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The Blog

The State of The Nation

The Nation has published a lengthy review of my book by Steve Fraser. You can find it here.

It's a curious review. I joke that Mr. Fraser liked the first part of the book, was bored by the second, and was angry at the third. As a writer, I am naturally tempted to quarrel with the negative aspects of the review, point by point, but that would be silly. I've already made my case in my book.

But I came away feeling that Mr. Fraser really missed the mark in a few respects, that he simply did not get some of the major themes of my book. As a historian already at work on a book that connects the nineteenth-century Gilded Age with the present, he seems to have a rather fixed idea of what should be in a biography such as mine.

Still, he raises important points, and offers a wide-ranging and informed discussion of my book and the historical context my subject inhabited. That's what we want from a review—not a mere parroting of what's in the book under discussion.

I decided to reply, in the spirit of continuing the discussion, not railing against criticism. I hope The Nation publishes my response, but here it is.
To the Editors:

Thank you, and Steve Fraser, for the lengthy review of my book, The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt, in your November 30 issue. I wish to offer a few words in response, but I hope I don't sound querulous. Mr. Fraser offers a healthy amount of praise, and his criticisms largely spring from a sympathy with wage workers. That's precisely the attitude readers—including me—want and expect in the pages of The Nation. We certainly don't find enough of it elsewhere.

But I would like to stress the nuances that I try to impart to my portrait. Mr. Fraser leaves the impression that my book descends into simple praise for a great capitalist, whereas I tried to uncover the complexities of Vanderbilt's long career. Vanderbilt's life, I found, contributed to the central conundrums of a corporate economy in a democratic society.

A key point of the review is Mr. Fraser's claim that I take it as axiomatic that associating Vanderbilt with modernity is "a good thing." I could not disagree more. I tried to illustrate the contradictions that accompanied the emergence of modernity, with rising wealth and productivity on one hand, and increasing polarization of incomes and power on the other. I do not use "modernizing" as a synonym for "making better."

Mr. Fraser writes that I am "willfully blind" to the distinction between "dynastic capitalism" and the modern corporation. On the contrary, I stress Vanderbilt's "peculiar role" as a transitional figure. He both promoted the institutionalization of modern capitalism, and was an individual who towered over banks and corporations—"both a relic of a bygone era and an aggressive leader of the new." I contrast the owner/manager model of Vanderbilt's corporations with the Pennsylvania Railroad, in which ownership and management was separated. I point out how the Pennsylvania model pointed the way to the future, though I also describe the corruption and self-dealing that came with it.

More important is the question of how I treat the liberal reformers—E.L. Godkin, Henry and Charles Francis Adams Jr., and others. Mr. Fraser also writes that I make a "cheap shot" when I connect the liberals' criticism of Vanderbilt with their distrust of democracy, and that I am engaging in "intellectual snobbery."

This criticism may seem convincing within the confines of his review. In my book, however, I describe how the liberals' distrust of popular government led them to oppose any attempt at government regulation. Mr. Fraser writes that I do not explain why the New York Times's attack on the "modern aristocracy of capital" was incoherent. But he left out the rest of my quote of the editorial in question: "It is no part of our present purpose to suggest a remedy. Indeed, we must frankly confess we see none." I contrast this with new demands for federal regulation, which were endorsed by such agrarian radicals as the Grangers, to the liberals' distress.

Modern notions of government regulation of corporate power began to emerge during Vanderbilt's lifetime. Mr. Fraser ignores this issue, and my discussion of it.

Finally, Mr. Fraser writes that I overlook labor relations, industrial accidents, and the air brake. These are important subjects, worthy of the many books already devoted to them. But much of Mr. Fraser's critique on this point is misplaced, I believe. As a railroad owner and executive, Vanderbilt had no role in operational management. He did not pick brakes for his trains, any more than he set timetables. Labor relations and workplace safety in the railroad industry were largely outside of the confines of my biography. On the other hand, I do describe how, as a steamship owner, he fired strikers—sometimes at his own peril—and ruthlessly cut wages.

More generally, I chose to focus on the larger conundrum that Vanderbilt represented for American society. As I discuss, he helped to polarize society, to create a class of lifetime wage workers unknown before the rise of the corporation. I describe the insecurity and poverty of labor in this new economy.

Of course, I had my say at great length in my book. Mr. Fraser's emphatic, informed review serves the valuable purpose of continuing a discussion of the origins of corporate capitalism.

T.J. Stiles
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