Reviews for First Tycoon : The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt

Booklist Reviews 2009 April #2
*Starred Review* In 1860, the New York Times identified the character of Cornelius Vanderbilt as a symptom of how capitalist competition had ruined American morality. But when a shrewd biographer probes that character with the advantage of historical hindsight, he discovers a surprisingly engaging figure. As he did in his much-acclaimed Jesse James (2002), Stiles limns the meteoric career of an impetuous spirit. Rich in detail, the narrative reveals much about not only the unschooled genius who conquered a hostile commercial world but also the national culture he helped transform through his triumph. The very archetype of the rugged American individualist, Vanderbilt blazed a way up from his lowly job as a ferryman to a lofty post as commander of a huge fleet of steamships. But it was by parlaying his steamboat success into a railroad empire that Vanderbilt left his most enduring imprint, forever transforming American business by forging a new corporate model for financial power. Yet this ruthless corporate titan supported the Union cause in the Civil War with selfless patriotism and then generously underwrote efforts to promote national reconciliation after Appomattox. Perhaps most astonishing, however, are the ways this fierce public antagonist expressed--sometimes fumblingly--softer emotions within his family circle. A landmark study. Copyright 2009 Booklist Reviews.

Choice Reviews 2009 September
Stiles, a well-versed historian and author, thoroughly articulates the sweeping saga of Cornelius Vanderbilt's personal and professional life. His account provides a thorough description of Vanderbilt's industrial achievements as well as the personal challenges that confronted and, at times, haunted him. This excellent biography offers a portrait of this outstanding entrepreneur and a sweeping view of 19th-century America. Interweaving Vanderbilt's personal life with the economic, political, and cultural changes of the era, this volume offers a compelling narrative of the period. Stiles describes Vanderbilt's achievements as builder of a vast steamship and railroad line as well as a prominent figure in the great Western expansion and inventor of the modern corporation. Although other titles describe Vanderbilt's life, this well-written work is the first authoritative biography of the American giant. Numerous photographs enhance the work. Summing Up: Highly recommended. All audiences, from general readers to learned scholars. Copyright 2009 American Library Association.

Kirkus Reviews 2009 March #1
A rousing life of the legendary robber baron who was in all the right places at the right time.Cornelius Vanderbilt--called the Commodore in his day--rose from a common birth, the child of a Staten Island farmer, to control one of the largest fortunes in world history. Popular historian Stiles (Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War, 2002) writes that although he was derided as an arriviste in his own time, "illiterate & boorish," Vanderbilt was actually a man of much substance. The author credits him with being farsighted enough to envision the deeply hidden architecture of capitalism and to understand the importance of transport, the source of his earliest successes, in the new world system. Moreover, Stiles observes, he "saw that a group of men sitting around a table could conjure ‘an artificial being, invisible, intangible' that could outlive them all"--in other words, the modern corporation, making money out of abstractions. Vanderbilt was ruthless too. Following what some have called the Wal-Mart model, he undercut the competition until they disappeared, then raised his prices to suit himself, a practice for which he was widely disliked. Born shortly after the Revolution and alive into the Gilded Age, Vanderbilt was an innovator in bringing law and politics to bear on his understanding of commerce. He surrounded himself with smart lieutenants, including one who, ordered to allow no free rides on a Vanderbilt ferry, insisted that the Commodore pay full fare. Expanding into railroads, transoceanic vessels, communications and many other realms and conquering nearly every economic opponent he confronted, he also founded something that Americans "had long thought to be the corrupt artifact of the aristocratic societies of Europe--that is, he started a dynasty."An exemplary biography and highly readable business history.First printing of 60,000. Author tour to Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, Washington, D.C. Copyright Kirkus 2009 Kirkus/BPI Communications.All rights reserved.

Library Journal Reviews 2008 December #1
Having done a splendid job with Jesse James, biographer Stiles turns to a different sort of character, the modestly born Cornelius Vanderbilt, who came to dominate Wall Street and New York's elite. With a five-city tour. Copyright 2008 Reed Business Information.

Library Journal Reviews 2009 March #2

Stiles (Jesse James) presents a thoroughly researched, annotated, and illustrated account of the rise of the visionary Cornelius Vanderbilt (1794-1877) from boatman to railroad entrepreneur, revealing his difficult personal and family life, struggle to attain a place in New York society, and role in establishing the arguably individualistic, lightly regulated financial system that America has today. Stiles shows that as America moved from a communal, rural society to a competitive, industrial one, framed by the antebellum conflicts between laissez-faire Jacksonian and controlled-market Whig ideas, Vanderbilt came to exemplify the contradictions of the masters of competition who stifled rivals by later enacting monopolies similar to the kind they had first opposed. Instrumental in providing transportation to the California gold fields, consolidating railroad lines to make them among the first modern corporations, and helping to reconcile the post-Civil War North and South, the gruff Vanderbilt was often misjudged in his own time as well as by history. Stiles meticulously separates myths from facts in a book that compares favorably with David Nasaw's Andrew Carnegie. By unearthing and carefully cross-checking information and dispassionately revising our portrait of Vanderbilt, Stiles has produced a work highly recommended for readers interested in biography, popular business, New York State history, and transportation.--Frederick J. Augustyn Jr., Library of Congress

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