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The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt

3.90  ·  Rating Details  ·  3,440 Ratings  ·  330 Reviews
A gripping, groundbreaking biography of the combative man whose genius and force of will created modern capitalism.

Founder of a dynasty, builder of the original Grand Central, creator of an impossibly vast fortune, Cornelius “Commodore” Vanderbilt is an American icon. Humbly born on Staten Island during George Washington’s presidency, he rose from boatman to builder of the
Hardcover, 736 pages
Published April 21st 2009 by Knopf (first published January 1st 2009)
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*Whew* I'm sure that such a ...comprehensive book deserves a comprehensive review, and yet I barely had the fortitude to make it through the reading. Right now I don't even have the desire to attempt a Binksian or Sorensenian book review so I'll just ramble and pretend T.J. Stiles - the author of this book - won't be offended. Maybe he should be. He took the time to organize over 100 pages of footnotes at the end of the thing; the least I owe him is a well-organized book review.

100 pages of note
Apr 26, 2016 Matt rated it really liked it
Shelves: biography
I admit that I'm not too comfortable with the world of high finance and economics. This might be odd, considering I majored in finance in college. Then again, I spent most of my college years smoking in the library, checking out coeds on the quad, starting food fights in the cafeteria, and playing tricks on the crusty dean. My copy of Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations sits unread on my bookshelf. I swear, I'll get to it someday; as of now, however, I can't get past the first turgid page. When I thi ...more
Sep 22, 2015 Arminius rated it it was amazing
Shelves: business
The early 19th Century time was a fascinating time for American business. Before railroad transportation most businesses consisted of small shops and farms. The primary means for shipping goods to far-away places was the use of rivers and oceans through shipping. The rights to shipping had dated back to the Revolutionary times when a family controlled water way rights and continued to do so up and until the mid 19th Century. One shipper spent his life attempting to break this monopoly. His name ...more
Jul 14, 2011 Harold rated it liked it
Shelves: history
This is a very good book, but like Vanderbilt's life, extremely long. Vanderbilt himself was awkward with language, and consequently neither wrote or spoke publicly much during his life, so there is no introspection in this book. And while he aged, perhaps gracefully, to be the preeminent American businessman of his age (dying with as much as 10% of all American monetary value!!) his life didn't have the progression of Rockefeller or Carnegie who transformed from businessman to philanthropist du ...more
Greg Fanoe
Jan 30, 2014 Greg Fanoe rated it it was ok
Shelves: nonfiction, pulitzer
Now that I finally finished this thing up what do I think? I think it's still hampered by the fact that the subject, Cornelius Vanderbilt, just didn't do very many interesting things. The author does a game job of presenting things, and while I appreciate the stunning amount of research that must have gone into this thing, as a book it just reads way too detailed. There's plenty of non-fiction books out there that are really educational but also well-written and entertaining, I'd stick to those. ...more
Steven Peterson
Mar 13, 2016 Steven Peterson rated it it was amazing
A great biography of a major American business leader. Cornelius rose to become one of the wealthiest men in the United States by the time of his death. He began in a family of very modest means. Step by step, he rose into the highest echelon of American entrepreneurs.

At the outset of his working life, he was just another employee. But, with time, hard work, and some luck, he developed a presence in the ferry boat business in the New York City area. Early on, he found a benefactor--and in this m
Nov 26, 2012 Socraticgadfly rated it it was amazing
Shelves: history, biography
The Commodore comes alive

It's hard, quite hard, translating 19th century finances to today, or stature.

But, pretend that one person was a pioneer in both the equivalent of computer operating systems AND online communications, and had the money of both. In other words, Cornelius Vanderbilt approaches a combination of Bill Gates and Sergey Brin, or something like that, with a fortune worth a least $100 billion in today's economy.

It would be easy indeed to stereotype this person as a Gilded Age "ro
Mar 15, 2011 Clif rated it it was amazing
You don't tug on Superman's cape
You don't spit into the wind
You don't take the mask
off that ole Lone Ranger
and you don't mess around with Cornelius Vanderbilt

This book won the Pulitzer Prize and rightfully so. What an amazing life was this one of over 80 years that played such a vital part in the history of the United States.

Knowing absolutely nothing about the Commodore before starting the book, I was eager to find out about him, expected a scoundrel and found a man of character. Stiles obvious
Lars Guthrie
Mar 31, 2010 Lars Guthrie rated it really liked it
I did it! Four doorstoppers on Nineteenth Century America. Before 'The First Tycoon': 'What Hath God Wrought' by Daniel Walker Howe, 'A Country of Vast Designs' by Robert Merry, and 'Team of Rivals' by Doris Kearns Goodwin.

The funny thing is I enjoyed it, and actually am inspired to read more American history. As I was finishing Stiles' excellent biography, I heard about President Obama reading Edmund Morris's 'The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt,' and immediately wanted to read that. (Obama was the
Jean Poulos
This book won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Biography and the National Book Award for Nonfiction in 2009. This is a serious book written with the future scholar in mind. I have enjoyed reading this excellent in-depth biography. The author opens the book with the courtroom drama of Vanderbilt’s children fighting over the Will. Stiles leaves the courtroom drama to tell the story of Vanderbilt.

Cornelius Vanderbilt (1794-1877) made his fortune in building steamships and railroad lines. He built the G
Brian Eshleman
Aug 28, 2015 Brian Eshleman rated it liked it
Started off promising charting Vanderbilt as a transitional figure in a transitional time, but the bulk of the book was pretty dull, deal to deal as the fortune was built. The explanation that Vanderbilt was important because he could see the abstract nature of value at a time when people saw this as somewhat suspect was interesting.
Stiles's rendering of Cornelius Vanderbilt starts off strong. For over 100 pages the writing is riveting. What follows is a lot of detail on water and rail routes and deals. While the original research and its presentation are certainly worthy of the National Book Award, for me, and perhaps many other general readers, more than half the book was a slog.

What makes the opening strong is the discussion of the patrician attitudes of the founders, how this manifested itself in not only politics but t
Feb 14, 2016 SeaShore rated it it was amazing
The steamboat. Cornelius Vanderbilt age 30, in 1824 and working with Thomas Gibbons- Commander of Gibbons' forces. Gibbons vs Ogden. Remarkable so far. Aaron Ogden-hero of the Revolution- former New Jersey Governor.
Vanderbilt had incredible admiration for the much older Thomas Gibbons, who died May 16 1826.
John Quincy Adams entered the White house in March 1825 and the Erie Canal was completed by November of that year.
Cornelius was in court over neglect of his wife and by then 6 children
It is in
Feb 17, 2013 E. rated it it was amazing
This Pulitzer Prize-winning book is one of the best biographies I've read. Vanderbilt's long lifetime spanned from George Washington's presidency to the Centennial. He personified the change in American business from sole proprietorships to huge corporate ownership. He started out operating a sailboat ferry across New York Harbor from his native Staten Island to Manhattan. Through frugality and good management he acquired a fleet of ferries and coastal sailboats. He got into steamboats early, an ...more
Jan 08, 2012 Brian rated it it was amazing

T. J. Stiles provides a masterful biography of Cornelius Vanderbilt from his childhood to the tremendous impact he made on this country as a tycoon and "commodore" in the various industries he transformed. From his early time running steamboats and laying the groundwork for one of the most important Supreme Court cases (Gibbons v. Ogden) to the time he was running railroads Vanderbilt displayed tremendous business acumen and skill. He had a simple principle to making money which was to only go w
Dec 27, 2009 judy rated it it was amazing
This is the last book that needs to be written on Vanderbilt for many years--possibly ever. The scholarship is astounding, highly detailed and complete. While it was fascinating, I had to set it down about every hundred pages to keep from being overwhelmed. One simple example of the author's meticulous approach: throughout the book the author recounts well-known Vanderbilt anecdotes. These appear to be true but the author's research has proven them bogus. One of these tales is printed in Vanderb ...more
Regina Mclaughlin
Dec 27, 2009 Regina Mclaughlin rated it really liked it
One huge meatball of a read about this rich guy with a passion for screwing his competitors and escaping from his so-so home life. A businessman who gets all sanctimonious about playing by the rules, having first ascertained the game is rigged to his advantage. Today we've seen his type doing the perp walk. But back in his day, there was no such thing as insider trading or labor laws or level playing fields. In his day, Cornelius was revered.

Be forewarned. The author marches you through the arc

2.5 stars is closer to reasonable.

Listening to THE FIRST TYCOON: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt, by T. J. Stiles, although rife with interesting moments, was made, at times, confusing and overwhelming by its far too excruciating attention to minor details. I really don't care that 'Commodore' was putting on shoes, with four buckles on them, while receiving a visitor—who considered the shoes stylish, by the way, and thought he might like to have a pair like them—in his sitti
Bookmarks Magazine
Jun 01, 2009 Bookmarks Magazine rated it really liked it
Shelves: july-aug-2009

Though Stiles's admiration for the man who inspired the phrase "robber baron" shines throughout this extraordinary rags-to-riches story, he harbors no illusions about his vindictive and bad-tempered subject. Stiles is quick to set the record straight when the past has condemned Vanderbilt unfairly, but he details his unscrupulous business dealings and troubled relationships with equal aplomb. Stiles's exhaustive research has resulted in a massive, carefully edited book, and critics were surprise

Nicholas Lefevre
Jun 16, 2014 Nicholas Lefevre rated it really liked it
This is a fascinating book about a fascinating man. Vanderbilt was the father of the great industrial age building an empire on the first great American industry, the steamship (side wheelers) and then railroads. At his death in 1876 Vanderbilt's wealth represented one in every eight US dollars, never to be matched. He built many of the foundations of the Gilded Age to follow and his later life intersects with the creation of the new American aristocracies of those like Rockefeller (oil), Carneg ...more
R. Rasmussen
Jun 24, 2009 R. Rasmussen rated it really liked it
Brings alive the extraordinarily complex history of steam ferries in New York Harbor. Who would have guessed that such a subject could be so interesting?
Aug 19, 2010 Brian rated it really liked it
While it took a while to get into this book, probably due to the relative lack of information about his early years, I did end up enjoying it quite a bit. It was interesting to revisit various events and eras (Ogden vs. Gibbon, Jackson's presidency, the Civil War, William Walker's invasion of Nicaragua, and the California gold rush, to name a few) and view them through the prism of financial history, and by extension, Vanderbilt's role in all of them.

I also found it interesting that as he and o
Frank Stein

The book was a national bestseller and won the Pulitzer Prize for History, but I don't see what all the fuss is about.

The book does do an impressive job of making a compelling historical character out of a man not known for his personality and who was barely literate, and thus left few records. Stiles does manage to show the drama in things like the war for the control of the Erie Railroad in 1869 and Vanderbilt's financial expansion from the Hudson River Railroad into a national system. There a
Apr 25, 2010 Tony rated it it was amazing
Shelves: biography
Stiles, T. J. THE FIRST TYCOON: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt. (2010). ****. I’ve been reading this biography in bits and pieces for two weeks now, and finally came to the end. If this isn’t a great example of an exhaustive biography, then I’ve never seen one before. It is extremely well written, and well researched. The author manages to maintain the reader’s interest even in the face of otherewise boring business maneuvers by the group of tycoons of the time. Vanderbilt started out as ...more
Jonathan Shaw
Oct 10, 2012 Jonathan Shaw rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This book took me longer than I thought it would to read -- I didn't finish it until a third check-out period from the library. It's long, yes, but I found it un-skimmable ... in a good way. There's so much here: a story of a man's life that bridges the 18th-century colonial period of landed gentry to the 19th-century period of frenetic entrepreneurialism, vivid sketches of life in New York City from 1800 to the 1870s, and a detailed economic history of the first 100 years of the United States.

David Kudlinski
Jan 19, 2013 David Kudlinski rated it really liked it
I took history classes throughout high school and college, where I remember learning about wars, treaties, politicians and religions for the most part. I don’t recall learning much about the history of business. I had never heard of Cornelius Vanderbilt until a month ago, when I bought this book out of curiosity. What most people probably don’t know is that even after the American Revolutionary War, wealthy aristocrats controlled business activity in the US through government-chartered monopolie ...more
Doug Cornelius
There were the rich, the super rich, and Cornelius Vanderbilt. T.J. Stiles takes you through the life of the Commodore in The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt.

"Sons are notoriously prone to exaggerate the importance of their fathers, as are biographers with their subjects..."

Vanderbilt founded a dynasty. The First Tycoon starts with one of the final challenges to that dynasty. The Commodore had left the vast majority of his estate to one of his children. The rest were challeng
William Ramsay
Jul 01, 2009 William Ramsay rated it really liked it
I'm a great fan of biography and have a fascination with how we came to be the way we are. This books fills both needs. The picture Stiles paints of Cornelius Vanderbilt is completely different from any vague notion you may have had of the robber barons of the gilded age. He was the richest man in America at one time, but lived very simply - his progeny built the Breakers and the other palaces of wealth. He was a huge man who in in his youth never hesitated to enter a brawl or a barroom fight. H ...more
Aaron Million
Jun 11, 2012 Aaron Million rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Mammoth effort by Stiles to not only tell Vanderbilt's incredible story, but to also describe the vast economic and social changes that took place in America from 1794 - 1877. Well-reasoned and researched, this great biography is essential to understanding how the American economy came into being re: Wall Street and large corporations. Stiles plays it fair when it comes to Vanderbilt - showing many times that he was indeed no saint and could squash his enemies with one swift move, but also showi ...more
Mar 26, 2015 Jan rated it really liked it
Finished with this comprehensive biography I was kind of glad to have made it through. The book is by far the best researched biography I recently read. On the formal side the book contains a extensive list of primary and secondary sources and is very well equipped with endnotes.
As regards content the book is structured in three main parts in chronological order. It contains 17 chapters. The author illuminates Vanderbilt as person as well as business icon. However, while writing about American s
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