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The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt

3.83  ·  Rating details ·  7,781 ratings  ·  476 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
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Average rating 3.83  · 
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 ·  7,781 ratings  ·  476 reviews

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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
Jan 04, 2010 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
Feb 25, 2010 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
Jan 02, 2017 rated it really liked it
Some reads are quick jogs, others are walks in the park and some gallop along. This was a marathon.

Now, let me explain myself in that it's a good marathon, the type you feel good about because you think you've accomplished something. Most biographies fill the pages with just enough information to keep the reader involved. But this book's paragraphs are packed with details so that the reading itself takes longer just to be able to comprehend it all. The life of Cornelius Vanderbilt was amazing, b
Oct 03, 2010 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
Nov 29, 2016 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: hbc-bom, read-in-2016
This is a very, very, very exhaustive and detailed tome on Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt. He was quite a man and a pioneer in the steamship and railroad business. Considered one of the robber barons of the gilded age, Vanderbilt made friends and enemies on his rise to the top of the financial and transportation business. He was a smart and cunning man. You either loved or hated him depending on which side of the deal you were on. He was a powerful man and he deserves a powerful biography. This ...more
The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt was a meticulously and extensively researched biography of Cornelius "Commodore" Vanderbilt. This interesting and compelling book told not only the story of this powerful man but also the history of America during one of the most sweeping and memorable times in our history. Born in Staten Island, New York in 1794 at the time of George Washington, Vanderbilt began as a young boy working for his father's ferry service in New York Harbor and l ...more
Greg Fanoe
Feb 20, 2012 rated it it was ok
Shelves: pulitzer, nonfiction
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 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 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 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: biography
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
Brian Eshleman
Jul 04, 2015 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.
Lars Guthrie
Mar 31, 2010 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
Paul Pessolano
Nov 02, 2017 rated it really liked it
“The First Tycoon” by T.J. Stiles, published by Alfred A. Knopf.

Category - Biography/History Publication Date – 1994.

This book has received excellent reviews through the years and I would have to heartily agree. However, I would caution the reader that he or she must be interested in Cornelius Vanderbilt, his life and this period of American History. If not, I would stay away from this book because you will never reach the ending.

It is hard to image the tremendous wealth that Vanderbilt made dur
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
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
Aaron Million
May 27, 2012 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
May Ling
Jan 14, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Summary: So well researched and written like a beautiful story. It's really a 4.5 for me, but he deserves a rating above 4 stars overall, so I rounded up to help. I personally think Stiles does a horrible job in explaining the financial deals, so I explain what I gather below.

Stiles... call me in the future if you need help understanding the financial transactions. You're too brilliant to get caught up with poor explanations.

Stiles might get credit for being the first person to make me aware th
Dec 20, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Competitive to the core, he had spent his life outdoing other men, whether sailing New York Bay or navigating the Nicaraguan rapids; fighting with his fists or waging rate wars; racing his steamboats or running four-footed trotters; designing steamships or planning sprawling enterprises.” ...
p. 372

This is a great biography of Cornelius (aka Commodore) Vanderbilt. He was truly a self-made man who become the richest and most powerful person in the country during the 19th century.

It is interestin
Sep 22, 2015 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
Dec 09, 2012 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
Regina Mclaughlin
Dec 17, 2009 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
Dec 27, 2009 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
Nov 01, 2011 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

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 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

Daniel Erspamer
Jan 01, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This book took me a long time to finish - I renewed my Libby loan at least twice. It's incredibly well-researched and approachably written, but goodness there is a lot of detail. Every ship. Every railroad. Every stock the Commodore ever owned, it felt like. So, while I rated the book highly - and, truly, I found it incredibly interesting - know that it's a commitment if you're going to pick it up. ...more
R. Rasmussen
May 23, 2009 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?
May 02, 2016 rated it did not like it
Thumbs down - could not finish - too tedious - not written well
Lauren Hiebner
Dec 20, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: owned
This is a story of an entrepreneur, designer of ships, and businessman who used competition in a virtually unregulated capitalist economy to oust competitors (he called opponents) for his own benefit but which did benefit consumers by lowering prices while forcing out competitors in the steamboat industry. Tycoon is an appropriate title as Vanderbilt was sneaky and ruthless in building his empire. Rather than have the law deal with people that cheated him, he would drive them out of business. He ...more
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