Thursday, April 30, 2009

New Biography of Cornelius Vanderbilt

The New York Times reviewer snarks his way through the column (you'd expect something else?), but this new biography by T.J. Stiles of the great Cornelius Vanderbilt sounds like a helluva good read.
“His admirers saw him as the ultimate meritocrat, the finest example of the common man rising through hard work and ability. ... His critics called him grasping and ruthless, an unelected king who never pretended to rule for his people.” But Mr. Stiles plainly gets a charge out of Vanderbilt’s raw nerve.

Cornelius Vanderbilt grew up on Staten Island, the son of a modest farming family. He attended school for only a few months, developing what Mr. Stiles calls “a lasting contempt for the conventions of written English.” He was born in the right place at the right time.

“Unlike most country folk,” Mr. Stiles writes, “the Vanderbilts lived within sight of the place of the most densely concentrated possibilities in North America: the city of New York.”

As a young man, Vanderbilt began working on ferries and schooners and then, with their increasing popularity in the 1820s and ’30s, steamboats. He made a name for himself in business for his “elbows-out aggressiveness.”

He made a name for himself, too, with his imposing appearance. A contemporary described him as “a man of striking individuality, as straight as an Indian, standing six feet in his stockings and weighing about 200 pounds.” Frugal and abstemious, Vanderbilt had one vice: the constant presence of a lighted or unlighted cigar.

The most flat-out enjoyable sections of “The First Tycoon” are those that deal with New York’s great steamship wars of the first half of the 19th century. Vanderbilt began to build and operate his own fleet, picking up the nickname the Commodore in the process. He engaged in price wars, cutting fares until competitors went out of business or paid him to go away. He slowly developed a chokehold on commerce.

By the late 1840s, Mr. Stiles writes, “almost everyone who traveled between New York and Boston took a Vanderbilt boat or a Vanderbilt train.”
Naturally, there is the requisite 'robber baron' bashing:
Mr. Stiles is clear-eyed about his subject’s nearly amoral rapacity. He writes that Vanderbilt “exacerbated problems that would never be fully solved: a huge disparity in wealth between rich and poor; the concentration of great power in private hands; the fraud and self-serving deception that thrives in an unregulated environment.”
But it's generally not too hard to separate the wheat from the feces in these types of biographies.

More after I've read it...

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