eminently readable and engaging biography of the richest man in the first hundred years of the United States' independence is a landmark study that significantly enhances one's understanding of U.S. economic history. . . . What makes this book truly remarkable is the author's breathtaking grasp of history; as Stiles comes to grips with contemporary essayists such as Charles Francis Adams, who wrote on Vanderbilt, one realizes that his ability to integrate economic, technological, intellectual, and political history makes him one of the most exciting writers in the field."
Read the entire review here.
Washington Post, May 24, 2009
by Alice Schroeder
"Cornelius Vanderbilt, the Staten Island farm boy who rose to become America's transportation king, was the richest man of his time, but terms like 'richest' don't do him justice. In 19th-century America's untaxed, unregulated Wild West style of finance, his grip on the economy was so complete as to be barely comprehensible by today's standards. . . .
"Stiles, a superb researcher, has unearthed quantities of new material and crafted them into the illuminating, authoritative portrait of Vanderbilt that has been missing for so long. . . .
At times, the chronicle of Vanderbilt's exploits can read like a long parade of steamboats and locomotives chugging past the reader. Thankfully, the parade is interspersed with entertaining accounts of Vanderbilt's chilly, awkward relations with his longsuffering first wife, Sophia; his 13 children; his spiritualist medium friend and probable mistress, Tennessee Claflin; and his better-loved second wife, Frank Crawford Vanderbilt. The other major characters in Vanderbilt's life were his allies and opponents in epic business clashes, especially financiers Jay Gould and Daniel Drew. These clashes, intricate as military operations, are important bits of financial history, filled with human drama."
Truthdig.com, May 22, 2009
by Allen Barra
"Monumental and outrageously entertaining. . . .
"It was business, not personal, and it was combat, and the greatest financial warrior of his kind, in American and perhaps all of world history, was Vanderbilt. Unlike most of the great 19th century tycoons who followed in his wake, though, Vanderbilt left something tangible behind—a legacy that, for reasons both good and bad, continues to influence this country. Without pulling any punches—Stiles is very clear that Vanderbilt was “an instinctive predator”—The First Tycoon makes a solid case that most of what he accomplished was for the good, or at least did more good than harm.
"Stiles writes in a style the Commodore would have appreciated: swift, economical and direct, daring but never hyperbolic. The nearly 600 pages of text seem to fly through your hands. Judging from his previous book, Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War (2002), and now The First Tycoon, Stiles has a genuine gift for putting complex historical subjects into perspective without lapsing into revisionism."
New York Times Book Review, May 10, 2009
by Michael Kazin
"'Vanderbilt was many things, not all of them admirable,' T. J. Stiles says in this perceptive and fluently written biography, 'but he was never a phony. Hated, revered, resented, he always commanded respect, even from his enemies.'
"That respect stemmed, in part, from how he earned his fortune. During the early years of the republic, most rich Americans had inherited their wealth from mercantile or planter ancestors. Like their fellow patricians across the Atlantic, they tended to equate good breeding with the right to rule. Vanderbilt left school at the age of 11. But as a self-taught, self-made entrepreneur, he had no equal.
"Stiles, the author of a biography of Jesse James, writes with both the panache of a fine journalist and the analytical care of a seasoned scholar. And he offers a fruitful way to think about the larger history of American elites as well as the life of one of their most famous members."
New York Times, April 29, 2009
by Dwight Garner
"This is a mighty — and mighty confident — work, one that moves with force and conviction and imperious wit through Vanderbilt’s noisy life and times. The book, The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt, is full of sharp, unexpected turns. Among the biggest: Mr. Stiles has delivered a revisionist history of American capitalism’s original sinner, the man who inspired the term 'robber baron.' He has real sympathy for the old devil.
"The phrase 'epic life' is a biographical cliché. But it fits Vanderbilt in every regard: force of personality; degrees of ruthlessness, guile and accomplishment; even sheer life span. He was born less than two decades after the end of the Revolutionary War, while Washington was still alive, and he would live long enough not only to play a significant role in the Civil War but also to do business with John D. Rockefeller. . . .
"Mr. Stiles gets Vanderbilt the man onto paper. He is eloquent on Vanderbilt’s love of horses and horse racing, his tangled relationships with his 13 children and his dabbling in the occult. . . . He is even better on Vanderbilt's fraught relationship with New York society, which at first shunned him as 'illiterate and boorish.' . . .
"I read eagerly and avidly. This is state-of-the-art biography, crisper and more piquant than a 600-page book has any right to be."
Christian Science Monitor, May 1, 2009
by Randy Dotinga
"Vanderbilt’s story is indeed epic, and so is The First Tycoon. . . . Those who brave its heft will find many rewards. Stiles, author of the well-received 2002 biography Jesse James, is a perceptive and witty writer with a remarkable ability to paint a picture of the America in which Vanderbilt lived. . . . Vanderbilt’s most important legacies don’t carry his name. But they affect all of us every time we check a stock price, buy a car, or punch a timecard."
Newsweek, May 4, 2009
by Louisa Thomas
"Fascinating. . . . Vanderbilt's life and times still have much to teach us."
Bloomberg.com, April 29, 2009
by James Pressley
"Monumental. . . . When I put down this arresting saga -- some 700 pages of fistfights, shipwrecks and market manipulation -- I raised a toast to everything the old rascal did for the U.S. . . . The Commodore is hard to fathom today. Stiles remedies this by placing the magnate squarely in his own times. . . . The result resembles a five-course meal at a three-star restaurant: Though rich and pleasurable, it’s not designed for rapid digestion."
Boston Globe, April 27, 2009
by Carlo Wolff
"An epochal biography. . . . Stiles has painted a full-bodied, nuanced picture of the man. . . . Vanderbilt was key to the Union victory in the Civil War, the growth of the banking system from regional hodgepodge to national network, and to the establishment of New York as the world's financial power center. His run-ins with the likes of the scheming Jay Gould and "pious, long-faced" oil refiner John D. Rockefeller; and with William Walker, the privateer who essentially ran Nicaragua in the 1850s, in a fascinating section derived from hitherto untapped archival resources, are particularly riveting acts within the dramatic arc of Vanderbilt's long, robust life. . . . elegance of style and fair-minded intent illuminate Stiles's latest, expectedly profound exploration of American culture in the raw."
San Francisco Chronicle Book Review, April 26, 2009
by Richard M. Abrams
"[A] very absorbing biography. It is in fact much more than a biography. The book is filled with important, exhaustively researched and indeed fascinating details that would profit every student of American business and social history to read."
The Economist, April 16, 2009
"Especially now, the world has misgivings about unbridled American capitalism. But let us not forget that the foundations of the greatest economy on earth were laid timber by timber, railway sleeper by railway sleeper, by capitalists who fought for business often with bare fists and only the vaguest notions of fair play.
"Cornelius Vanderbilt was the toughest of the lot. With his hard nose protruding like a ship’s prow, and his hands leathered from a youth spent piloting his cut-price ferry into Manhattan, he took to business as if it were war. . . .
"It is the description of Vanderbilt’s legacy to American capitalism . . . that makes T.J. Stiles’s long but superbly written and researched book worthy of its subject. Mr Stiles made his name with a biography of the Confederate train robber, Jesse James. With Vanderbilt, a New York robber baron on the other side of the tracks, he tackles the economic divisions in America as well as the social ones. . . .
"If this makes for good economic and social history, what brings life to the personal narrative is his relationship with the scheming gang of steamboat and railway owners who are at times Vanderbilt’s partners, at times his enemies. When they trick him, as they often try, he is relentless—and ruthless—in getting revenge."
Booklist (Starred Review), April 15, 2009
"In 1860, the New York Times identified the character of Cornelius Vanderbilt as a symptom of how capitalist competition had ruined American morality. But when a shrewd biographer probes that character with the advantage of historical hindsight, he discovers a surprisingly engaging figure. As he did in his much-acclaimed Jesse James (2002), Stiles limns the meteoric career of an impetuous spirit. Rich in detail, the narrative reveals much about not only the unschooled genius who conquered a commercial world but also the national culture helped transform through his triumph. The very archetype of the rugged American individualist, Vanderbilt blazed his way up from his lowly job as a ferryman to a lofty post as commander of a huge fleet of steamships. But it was by parlaying his steamboat success into a railroad empire that Vanderbilt left his most enduring imprint, forever transforming American business by forging a new corporate model of financial power. Yet this ruthless corporate titan supported the Union cause in the Civil War with selfless patriotism and then generously underwrote efforts to promote national reconciliation after Appomattox. Perhaps most astonishing, however, are the ways this fierce public antagonist expressed—sometimes fumblingly—softer emotions within his family circle. A landmark study."
Kirkus Reviews (Starred Review), March 1, 2009
"A rousing life of the legendary robber baron who was in all the right places at the right time. Cornelius Vanderbilt—called the Commodore in his day—rose from a common birth, the child of a Staten Island farmer, to control one of the largest fortunes in world history. Popular historian Stiles (Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War, 2002) writes that although he was derided as an arriviste in his own time, 'illiterate & boorish,' Vanderbilt was actually a man of much substance. The author credits him with being farsighted enough to envision the deeply hidden architecture of capitalism and to understand the importance of transport, the source of his earliest successes, in the new world system. Moreover, Stiles observes, he 'saw that a group of men sitting around a table could conjure "an artificial being, invisible, intangible" that could outlive them all'—in other words, the modern corporation, making money out of abstractions. Vanderbilt was ruthless too. Following what some have called the Wal-Mart model, he undercut the competition until they disappeared, then raised his prices to suit himself, a practice for which he was widely disliked. Born shortly after the Revolution and alive into the Gilded Age, Vanderbilt was an innovator in bringing law and politics to bear on his understanding of commerce. He surrounded himself with smart lieutenants, including one who, ordered to allow no free rides on a Vanderbilt ferry, insisted that the Commodore pay full fare. Expanding into railroads, transoceanic vessels, communications and many other realms and conquering nearly every economic opponent he confronted, he also founded something that Americans 'had long thought to be the corrupt artifact of the aristocratic societies of Europe—that is, he started a dynasty.' An exemplary biography and highly readable business history."
Library Journal (Starred Review), March 15, 2009
"Stiles (Jesse James) presents a thoroughly researched, annotated, and illustrated account of the rise of the visionary Cornelius Vanderbilt (1794–1877) from boatman to railroad entrepreneur, revealing his difficult personal and family life, struggle to attain a place in New York society, and role in establishing the arguably individualistic, lightly regulated financial system that America has today. Stiles shows that as America moved from a communal, rural society to a competitive, industrial one, framed by the antebellum conflicts between laissez-faire Jacksonian and controlled-market Whig ideas, Vanderbilt came to exemplify the contradictions of the masters of competition who stifled rivals by later enacting monopolies similar to the kind they had first opposed. Instrumental in providing transportation to the California gold fields, consolidating railroad lines to make them among the first modern corporations, and helping to reconcile the post-Civil War North and South, the gruff Vanderbilt was often misjudged in his own time as well as by history. Stiles meticulously separates myths from facts in a book that compares favorably with David Nasaw's Andrew Carnegie. By unearthing and carefully cross-checking information and dispassionately revising our portrait of Vanderbilt, Stiles has produced a work highly recommended for readers interested in biography, popular business, New York State history, and transportation."
"I read eagerly and avidly. This is state-of-the-art biography."
"This is a mighty—and mighty confident—work, one that moves with force and conviction and imperious wit. . . . I read eagerly and avidly. This is state-of-the-art biography, crisper and more piquant than a 600-page book has any right to be."
Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War
Named a Notable Book of 2002 by the New York Times Book Review
Honors and Awards:
• Winner of the English Speaking Union's Ambassador Book Award for Biography
• Winner of the Peter Seaborg Award for Civil War Scholarship
• Finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize in Biography
• Named one of the 5 best biographies of the year by the London Sunday Times
• A New York Times Notable Book
• An American Library Association Notable Book
• One of the New York Public Library's 25 Books to Remember for 2002
• Named a Best Book of the Year by Library Journal, The Chicago Sun-Times, The Cleveland Plain Dealer, Bookpage, and the London Independent
• Winner of the John Newman Edwards Award from the Friends of the James Farm and the Perry Award from the James-Younger Gang
"So carefully researched, persuasive, and illuminating that it is likely to reshape permanently our understanding of its subject's life and times."
By Richard E. Nicholls
"So carefully researched, persuasive, and illuminating that it is likely to reshape permanently our understanding of its subject's life and times. James has become far more human, more complex, and less admirable. Stiles works on a large canvas, and his descriptions of the events leading up to the Civil War in the West, the horrific guerrilla campaigns in Kansas and Missouri during the war and the complex political struggles after the war are clear and vivid. His portrait of the more visionary aspects of Reconstruction and the destruction of the hopes of black Americans is restrained and moving.... Stiles forcefully sets James in the context of his times, firmly identifying him as a violent and effective Confederate partisan.... Stiles has developed considerable skills as a researcher, and he employs them quite impressively here.... [A] provocative, heavily revisionist biographical study."
By Allen Barra
"Perhaps the finest book ever written about this American legend.... Jesse James eschews the usual trappings of the outlaw-buff variety.... Which is not to say that Stiles hasn't discovered new sources--or at least rediscovered old, forgotten sources. Stiles's interpretation of James's life and legend isn't revisionist; in many ways it's an old-fashioned biography that treats its subject with more reverence that the countless tomes written by Jesse's apologists.... Peeling back myth after myth, Stiles finally arrives at the reason why Jesse James, and not his more experienced brother Frank or associate Cole Younger, was singled out by history to symbolize an era. And the reason, interestingly enough, turns out to be Jesse himself.... James was the first American criminal to be obsessed with his own public image."
Albert Castel, Missouri Historical Review, 04/04
"With its publication by the University of Missouri Press in 1966, William A. Settle, Jr.'s Jesse James Was His Name became the first scholarly study of its subject and remained the best one until the appearance of the book here reviewed. Author T.J. Stiles . . . displays a high level of literary and analytical skill. The result is a superb word-portrait of Jesse James, his crimes, and his times—one that is broad, yet deep in its scope, factually sound, perceptive in its judgments, and interesting, even entertaining, to read. . . . Stiles's Jesse James will not be the last book about the legendary outlaw, but it will be a very hard one to beat."
The Economist, 10/5/02
"In this excellent account, T.J. Stiles shows James to be a southerner, not a westerner; a Confederate, not a cowboy.... Stiles masterfully strips James bare."
Eric Foner, Los Angeles Times Book Review, 9/22/02
"More than any previous writer, he places the emergence of James as a larger-than-life figure, a hero in the eyes of Missouri's ex-Confederate Democrats, in the context of the divisive politics of Reconstruction. For a time, radical Republicans controlled the state. They enhanced the rights of the emancipated slaves and imposed loyalty oaths to keep ex-Confederates from power. Democrats, who soon regained power in Missouri, were themselves divided between Unionists and former supporters of the Confederacy....Stiles has combed a wealth of contemporary sources and imbues this story with the drama it deserves."
Michael Fellman, Journal of American History, 3/05
Michael Fellman's Inside War remains the single most significant scholarly work dedicated to the guerrilla conflict in Missouri during the Civil War. Click on the link above to read his full review of Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War, and an essay by T.J. Stiles on the issues it raises.
Washington Post Book World, 10/10/02
By Jay Winik
"Elegantly rendered and compelling.... In Stiles's rendering, this notorious rebel is less a Wild West bandit or frontier Robin Hood than a 'foul-mouthed killer' and a resurgent ex-Confederate ... who never accepted the peace of Appomattox."
"Offering a fresh perspective on a folk hero, Stiles situates the storied gunslinger and his followers in the context of the Reconstructionist South, depicting the James gang as a posse with a purpose—to maintain a slave-holding society. With its exciting accounts of bushwhacking, banditry and brutality, Stiles' book was one of the year's best biographies, an invaluable re-evaluation of the man and his myth."