Frank Stein's Reviews > The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt

The First Tycoon by T.J. Stiles
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Jul 10, 2012

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Read in July, 2012


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 are also some great historical moments in which Vanderbilt was intimately involved that make for good storytelling. Vanderbilt was Thomas Gibbons's steamboat captain during the famous Gibbons v. Ogden (1824) case that established the freedom of commerce between the states, and Stiles shows how Vanderbilt worked to evade judicial injunctions to keep Gibbons's steamboats out in the water. Vanderbilt was also crucial in overthrowing William Walker's "filibustering" regime in Nicaragua (despite being falsely blamed for its imposition in the first place).

Yet Stiles loads the book with far too much inane editorializing on the "mystery" of money and constantly, constantly reminds his readers that Vanderbilt helped changed the world of markets. Like many modern historians dealing with economic issues, he feels the need to speak to some sort of post-modernist sensibility by repetitively stating that Vanderbilt helped move economics into the realm of "abstraction" and "unreality." Yet this man built more steamboats and railroads than any man of the century, as well as the first Grand Central Station, and that hardly seems such an unreal thing after all.

So I learned alot, but paid for my knowledge with a lot of frustration and tedium.
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