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NBA Acceptance Speech

A brief prologue, before my actual remarks:

After I was named a finalist for the National Book Award, I was strongly advised by a good friend who had once served as a judge to prepare remarks in advance, in case I won. I felt rather foolish as I did so; it was so much easier in 2003, when I was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, because Robert Caro was a finalist with Master of the Senate, and it was transparently obvious he would win. On that occasion, I truly relaxed during the ceremony and had a nice time.

Such books are rare, though, so I don't think I'm insulting my fellow finalists when I say that no one had any idea who would win this year. Far from it: They all wrote excellent works, and they seemed to me like truly decent people as well. Any one of them could have gone up to accept instead of me.

But I did not anticipate the emotional intensity of being declared the winner. Jonathan Segal, my tough-minded, highly professional editor, unexpectedly wrapped me in a long bear hug that seemed to say that this was the culmination of our long collaboration. I was already in shock, and I frankly had to struggle to keep some semblance of composure.

So preparing remarks in advance turned out to be an excellent idea. I reproduce them here as I wrote them. Naturally there were some variations when I actually delivered them (starting with my declaration that this was an "out-of-body experience"). CSPAN's BookTV broadcast the event, which can be watched here, at minute 72, if you wish to see how I actually spoke these words.

Here are my remarks, in full, as written:
* * * * *
I would like to preface my thank-yous with a few words which I hope will give them more weight. Before I became a full-time writer, I worked for ten years in publishing, both academic and trade. When I told my last boss I was leaving to write, she said, "I always knew you wanted to be on the other side." You would have thought I was going to tunnel under the Berlin Wall.

Well, I'm reporting back to say there is no other side. But I rather knew that from the beginning, when I was first hired at Oxford University Press, straight out of graduate school, by Woody Gilmartin. Woody, a fine writer with an MFA from Cornell, taught me that this thing all of us here inhabit, the culture of the written word, is a complex ecosystem filled with interdependent species—and most of them could be making a lot more money in some other swamp. The author is at the center, yes, but every book exists only because of countless people who care about writing and knowledge.

These are people who know that the book lies at the heart of all our culture, that it is the repository of knowledge, the breaker of news, the collector of wisdom, the thing of beauty. These are people all of us in this room have relied upon, sometimes yelled at, and have been ourselves—and may even be at this moment.

So before I thank the specific people who have helped to bring my book into existence, I want to thank the editorial assistants, copywriters, marketing managers, copy editors, graphic designers, production managers and managing editors. I want to thank the indexers, publicists, receptionists, and sales people. I want to thank the mail room guys, warehouse staff, bookstore clerks, and independent-bookstore owners. I want to thank the book reviewers, academic scholars, MFA students, librarians—especially the librarians—agents, and the unsung archivists. I suspect that the advent of the e-book is fooling some people into believing that none of these people are necessary anymore, or perhaps that they do not even exist. But if they cease to exist, then e-books will only be worth the paper they're not printed on.

And I sincerely thank my fellow finalists, as well as the excellent writers whose books did not fall into this particular final five. One of the great virtues of a prize like this is that it makes all of us stand up and say, "Really? What about this book?" The very arbitrariness of picking just one reminds us that the book is alive and well in our digital age. And I sincerely thank the judges, too, who had the unimaginable task of ruling out one outstanding book after another, who labored tirelessly and for nowhere near enough money, simply because they, too, love the written word.

I will close with just a few specific names. It is my great honor to work with my brilliant longtime editor, Jonathan Segal, who is a rarity—a true literary editor who understands the business as well. This book would not be what it is, might not even exist, if it were not for him. My agent, Jill Grinberg, is a real friend as well as an excellent representative, who has believed in me for a long time now. My parents, Dr. Cliff and Carol Stiles, are here tonight, having come all the way from Foley, Minnesota, the little farm town where I was born, having encouraged my intellectual pursuits since I was very young. And my wife, Jessica, is brilliant, thoughtful, beautiful, soulful, and a real professional when it comes to writing. We barely made it here this week, having both been hit last week with a bug that sent me to the emergency room. Our son Dillon is at home recovering as well, in my mother-in-law's care. But Jessica made it here, just as she's been there for me every step of the way. Thank you. Read More 
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Winner of the National Book Award for Nonfiction

Last night, November 18, my biography of Cornelius Vanderbilt won the National Book Award for Nonfiction.

I am simply overwhelmed, and grateful. With all the outstanding nonfiction books that have been published this year, across so many fields, I feel extraordinarily fortunate to have been selected. Having David Blight, one of the outstanding American historians, chair the nonfiction jury only makes the award more meaningful.

I will post my full remarks later. For now, you can listen to an NPR story that captures the spirit of my remarks, with an audio excerpt, at this link. Read More 
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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 Read More 
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National Book Award Finalist

The National Book Foundation announced that my new book, The First Tycoon, is a finalist for the National Book Award.

I'm flabbergasted—overjoyed, stunned, and humbled all at once. Yes, humbled, corny as that sounds. I'll be honest: I try my best to write at a level that would merit this kind of recognition, so this honor is a dream come true. But I really do believe in publishing a book with all humility, and this only drives that point home. There are hundreds of fine nonfiction books being published this year, and dozens that merit serious consideration for a national prize. Being singled out is a gift, plain and simple.
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Litquake Reading

On Saturday, October 10, 2009, I read at Litquake, San Francisco's annual literary festival. Get ready for six minutes of blurry, handheld camera work.

Click here to see the Youtube video.
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Talk at the Miller Center

I recently spoke at the Miller Center at the University of Virginia. Here's a Flash video of the event, which can also be downloaded in other formats at the Miller Center website.

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The Optical Illusion of a Big 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.
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Cities as Characters

I've read that, in certain works of fiction, a city can be as much a character as any person in the story. Certainly cities and localities have played much the same role in my biographies.

In Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War, for example, rural western Missouri emerges as a living, changing thing, as essential to Jesse James's story as his mother or brother Frank. And, in The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt, I tried to tell the story of the emergence of two great American cities: San Francisco and, in particular, New York.

Without New York, Commodore Vanderbilt never would have achieved the staggering success that marked his career. And without Vanderbilt, New York would have had a harder time clawing its way to the top. I tried to give the full flavor of the city as it changed in the nineteenth century: it went from being "an overgrown seaport village" (as a Scottish visitor called it, before the War of 1812)—rife with herds of roaming pigs and packs of wild dogs, with backyard privies and yellow fever epidemics—to an island of tenements and factories, mansions and banks.

As I see the story (and tried to write it), Vanderbilt and New York grew up together. He took on the aristocratic, landowning merchants who presided over the "culture of deference" in the early nineteenth century, championing an individualistic, commercial, competitive culture that came to define American society. And he went on to inaugurate the Gilded Age, with the vast polarization of wealth between himself (along with a handful of other super-rich New Yorkers) and the desperately poor, who lived a short distance from his Washington Square mansion, crowded into decrepit housing in Five Points and other slums. It's a story both exhilarating and hearbreaking, much like New York itself.

Vanderbilt also played a central role in the birth of San Francisco. More than a decade before the completion of the transcontinental railroad—and half a century before the Panama Canal was begun—he ran a steamship line between San Francisco and New York, with a land crossing at Nicaragua. By lowering fares and speeding up service, he promoted migration to California, and magnified the impact of the gold-rush gold in the financial system headquartered in New York. Though he never set foot in San Francisco, he became a major presence there, praised and condemned in newspaper editorials and sidewalk conversations on Market Street. The character of early San Francisco—a city of hustlers and con artists, of schemers and quick-to-shoot miners—shaped a major part of Vanderbilt's own life, and I tried to bring it out in all its brilliant colors.

Though Vanderbilt's greatest corporation, the New York Central & Hudson River Railroad, is long gone, the infrastructure he built has left a lasting mark on New York. His massive St. John's Park freight depot (where the exit of the Holland Tunnel is now) reshaped lower Manhattan, giving it the particular character it has today, with its massive nineteenth-century warehouses. He constructed the original Grand Central, which anchored Midtown, and made 42nd Street into a grand crosstown artery. He sank the railroad tracks that led to Grand Central beneath the surface of 4th Avenue, allowing it to blossom into Park Avenue. And he helped to make Wall Street the most important and sophisticated financial market in the world.

For good reason his statue remains outside of Grand Central Terminal today, looking south toward Wall Street. In many ways, he made the modern city, and with it the modern economy of the United States.
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New Stuff from T.J. Stiles

My apologies: I haven't posted for a long time. I've been on vacation, and trying to keep up to date with my blog about the art of biography. Over there, you will notice a fair amount of material that discusses my work on The First Tycoon.

Also, the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History has given me a fair amount of press recently, and the staff has my thanks. There's a Q&A with me on the institute's blog. It's located here.

And its online publication, History Now, has published an article I wrote about William Walker, the filibuster who upset Vanderbilt's plans for Nicaragua. It's located here.
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Vanderbilt: Stock Manipulator?

Recently a noted historian wrote an interesting review of The First Tycoon.
You can read it here

Generally speaking, this is a very positive review, even though it quibbles with my emphasis on various aspects of Vanderbilt's career. Even in these cases, the writer doesn't claim that I leave anything out; he just thinks I should have stressed the negative more forcefully.

And that's just fine. That's what we expect from critics: an informed but independent perspective, not a parroting of the book in question. But this reviewer does make one factual, not interpretive, assertion, one subject to dispute: Vanderbilt, he writes, "made most of his money by manipulating the prices of stocks."

"Most" is a quantitative modifier. If he had written "much of" or "a great deal of," then he would have left more of a gray area. But by writing "most," he is making a declaration that Vanderbilt made at least 50% of his fortune, plus one penny, by manipulating stocks. I have to ask: Really? I do not carry a torch for the Commodore as a great hero; in fact, I point out many instances of how he troubled his fellow Americans. But I don't think this particular criticism is accurate.

It all comes down to two questions: First, what was stock "manipulation"? Second, did Vanderbilt, in fact, make that 50.0000001% this way?

As to the first question: Part of the problem in answering it is that the definition of "manipulation" has changed over time. Vanderbilt carried out some large-scale stock operations that today are not considered manipulation at all, but at the time were widely condemned. The main such maneuver was, in essence, a stock split, which did nothing to change the relative ownership of a corporation, but was derided in the nineteenth century as "stock watering," a phrase unknown on Wall Street today. See my book for a full discussion on why it was thought to be bad.

To a certain extent, much of Vanderbilt's ordinary stock trading could be considered "manipulation" simply because he was so wealthy, in comparison to the total size of the market, that he could move prices in a dramatic fashion single-handedly. But let's focus on what we would call stock manipulation today: that is, inside trading.

Yes, Vanderbilt unquestionably engaged in inside trading. But I think it's fair to leave out the kind he conducted on the largest scale: the buying of shares in his own companies, with the intention of holding those shares as a long-term investment. He bought because he knew the condition of the corporations, not because he planned to drive up the price and then dump the shares. So that leaves his short-selling operations. Several times in his career he carried out short-selling campaigns to revenge himself upon a foe, often in advance of a move to injure the business of the company in question. For example, in 1852 he sold shares short in Accessory Transit, the company that carried passengers across Nicaragua, then anounced that his steamships (which provided the only connection to Accessory Transit) would stop at Panama before Nicaragua, injuring the appeal of the Nicaragua route for travelers.

He also carried out corners, which were massive purchases from short-sellers, until he sucked all the oxygen out of the market (taking total control of the floating supply of shares, depriving short sellers of the ability to obtain and deliver the shares they had contracted to sell). True, this is a kind of market manipulation, but it's important to note that his corners were defensive maneuvers against short-selling: manipulation to fight manipulation.

So we have two major categories of stock manipulation by Vanderbilt. On to the next question: Did he make most of his wealth this way?

Not a chance. It is true that he made tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands, in his short-selling campaigns, and his corners earned him millions--a healthy proportion of his $100 million estate. But the vast majority of his wealth was in stocks and bonds in his railroads. The vast majority of his income was in dividends (generally $8 per share). Let's be conservative, and say that Vanderbilt owned $50 million in Harlem and New York & Hudson River Railroad securities, paying between 6 and 8% per year. That means he earned $3 to $4 million each year in interest and dividend payments alone, which is more than any of his two great corners on Wall Street. Over the course of many years, it's clear that he earned most of his money by investing and making his companies pay, year in and year out.

Make no mistake: Vanderbilt was highly controversial at the time, and even very troubling for the historian looking back. But what made him so was not the honesty of his business practices, for he was far more honest and productive than almost any of his peers (despite his own cases of inside trading). Rather, the immense scale of his power is what worried Americans, raising questions for his contemporaries about the survival of an egalitarian society and democratic system in the new corporate economy. Read More 
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