The Epic Life of a Tycoon
By MINDY MAULDIN
Guggenheim fellow and biographer T.J. Stiles spoke about the powerful 19th-Century business mogul Cornelius Vanderbilt last Thursday as part of the UMW Great Lives lecture series.
Great Lives director Bill Crawley praised Stiles for receiving a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation fellowship grant just seven days before the lecture. The grant is for his next book project, a biography of George Armstrong Custer.
Stiles lectured to a large audience on his 2010 Pulitzer Prize winning biography, “The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt.”
He depicted Vanderbilt as a tycoon whose entrepreneurial ventures altered the face of the country before, during and after the American Civil War.
From Union ship supply, to fighting business monopolies and uniting the railroad lines, Vanderbilt left lasting marks on the country, both positive and negative.
Vanderbilt used his unmatched power to change the economic face of America, but his end to the means often left citizens reeling in disaster, according to Stiles.
“I try to present him neither as a villain nor as a hero,” Stiles said.
Stiles built his lecture around a defense of the significance of biography, the essential element of the Great Lives lecture series.
“Biography is sometimes scorned by historians,” Stiles said.
He argued that the study of great lives reveals the limited but real role of individual choice in societal patterns.
“Other people had the opportunity to do what Vanderbilt did, but they didn’t do it, Vanderbilt did,” Stiles said. “He takes the accident that puts him in the right place, and he does more with it than anyone else.”
Stiles also emphasized the creative aspect of biographical writing during the lecture.
“I think biographers play three roles: … researcher, historian and writer,” he said.
A lively question and answer session followed Stiles’ lecture. When asked whether he thought there are any modern-day Vanderbilts, Stiles laughed.
“There’s no one around who can do that,” said Stiles, explaining that Vanderbilt had the modern equivalence of more power and money than Bill Gates.
Another audience member asked whether Stiles considered Vanderbilt an honest entrepreneur or a robber baron.
“My answer to that question is ‘Yes,’” Stiles said. “He was honest in his company dealings. But … he often did things that often hurt a lot of people.”
A final question focused on Vanderbilt’s notoriety for not donating money to charity.
“He donated one percent of his wealth,” said Stiles. “He didn’t want to waste his money on grasping … clergymen and university types.”