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The Blog

The Wrong Place at the Right Time

As I worked on The First Tycoon, I fell into a series of coincidences. Not all of them were happy ones, but they all gave me a different perspective on what I was writing.

The biggest, to my mind, is the fact that I had just finished the book when the financial crisis struck in the fall of 2008. For six years, I had labored on a major biography of a financial figure, only to coincidentally publish in the wake of a major economic crisis.

The same sort of thing happened when I finished Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War. For years, I had worked on a biography that argued that Jesse James stood out among America's post-Civil War criminals because he insisted on bringing politics into his crimes and public image—that he was, in a sense, a forerunner of the modern terrorist. I was fine-tuning the finished manuscript when the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, occurred.

In both cases, I'd have preferred there to have been no catastrophes to make my books suddenly relevant.

But the coincidences have been coming for a long time with The First Tycoon. For example, about the time I started writing Part 3 of the book, I moved into the Presidio of San Francisco, where I watch commercial shipping enter and leave the Golden Gate, in the same channel used by Vanderbilt's steamships during the Gold Rush.

More directly, I happened to have been on the Staten Island ferryboat Andrew J. Barberi on October 15, 2003, when it crashed. It was the deadliest transit disaster in New York in a century.

I was certainly no victim of the tragedy. Being on the upper deck, I saw no carnage, and was never in any danger. But it immediately struck me that I was living through a historic event, one very much like some that I write about in my book, on the ferry service that was founded by Vanderbilt himself before the Civil War. (He sold it to the Staten Island Railway, which was later taken over by the city.) When I returned to Manhattan, I was besieged by reporters, and found myself delivering the kind of information that I consumed when reading nineteenth-century newspaper accounts. It was odd, to say the least.

I don't think that such personal connections necessarily improve the quality of my work. If they were necessary for fine historical writing, then we'd be in trouble. Much of the premise of scholarly investigation is that a disinterested outsider can come to understand a topic through dispassionate research and analysis. But, as I said, these developments did color my sense of the things I wrote about in my book—perhaps in ways that can never quite make it onto the page.
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