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The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt

By T.J. Stiles, Alfred A. Knopf, 719pp., $37.50

Commodore: The Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt

By Edward J. Renehan Jr., Basic Books, 400 pp., $17.50

Whatever his shortcomings as a human being, Cornelius Vanderbilt never ran out of steam. He started out from Staten Island in his father’s tiny sailboat, then spent most of the 19th century launching bigger and faster boats, with prices lower than his competitors’. As his growing fleet raced passengers up rivers and around the continent, wind was replaced by wood and coal, and the far-flung nation began to coalesce. He was still going full throttle in his 70s, when he turned the fragmentary rail lines of the northeastern United States into an empire. For that, he earned more millions—and a statue on the facade of New York’s Grand Central Station.

These two biographies leave little doubt that the Commodore shaped American enterprise as it burst beyond state boundaries and old-family privilege. He was part of the move to a free-for-all economy fueled by new technology, massed capital, baroque investment schemes, government subsidies and, above all, competition and its coefficients, trusts.

Stiles, in his longer tome, is most interested in how Vanderbilt fits into the tapestry of the new competition, business forms and technologies he evolved with. His sweeping history tells how business got big and how the country got tied together, with this elemental Commodore Id at the wheel, cheered on by both American and European journalists as a prime example of American “go-ahead” enterprise.

Renehan’s volume, newly in paperback, focuses on the Commodore’s personal character. Relentlessly aggressive and creative, Vanderbilt warred on his competitors until either he won the route he was after or his rivals paid him to stay away. He was a bit of a brute, barely literate, quick to use his fists, an avid user of New York’s prostitute population, flatulent and cheap. And his wives and children hated him.

Although parts of Renehan’s sparer version can be a difficult read (the list of deals he concocted and ships he owned can overwhelm), his style is lively, and the quirks he reveals entertaining enough to whet the appetite for Stiles’ more magisterial, exemplary work. Taken together, each in its way offers entry into the storm-tossed world of our current tycoons and the rough waters they have piloted us into.

Originally published in the October 2009 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.