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The Blog

No, Not Much Going on Here

As you can see, I've let this blog lapse. I like the brevity of Twitter
because if I'm writing something for free, let it be brief! I also maintain a public Facebook page.

Often in my Twitter commentary I will speak to current events. I consider myself an informed observer, but one with leanings like almost anyone else, and without any particular expertise on present-day politics or economics. I distinguish between my off-the-cuff commentary and my books. If I don't change my mind in the course of writing a book, I'm doing it wrong; honesty and deep research inevitably challenge our preconceptions. I take it as a good sign that each of my books has seen about equal criticism from right and left, yet have certainly been treated well by critics overall. We start with questions that speak to who we are, as writers and scholars. But we must provide answers that speak to the primary sources, to who our subjects were. Read More 
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Corrections to The First Tycoon

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.

The most important error pertains to 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.

Fortunately, this mistake has no real 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. Read More 
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John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship

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. My deep thanks to all who supported my application, and who have given me so much assistance and encouragement in my career. Read More 
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Nostromo A Go-Go

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. Read More 
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Writer's Nourishment

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. Read More 
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Interview with T.J. Stiles

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/tjstilesRead More 
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As Seen On TV

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. Read More 
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On "Morning Edition"

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

You can listen to it here.
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Speaking of Cornelius Vanderbilt

I spoke for an hour today about Cornelius Vanderbilt on "Forum," on KQED radio, San Francisco.

 Read More 
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San Francisco Chronicle Profile

The San Francisco Chronicle runs a profile of me on Monday, December 21, 2009. You can find it here.

It is an honor to be profiled by the hometown paper. The piece also includes some discussion of my thoughts about writing, which I particularly like. Read More 
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