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A Brief Autobiography by T.J. Stiles

T.J. Stiles with his distracted family in Pismo Beach, August 2021

I am now (in 2022) a full-time writer, living with my wife and two children in Berkeley, California. But I wandered across the continent to get here.

I was born and raised in Minnesota, just outside of the town of Foley (pop. 1,200 at the time), where my father was one of two doctors and served as the Benton County coroner. It was (and is) a farming community, a landscape of dairy and hog farms.

A creek in Benton County, a short distance from T.J. Stiles's childhood home

My father attended Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota, in the 1950s, and liked to claim a relation to one of the James-Younger gang, William Stiles, who was killed on the streets of Northfield in 1876. (Despite a remarkable resemblance between my father and the hapless outlaw, there is almost certainly no relation.) I attended Carleton as well decades later, but had little idea that I would one day write a biography of Jesse James.

The Path Toward Jesse James
I graduated from Carleton with distinction in history, and accepted a fellowship to attend the graduate school of Columbia University in New York, where I studied European history. After I completed coursework, wrote a master's thesis, passed oral examinations, and received two graduate degrees (M.A. and M.Phil., Columbia's all-but-dissertation degree), I decided against an academic career.

I went to work for Oxford University Press, writing catalog and jacket copy. There I worked with many leading American historians published by the press, as I submitted to them my 300-word descriptions of their books and discussed how best to explain their work in a highly condensed form. I also began an independent writing career. I authored a five-volume series of historical anthologies. I also wrote articles for the Smithsonian, and opinion pieces that were published by the Denver Post and the Los Angeles Times.

My independent studies turned my attention to nineteenth-century America, particularly the era of the Civil War. Here, I believe, we can see the makings of the modern United States. My desire to write a large-scale, original narrative about the period led me to the subject of Jesse James, who had been underestimated as a significant, purposeful, and political figure. More than that, James remains an American icon—a challenging subject for a writer—and had never received the nonfiction treatment he deserved. The resulting biography, Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War, was published in 2002 by Alfred A. Knopf.

The Transition to Commodore Vanderbilt
Jesse James received a generous critical response. By the time it appeared, I had already started work on my next biography: The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt, published on April 21, 2009, also by Knopf. The Commodore, as Vanderbilt was called, lived from 1794 to 1877, leading an extraordinarily long and important career, yet (like Jesse James) had never been the subject of a satisfactory biography. And, like Jesse James, the Commodore was a man of action who left no papers behind, just a relatively few letters scattered in various collections. And, like Jesse James, Vanderbilt often wished to conceal his activities. But he was, of course, a far more public figure, and there is far more material to work with than there was with a man who lived underground for his entire adult life.

T.J. Stiles (right) accepting the Pulitzer Prize for Biography in 2010 from Columbia University President Lee Bollinger

In the course of about seven years dedicated to this book, I received some much-appreciated assistance. I was selected as a mentor for the Hertog Research Fellowship at Columbia University's School of the Arts, in which an MFA student worked as my research assistant. (I also taught a master class in nonfiction creative writing at Columbia). For the 2004-5 academic year, I was honored with selection as the first Gilder Lehrman Fellow in American History at the New York Public Library's Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers. Though I conducted research at three dozen different libraries and archives, I made the New York Public Library my research home, where I devoted many hours to the New York Central Railroad papers, among other collections. After my fellowship ended, I worked across the hall in the NYPL's Allen Room, a study for scholars and writers working on major projects.

National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize
Writing The First Tycoon was a financially stressful effort, and it appeared in early 2009, in the very depths of the great recession. Sales of all kinds plummeted; bookstores cut back sharply on orders; the old adage that publishing is relatively recession-proof proved false. The reviews were strong, but I feared that my career as a professional writer would prove unsustainable. Then, in October, I received a call from Harold Augenbraum, executive director of the National Book Foundation, informing me that The First Tycoon was a finalist for the National Book Award in nonfiction. A month later, my parents, my wife, my editor, my agent, and I attended the black-tie award ceremony in New York, and learned that it won. As I said in my acceptance remarks, it was an out-of-body experience. In the spring, I received a call from my editor, informing me that my book had won the Pulitzer Prize in biography. (The Pulitzer winners and finalists are announced publicly, all at once, with no prior notice to the authors.)

The Transition to George Armstrong Custer
Even before the Pulitzer Prize, I began work on a new biography, published by Knopf in 2015, and now available in paperback from Vintage: Custer's Trials: A Life on the Frontier of a New America. Custer, unlike either Vanderbilt or Jesse James, has received extensive scholarly as well as popular attention, and is the subject of many fine biographies and studies. I am not motivated by a desire to debunk or refute these other books, but to change the camera angle. I see Custer and his wife Libbie as figures on a frontier in time, as the United States moved into the modern age. Their personal struggles often directly reflected the larger struggles of the American people over emancipation, racial equality, the rights of women, federal power, the increasingly corporate economy, and the new national media, among other things. In a wide-ranging career, Custer worked to bring about this new America—yet he could not adapt to the modernity that he helped to create.

In an extraordinary piece of good fortune, the Pulitzer biography jury selected Custer's Trials as a finalist in 2016, and the Pulitzer board moved the book to the history category, and granted it the prize. I take pride in my work, both as a writer and a historian, but I know too well that I have been very lucky—and I am enormously grateful for the recognition. As a self-employed author, that recognition has kept me in business.

T.J. Stiles with his wife, Jessica Stiles, National Book Awards, 2009
T.J. Stiles (right) accepting the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for History from President Lee Bollinger of Columbia University
T.J. Stiles with his daughter, Sasha, in 2015

From New York to California
The city of New York was my home for twenty years, from 1986 to 2006—my hometown of choice. I lived in West Harlem during the height of the crack epidemic; Park Slope, Brooklyn, for seven years; and on the Upper West Side, just off Riverside Drive. I was in Brooklyn on September 11, 2001, making revisions to my Jesse James manuscript, when the burning smell of the World Trade Center entered my apartment.

In New York I met my future wife, a native of the Bay Area. In the summer of 2006 we moved to California, where we were married on July 3, 2006. In 2007, we moved to the historic Presidio of San Francisco, a former army base now maintained as part of the national park system. It was in San Francisco, in 2007, that our son Dillon was born and, in 2011, our daughter Sasha. In 2013 we moved across San Francisco Bay to Berkeley, where we live today.

Odd Jobs and Honors
In my early years, I worked a lot of odd jobs. I poured concrete for hog pens; served as a 4-H program assistant; worked on a line at an electroplating plant; served as a janitor in the basement of the American Standard building (where a fancy martini bar would later be built); made telemarketing cold calls; manned the till at an inner-city liquor store; worked as an office temp; and filled tanks and changed oil in a gas station. I worked for a decade in publishing writing advertising copy for serious general-interest as well as mass-market books. For more than a decade I have been a full-time writer. In addition to writing biographies, I have reviewed books for the New York Times Book Review, Salon.com, the Wall Street Journal, San Francisco Chronicle, and Washington Post, among other publications, and have written for the Wall Street Journal, Smithsonian, and The Atlantic online. I taught nonfiction creative writing at Columbia University, and served as advisor and interview subject for "Jesse James" and "Grand Central," two films in the PBS documentary series American Experience. In 2011, I was awarded a fellowship by the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. In 2012, I was elected to the Society of American Historians. In 2014, I served on the faculty of the World Economic Forum's annual meetings in Davos, Switzerland, and Tianjin, China.

I've been an athlete all my life. In high school, I was a co-captain of the football team and won two district wrestling championships. When I was sixteen—while still wrestling and playing football—I began to practice traditional Shotokan karate (or "karate-do," as it's more formally known), which has become a lifelong passion.

T.J. Stiles practicing the kata Sochin, July 2010

Before graduating from Carleton College, I earned my first-degree black belt with the Japan Karate Association (JKA), the flagship school of Shotokan karate in Japan. In choosing to go to Columbia University, I was influenced by the presence in New York of a senior JKA instructor, Sensei Masataka Mori, 9th dan (9th degree black-belt). Mori Sensei was a master of the old school, fierce and exacting. It was a rare experience to train in his dojo for twenty years, and to continue as his student in the twelve years after moving to California. Mori Sensei passed away on September 8, 2018. I was honored to see him shortly before his death, and to be asked to speak at his funeral, along with more senior students of his. He taught karate as more than a set of techniques; he taught karate-do, in the sense of the traditional Japanese arts, as a path for life.

I currently hold a 5th dan (5th-degree black belt). I graduated from the Class A (advanced) instructor training program in New York, and am licensed by the Japan Karate Association in Japan as a class B instructor, class C rank examiner, and class B tournament judge. I founded the JKA at Columbia University in 1986, where I served as instructor until I left for California in 2006. I competed successfully in world and national (JKA Shotokan Karate-Do America) tournaments for many years, and retired from competition after the fall of 1999. Over the years, I have broken both hands, a few toes, one foot, and a number of ribs, and have had my face stitched up more than once. I now make sure my students fare better. I founded and teach a small dojo in San Francisco, the JKA of San Francisco.

T.J. Stiles, left, competing in kumite finals in the JKA SKDI championship tournament, 1998. Mori Sensei, in tie to the right, serves as chief judge.
The late Masataka Mori, 9th Dan, (foreground left), chief instructor emeritus of JKA Shotokan Karate-Do International and technical adviser for the Japan Karate Association, with T.J. Stiles (immediately adjacent, right) in April 2018, five months before Mori Sensei passed away.