I’ve never been terribly interested in Cornelius Vanderbilt. I figured I knew all I really cared to know about him. Then I happened across this review of T.J. Stiles’s The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt. It piqued my curiosity, but when I found this book in the store and saw the sticker that proclaimed it to be a Pulitzer Prize winner, I couldn’t resist.
I’m (mostly) glad I couldn’t resist. Stiles has a knack for placing Vanderbilt in the context of the time in which he lived, and at the same time explaining the impact of that time—and Vanderbilt’s life—on our world today.
Stiles calls Vanderbilt’s life “Epic,” but I’m the one who is going to feel like a hero when it’s done. This book is dense. The writing is fluid, the story is compelling, and the research is probably more exhaustive than it needs to be. But it is decidedly not a quick read.
Perhaps this is my ongoing struggle with nonfiction—particularly of the historical sort. Somehow the fact that a given story has already come and gone just takes a bit of the edge off for me. The fact is that I live in the world post-Vanderbilt: a better understanding of his influence on the world won't drastically impact how I live in it.
Fiction, on the other hand, still has the ability to change my world. The slightest bump in the arc of a story, the most unexpected development in a character, can shift my entire worldview. The possibility gives me that little bit more urgency.
To that end, I’m staggering my reading of The First Tycoon, alternating between a chapter (more or less) of the life and times of the Commodore with a story (more or less) from Stories, edited by Neil Gaiman and Al Sarrantonio.
All in all, the two pair nicely. Good writing is good writing, And between these two books, I’ve got a plethora of it to educate and enthrall me, to frame my world and to change it.