2009 National Book Award Winner Nonfiction
Interview with T.J. Stiles

T.J. Stiles

The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt

Alfred A. Knopf

Interview Conducted by Meehan Crist

Photo credit: Joanne Chan

Meehan Crist: When did you decide to write a biography of Cornelius Vanderbilt and why?

T.J. Stiles: I am drawn to writing biography in general because it allows me to tell good stories and ask big questions—to explore the intimate and personal as well as changes in the larger world. I’m focused on the nineteenth century, in particular the Civil War era, because that is where I see the emergence of modernity—of the world we live in now.

In writing Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War, I looked into the railroad and financial system after the Civil War, and became fascinated with the rise of the American economy. When I finished that book and began to look for another subject, Cornelius Vanderbilt immediately presented himself: absolutely pivotal, combative, physically adventurous, cursed with difficult relationships—and lacking an authoritative biography.

MC: What questions drove you as you worked on The First Tycoon? In other words, what was it that you hoped to better understand by writing it?

TJS: My interest in both the individual life and the historical context drove my work on Commodore Vanderbilt (as he was known). I wanted to understand the mind and personality of someone who clawed his way from the bottom to the top. I was also interested in the effects of that personality, and those ambitions, on his family. And I tried to grasp what Vanderbilt’s career could tell us about the making of the modern United States in the broadest sense. How did he help to shape the American economy—our ideals of equality and opportunity—our arguments over the role of government, and our economic imagination? I began to see his career as part of a great transformation: the abstraction of economic reality, with the rise of paper currency, corporations, securities, and financial markets. This invisible architecture of commerce—which we live in today—troubled many Americans, who were accustomed to a tangible economy of precious metals, physical property, and human beings.

MC: What was the most unexpected thing you learned in the course of writing The First Tycoon?

TJS: The most unexpected thing should have been the most obvious, for it is the most universal: The Commodore was complicated, even contradictory. This was a surprise because, as Louis Auchincloss noted, the historical image of him is starkly black and white: “There are no subtleties, few ambiguities.” We remember him as the man of force, pure and simple. But I discovered a fully developed emotional life, with friendships, a sense of humor, sudden impulses, even vulnerabilities, along with his decisive and combative qualities. He was not always pleasant, but he was human.

MC: What was the most difficult thing for you to make sense of as you were writing this book? Perhaps a facet of Vanderbilt’s personality, a choice he made, something he wrote or said? Why was it so confounding and how did you finally deal with it in the book?

TJS: Much of what I struggled with was the complex relationship between his own personality, political ideology, and underlying economic reality. For example, he often declared his belief in free competition, yet he also worked to divide markets and erect cartels. Self-interest helped explain these contradictions, of course, but I also had to understand sixty years of changing business culture, and the demands of the steamboat and railroad industries.

His personal life was often a puzzle, especially his famous sponsorship of Victoria Woodhull and her sister, Tennessee Claflin. How could he have succeeded if he relied on their séances for financial advice, as they implied? Why would he have backed their radical newspaper? How could he, a famously irreligious man, have developed a faith in spiritualism? Working from many sources, I came to see that Woodhull and Claflin had exaggerated their connection to the Commodore. Spiritualism was hugely popular after the Civil War, and the idea of contacting the dead must have appealed to a man so used to controlling everything around him. It was also a sign of an emotional vulnerability that I detected elsewhere. But he kept his own counsel when talking to the spirits. In one instance, he started an argument with the ghost of Jim Fisk.

MC: Was there any particular discovery you made in the course of your research that provided a key to understanding Vanderbilt’s personal life?

TJS: The antihero of my book is Vanderbilt’s second son, Cornelius Jeremiah, or Corneil, as he was called. As I discovered letter after letter from Corneil, I came to see him as a mirror, reflecting the Commodore’s complex, contradictory, and largely hidden emotional life. This was largely because he was the exact opposite of his father. Voluble where his father was close-mouthed, he wrote often to Horace Greeley and others—mainly to beg for money. The Commodore was frugal, honest, industrious, and proud. Corneil was a gambling addict, driven into the depths of deceit and self-hatred by his affliction. And where his father was an athlete, he was epileptic, and suffered for it. All his life, the Commodore alternated between scorn and sincere concern for Corneil, in what Corneil’s mother, Sophia, called “stubborn inconsistency.”

MC: Are there any books you held in your peripheral vision as models while you worked?

TJS: I’m not sure I would use the word “models,” but I did draw sustenance from classic works of fiction, especially sprawling, epic works. Like the rest of the reading universe, I marvel at how Tolstoy carries the reader through great historical events in War and Peace without losing focus on his rich, complex characters, set in a fully realized world. I also reread Conrad’s Nostromo, which speaks so clearly to Vanderbilt’s Nicaragua venture. It, too, offers subtle depictions of characters amid a panorama of wealth and poverty, enterprise and corruption, politics and revolution.

There were many others, of course, including Twain’s hilarious yet accurate depiction of government corruption in The Gilded Age.

MC: What part of The First Tycoon was most thrilling to write, and why?

TJS: Different parts were exciting to write for different reasons. The last two chapters of Part One, for example, were a detective story for me. Working from a variety of primary sources, I pieced together the story of Vanderbilt’s largely secret plot to take control of the Stonington Railroad. His Nicaragua transit route during the California gold rush formed, to my mind, a ripping tale of exploration, international diplomacy, and eventually an outright war (involving Vanderbilt’s gold and secret agents). The Commodore’s epic battles on Wall Street allowed me to explore critical changes in the national economy, since those larger changes were an organic part of his personal conflicts. But the most satisfying moments came when I could weave together all three elements of the book: his family life, his businesses, and the historical context. There were a lot of such moments, many involving tales of personal betrayal, such as his son-in-law Horace F. Clark’s nearly fatal attempt to forge an independent course prior to the Panic of 1873.

MC: What is one moment from the process of working on this book that you’ll never forget?

TJS: I was aboard the Staten Island ferryboat Andrew J. Barberi when it crashed on October 15, 2003. I was never in danger, and had no idea that it would prove so deadly (eventually costing the lives of 11 passengers), but it was immediately clear that a major accident had occurred. I had been at work on the book for more than a year, and was aware that Vanderbilt had started the line that is the direct ancestor of the modern Staten Island Ferry. I found it unsettling to go from reading historical newspaper accounts of ferry disasters to describing my own experience of one to reporters that day.

MJC: At a moment when this country seems poised on the edge of reinvention—a new administration is in office and the future shape of America is being daily debated everywhere from the Beltway to boardrooms to America’s living rooms—how do you see the role of the nonfiction writer? How do you see your work on this book as an engagement with that role?

TJS: As a writer, I must always be true to the work. When I write about the nineteenth century, I can’t afford to indulge in object lessons for the present. But I am driven by my desire to understand the origins of our world, and in that sense I hope my work can be harvested for food for thought when contemplating the present.

Among my various roles, I see myself as an archeologist of the mind—or the mindset, perhaps. In researching this book, I found that much of what we take for granted today was understood very differently in the past. The corporation, the dollar, stock, the role of government, even such fundamental principles as equality and opportunity were fiercely debated and changed enormously as we moved from a post-colonial society to an industrial one. Apart from any specific insights for the present, a study of the past challenges us to rethink our assumptions, and perhaps awakens us to possibilities.

The marvel of nonfiction is that it can simultaneously entertain, inform, and, at its best, instill wisdom about the human condition. I don’t mean to imply that I am wise; I simply mean to say that this is the tradition that inspires me as a writer.

Meehan Crist is reviews editor at The Believer. She holds an MFA from
Columbia University, and her work has recently appeared in publications such
as The Believer and Lapham's Quarterly. Her nonfiction book, Everything
, is forthcoming from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.