In This Review

The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt
The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt
By T. J. Stiles
Knopf, 2009, 736 pp

This eminently readable and engaging biography of the richest man in the first hundred years of the United States' independence is a landmark study that significantly enhances one's understanding of U.S. economic history. Cornelius Vanderbilt, the original "robber baron," was a self-made steamboat magnate who mastered the dynamics of the emerging railroad industry, challenged the financier Jay Gould in the New York money markets, and built the first true corporate conglomerate in U.S. history. Like the discount airline start-ups that bankrupted legacy carriers, Vanderbilt's steamboat companies attacked established carriers on lucrative routes from New York City to first Albany and then Boston, San Francisco, and Europe; the management techniques Vanderbilt developed in these ventures allowed him to outcompete established rail carriers as well. What makes this book truly remarkable is the author's breathtaking grasp of history; as Stiles comes to grips with contemporary essayists such as Charles Francis Adams, who wrote on Vanderbilt, one realizes that his ability to integrate economic, technological, intellectual, and political history makes him one of the most exciting writers in the field.