What do you think of The First Tycoon?

I asked Charles Shields, author Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee and a forthcoming biography of Kurt Vonnegut, what he thought of this year’s Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt, by T.J. Stiles. Here’s his reply:

I read T. J. Stiles’ biography and was disappointed by it. While the prose is soaring and evocative, the Vanderbilt portrayed in the book is an unknowable, ignorant, grasping monster of capitalism. Stiles could have mitigated some of the more repellant aspects of his character by explaining his motives (other than an overweening desire to get rich and rise up the ranks of social classes), and not excused his cruelty, particularly toward his wife whom he locked up in an insane asylum when she protested his having an affair with their children’s nanny.

Our nascent republic gave free rein to men (and women) like Vanderbilt, and they breached the walls of the rich and propertied old order by their “gumption,” “know-how,” “catch-on,” and all the slang words that came to characterize Americans then and now. But without government control and law, they would have stolen their neighbors blind. Vanderbilt certainly did.

I’m not arguing for biographies that are moralistic, but I don’t like ones that figuratively shrug and say, “The ends justified the means.”

I’d be fascinated by a biography of an “ignorant, grasping monster of capitalism.” But a biography of someone who turns out to be “unknowable”? That would be supremely frustrating, if not a complete waste of time. I read biography in order to know someone, or at least know them better. I’ve always been an armchair psychologist, and I want to come away from a life story feeling that I understand where the person came from and how they ended up living the life they lived.

We should be wary of easy answers to these questions — e.g., he was a monster because his father once beat him for giving money to a beggar — but insight into character is the point of biography. Isn’t it? What do you think?

I read T. J. Stiles biography and was disappointed by it. While the prose is soaring and evocative, the Vanderbilt portrayed in the book is an unknowable, ignorant, grasping monster of capitalism. Stiles could have mitigated some of the more repellant aspects of his character by explaining his motives (other than an overweening desire to get rich rise up the ranks of social classes), and not excused his cruelty, particularly toward his wife whom he locked-up in an insane asylum when she protested his having an affair with their children’s nanny.

Our nascent republic gave free rein to men (and women) like Vanderbilt, and they breached the walls of the rich and propertied old order by their “gumption,” “know-how,” “catch-on,” and all the slang words that came to characterize Americans then and now. But without government control and law, they would have stolen their neighbors blind. Vanderbilt certainly did.

I’m not arguing for biographies that are moralistic, but I don’t like ones that figuratively shrug and say, “The ends justified the means.”

Advertisements
%d bloggers like this: