The First Tycoon: Book summary and reviews of The First Tycoon by T.J. Stiles

The First Tycoon

The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt

By T.J. Stiles

The First Tycoon
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  • Published in USA  Apr 2009,
    736 pages.

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Book Summary

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 nation’s largest fleet of steamships to lord of a railroad empire. Lincoln consulted him on steamship strategy during the Civil War; Jay Gould was first his uneasy ally and then sworn enemy; and Victoria Woodhull, the first woman to run for president of the United States, was his spiritual counselor. We see Vanderbilt help to launch the transportation revolution, propel the Gold Rush, reshape Manhattan, and invent the modern corporation—in fact, as T. J. Stiles elegantly argues, Vanderbilt did more than perhaps any other individual to create the economic world we live in today.

In The First Tycoon, Stiles offers the first complete, authoritative biography of this titan, and the first comprehensive account of the Commodore’s personal life. It is a sweeping, fast-moving epic, and a complex portrait of the great man. Vanderbilt, Stiles shows, embraced the philosophy of the Jacksonian Democrats and withstood attacks by his conservative enemies for being too competitive. He was a visionary who pioneered business models. He was an unschooled fistfighter who came to command the respect of New York’s social elite. And he was a father who struggled with a gambling-addicted son, a husband who was loving yet abusive, and, finally, an old man who was obsessed with contacting the dead.

The First Tycoon is the exhilarating story of a man and a nation maturing together: the powerful account of a man whose life was as epic and complex as American history itself.


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Book Awards

  • award image National Book Awards, 2009
  • award image Pulitzer Prize for Letters, Drama and Music, 2010

Reviews

Media Reviews

"Mark Twain described Vanderbilt as something like the Grinch, the 'idol of ... a crawling swarm of small souls' - a cartoon that Stiles does a good job of redrawing." - The New Yorker

"...perceptive and fluently written…[Stiles] writes with both the panache of a fine journalist and the analytical care of a seasoned scholar. And he offers a fruitful way to think about the larger history of American elites as well as the life of one of their most famous members." - The New York Times Book Review - Michael Kazin

"In this whacking new biography of Vanderbilt, T. J. Stiles…moves with force and conviction and imperious wit through Vanderbilt's noisy life and times. The book…is full of sharp, unexpected turns…I read eagerly and avidly. This is state-of-the-art biography, crisper and more piquant than a 600-page book has any right to be." - The New York Times - Dwight Garner

"Vanderbilt's colorful battles made him a magnet for mythology. Much of what has been written about him until now was dictated by his enemies. Stiles, a superb researcher, has unearthed quantities of new material and crafted them into the illuminating, authoritative portrait of Vanderbilt that has been missing for so long." - The Washington Post - Alice Schroeder

"Starred Review. [H]ighly recommended for readers interested in biography, popular business, New York State history, and transportation." - Library Journal

"Starred Review. An exemplary biography and highly readable business history." - Kirkus Reviews

"Shrewd .... As he did in his much-acclaimed Jesse James, Stiles limns the meteoric career of an impetuous spirit. Rich in detail, the narrative reveals much about not only the unschooled genius ... but also the national culture he helped transform . . . A landmark study." - Booklist

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T. J. Stiles has held the Gilder Lehrman Fellowship in American History at the Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library, taught at Columbia University, and served as adviser for the PBS series The American Experience. His first book, Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War, won the Ambassador Book Award and the Peter Seaborg Award for Civil War Scholarship, and was a New York Times Notable Book. He has written for The New York Times Book Review, Salon.com, Smithsonian, and the Los Angeles Times. He lives in San Francisco.

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