The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt

A man of brutal force, Cornelius Vanderbilt – for better and worse – helped to shape American business culture.

The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt By T.J. Stiles Knopf 736 pp., $37.50

When a man named Cornelius Vanderbilt started his career as a lowly boatman in the early 19th century, the word “tycoon” didn’t exist. And for good reason: neither did great industry, cutthroat competition, nor fantastic wealth. No big business, no tycoons.

But then things changed. Vanderbilt, a walking ball of intensity, saw to that. Perhaps more than anyone else, he ushered in a new era of corporate power in which only fools adhered to strict morals.

From steamboats to railroads, he controlled the way that Americans moved and created an empire in a country that had just tried to escape one a few decades earlier.

Corporate leaders feared, envied, and idolized him. Critics failed to stop him, while smart politicians scrambled to get out of his way.

Vanderbilt, the “first great corporate tycoon in American history,” would actually “overshadow democratic government,” writes historian T.J. Stiles in his new history, The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt.

Not bad for a poorly educated man who couldn’t spell and started at the very bottom before rising to the very top. Vanderbilt’s story is indeed epic, and so is “The First Tycoon.”

In 736 pages, Stiles exhaustively catalogs the strategies of the brute and brilliant force that was Vanderbilt. The book’s length will intimidate many casual readers, as will the in-depth discussion of business strategies. But those who brave its heft will find many rewards.

Stiles, author of the well-received 2002 biography “Jesse James,” is a perceptive and witty writer with a remarkable ability to paint a picture of the America in which Vanderbilt lived. During his life, America changed from a country of farmers to a country of workers. Transportation brought the country closer together, for better and worse.

Meanwhile, corporations gained incredible power and influence. Vanderbilt was at the center, the king of steamboats and railroads who decried monopolies when it suited him but embraced them when it enriched him.

“Vanderbilt is but the precursor of a class of men who will wield within the state a power created by it, but too great for its control,” warned one observer.

An indifferent husband and parent, Vanderbilt reserved his mental powers for manipulation. And colleagues, well, they were just potential foes. “I am not afraid of my enemies, but by God, you must look out when you get among your friends,” he helpfully explained.

Readers looking for heroes won’t find them here. Everybody is out for a buck and it doesn’t help that Vanderbilt was never a terribly likable man in the first place.

Stiles calls him “prospering, dyspeptic, overbearing” even at a young age, and he grew up to intimidate through his physical heft. But if Vanderbilt isn’t a terribly interesting character, his life was remarkable. Stiles takes the reader from Wall Street to Gold Rush-era California to Central America, tracking Vanderbilt’s many adventures and close calls.

He “survived fistfights, boiler explosions, a train wreck, heart trouble, Nicaraguan raids, exposure to tropical diseases, Atlantic storms and wagon smashes,” Stiles writes.

Vanderbilt – or the “Commodore,” as he was grandly known – managed to thrive despite the poison pens of his critics, most notably a furious and eloquent Mark Twain.

In an “Open Letter to Com. Vanderbilt,” Twain called him “the idol of only a crawling swarm of small souls” and doubted the existence of his soul. Twain, as Stiles puts it, saw Vanderbilt as a false idol in “a culture grown vulgar, selfish, materialistic and corrupt.”

Today, Vanderbilt is less remembered than other iconic titans like Carnegie, Morgan, and Rockefeller. Most people think of socialite Gloria Vanderbilt, her jeans, or her son, CNN star Anderson Cooper, before Cornelius comes to mind.

Vanderbilt’s most important legacies don’t carry his name. But they affect all of us every time we check a stock price, buy a car, or punch a timecard.
And they touch us again every time we worry that a shadow has been cast over democracy or fret over a corrupted culture.

Randy Dotinga is a frequent Monitor reviewer.

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