Big Think Interview With T.J. Stiles

A conversation with the Cornelius Vanderbilt biographer.
  • Transcript


Question: What got you interested in writing biographies?

T.J. Stiles: Well I like to say my own version of the classic formulation which is inform and entertain. The way I often put it is I like to tell good stories and ask big questions, and biography is a way of - it's sending a message to the reader that you're telling a story. You have a narrative arc. It's about a human being and it's a story with a beginning, middle, and an end.

At the same time biography allows me to explore big questions about the making of modern America. So for example, when I look at somebody like Jessie James or Cornelius Vanderbilt these are people who had very dramatic lives and had - they're also iconic figures. So they're well recognized and they speak to something about the way Americans think about themselves, about who we are as a people, and the way even more important we've argued about who are.

So, you know, there are these tremendously exciting and dramatic, and interesting stories within their lives. And at the same time they're about something big and they touch on big themes. So that's the - what draws me to those sorts of people and those subjects.

Question: Biography has been compared to resurrecting the dead. Can you relate to that comparison?

T.J. Stiles:
I suppose that's true in the sense that the dead - if you resurrect the dead they're going to go on and have a new life. They're not just going to repeat the old one and when you write a biography you are creating something that is going to have its own life. The book is about someone who is not the same as that person. But that's - I'm not sure I would ever use that actual terminology because writing a biography about someone who's deceased especially, someone who everyone who knew them is gone is necessarily a problematic enterprise.

This is someone who... about whom the sources are necessarily going to be fragmentary. Even the best documented life is going to have gaps. E. M. Forster wrote in aspects of the novel that there was a difference between fiction and history by which we could actually mean all non-fiction. History he pointed out is, stuck with the evidence and the evidence is always what shows up on the surface. So if you were going to be extremely exacting and precise you couldn't write for example that Edith Wharton was angry. The most precise and accurate way to say it would be, she frowned, she wrote in a letter that she was angry. There's some surface expression of her anger.

And Forster pointed out that, in this respect novels and fiction are truer than history because they can go underneath the surface into that interline that history cannot touch. And when I write a biography I both respect that barrier that I cannot penetrate and at the same time I'm constantly concerned with what is on the other side of that barrier. And trying to point to what lies beneath even when I can't take the reader there. And this is a very delicate aspect of biography. You can't make stuff up. You can't go too far in drawing conclusions.

Sometimes the very limitations of the evidence is the story or the fact that you can't quite figure something out itself is apart of the story. So you can't resurrect the dead ultimately. You can't get into their inner lives and yet at the same time we're constantly striving for it or trying to point to this untouchable aspect of someone's life, and to provoke thoughts about it in the reader.

Why did you decide to write a biography of Cornelius Vanderbilt? 

T.J. Stiles: Well when I was working on Jesse James one of the big question that surrounds Jesse James's life is was he an anti-railroad Robin Hood, classic mythologies surrounding him states that he was. So I looked at the question of - questions related to the financial system during his lifetime, during and after the Civil War, the railroad system and found some really interesting things.
For example, when Jesse James robbed trains he wasn't robbing railroad companies, he was robbing express companies which rented space in baggage cars for messengers and safes. And they transported cash for banks along with valuables and other expensive high priority shipments. Well farmers didn't deal with express companies. They dealt with railroads with shipping their crops and they did resent railroads but they didn't care about express companies.

Railroads didn't care about Jesse James but express companies did and then getting into the question of well why is all this cash being shipped around the country? Looking into the financial system, and so this early investigation of the economic questions of the 19th Century, the rise of the railroad, the rise of the corporation, the rise of the modern financial system emerged very organically out of my work on Jessie James. And it was really interesting, and I couldn't explore it in Jesse James and keep my book being about Jesse James.

So, I thought this is a great way to go with my next book and then the question became okay so I have these questions, I have these topics, the rise of the corporation, the rise of the railroad. Who's an interesting person whose life speaks to those questions? Someone preferably who has not been written about too much before and Cornelius Vanderbilt presented himself. He was called the railroad king of 19th Century America and yet the last really serious biography of him was published in 1942 and it's necessarily dated - it's very good for it's time but, you know, its time is past.

So Cornelius Vanderbilt was not just a bookkeeper who took to investing in railroads. Again, he was a very physically dramatic figure and so he attracted me in terms of the storytelling as well as the big questions that defined his life.

Question: How did you research Cornelius Vanderbilt's life?

T.J. Stiles:  Well I spent almost seven years on The First Tycoon and I learned why there had not been a series biography since 1942. No one hated himself enough to undertake the task. It was this process of finding sources that had never been connected to Vanderbilt before. He left no collection of papers behind. He did not leave behind this manuscript collection, The Vanderbilt Papers. And for that reason historians and biographers have sort of steered clear of him. He shows up in books about other subjects. There are no books about him virtually.

So I like to often say that historians are rather like the story of the drunk who, he drives home and pulls up into his driveway and gets out, and he drops his keys by the car. And his wife comes out and finds him on the porch on his hands and knees. And she asked what he's doing, he explains. She says, "Why aren't you out in the driveway looking for your keys?" He said, "The light is better here." And historians often will write about subjects who are not as significant as others but there's a big collection of papers.

There's a big manuscript archive they can work in that makes the job easier and more satisfying, and more complete. And they'll leave - sometimes avoid someone like Vanderbilt who is incredibly significant and yet he left no simple archive. So the process began with going though for example that 1942 biography, finding out what we do know exists. Starting with that, then starting to go off on tangents and to think about who else is connected to this person's life. Who else might have collection of papers. There are manuscript catalogs that are available and again the process of digitization began to pay benefits first with putting online the catalogs of manuscript collections. Being able to know what is where.

Then finding out about sources related to companies that he was involved in, you know, pursing the tangents and then giving myself time to get lucky, is the process eventually. And then finally there's the immense transformation of digitization and this appears primarily, not in manuscript material, letters and diaries, and whatnot but in newspapers and in public records. And there are, for the most part, proprietary companies that have been scanning newspapers and other documents and have been making them available with character recognition software so you can search them.

But these are only available to major research libraries. So a lot of my time is spent onsite an research libraries going through these... doing tech searches for Vanderbilt and other related words and actually the power of digitization actually adds time to the process because you pull up so many hits and some of them are false leads. I find out there was a lot of property for sale on Vanderbilt Avenue in Brooklyn in the 19th Century. And some of them are hits that are redundant, you know, 10 newspapers have basically the same report about the same thing, and there's nothing new there. And yet I would have to go though each one in case there's some nugget that I've missed.

So the very power of digitization is actually made research more laborious in a sense, both more convenient but also the shear amount of material means that the process actually takes longer if you're going to thorough.

Question: Was Cornelius Vanderbilt really illiterate?

T.J. Stiles: He's been accused of being illiterate and in fact the first credit bureau in America, called the Mercantile Agency which is actually the ancestor of Dunn and Bradstreet, when it first report on Vanderbilt in 1853, Vanderbilt was born in 1794. So this first report about him actually came in his late '50s and yet, you know, this is kind of mid career for Vanderbilt's very long life. It called him illiterate and boorish, offensive, and vulgar. And yet he actually was not illiterate. He could read perfectly well and he could write but he wrote phonetically.

So for example his early letters had not only would every word be misspelled, I found some letters in which he misspelled the same three letter word three different ways in the same letter. In his early letters he wrote very much as he spoke, so his very lack of eduction allows us to gain access to the pattern of speech he had, even the pronunciations of certain words. For example, I found this in other letters from people around this time, early 19th Century New York. They would often add an "A" before a verb ending in ING. So for example, Mr. Jones is agoing to Albany. Things are aworking.

He would use constructions that are - would be familiar today. If he ought to have been he would be right. He ought to been would be the way he would write it out. As he aged he shifted a lot of the writing to a clerk and the letters that survive in his own hand show that his speech actually became more formal. That as he became to circulate in a more refined layer of society due to his wealth and business connections, and we know also from newspaper interviews as well. His actual speech became more formal and more correct. And some of the letters are very interesting written in his own hand.

For example, when Cyrus Field who was from a very socially prestigious family, the man who pioneered, the transatlantic telegraph cable, he invited Vanderbilt over for dinner in the 1850s around the time of this credit report that condemned him as illiterate and vulgar. And Vanderbilt wrote a note back declining. And it's very interesting because the not says, in his own hand, "I regret to inform you that I must decline in consequence of an engagement I've previously made." Very correct, formal note. Almost every word misspelled but a very formal and correct note.

And this showed - this is Vanderbilt, you know, he never had a formal education, let alone classical. And yet he actually began to affect the dignity that his wealth lifted him to, that status and that level of society. And yet at the same time it's possible for example that he was dyslexic. That's the diagnosis I can't really formally make in a book because of the distance of time but it's possible that he had some sort or reading disability such as dyslexia.

How do you think he would he react to your book?

T.J. Stiles:
Well first of all, I doubt that he would've read it. He didn't do a lot of leisure reading. Most of his leisure activities involved something competitive. Perhaps if he was in a race with someone to read it, see who could read it fastest, he might read it. But I think that Vanderbilt was someone who, you know, he let the chips fall where they may. I think that he would feel that some of my discussions about the way Americans saw him and argued about him might be a bit too much verbiage. He didn't like people who said too much but I tried to present a very fair and honest portrait of him. And express the fact that he was controversial for important reasons.

He was very familiar with the public debate about him throughout his career and what he represented—for good and for ill—in American society. And yet at the same time I made clear that his contemporaries, especially those who really dealt with him in business including his enemies, felt that he had earned his pride in himself. He was a very proud man. Wasn't boastful, but he was very proud and, you know, he often for example befriended his enemies after - usually after he'd crush them in a business battle. Then later they would become card playing partners.

This shows that, you know, not only did he not take things personally but that he had sort of a good sportsmanship attitude toward business battles. He would fight with every weapon available to him and yet he lived by a code. As ruthless as it was, it was a code and as a corporate manager he was honest as much as he represented a new power in corporations. And so I try to bring that out, the fact that he was a man that everyone respected, even when they opposed him. And I think that's something that he would take great pride in so I, you know, the Vanderbilt descendants for example who I've spoken to, who've read my book have really felt like it was a really fair portrait. And that's the best I can ask for.

What can today’s CEOs learn from Vanderbilt’s management practices?

T.J. Stiles:  Well, first of all I want to be very clear that I'm not an authority on the current financial scene and I don't think that I could reasonably cast a blanket, either condemnation or defense for today's corporate managers. I think there are plenty of companies that are honestly and effectively run. And the American economy certainly continues to be a great magnet for investment and for faith around the world. So when we criticize corporate managers I think in all fairness, you know, for myself I see myself as no ideology. I see myself as a historian first and foremost when it comes to analyzing the evidence. Being honest, looking at all sides of an issue so when I bring that to the modern world I have to say we can't go over the top in any direction.

One of my concerns as someone who has studied the 19th Century and is not looking at today's world, is the distance that exists between for example Cornelius Vanderbilt's attitude toward his responsibilities as the chief executive of a corporation, towards his shareholders. And what - and again what appears to me, not as a student but as a informed observer, the attitude of some CEOs in today's large corporations, specifically when it comes for example to compensation. Vanderbilt took no salary and no bonuses as a chief executive of his corporations. The only remonetization he got was in dividends. Now you can't duplicate that model today because today's investors expect the share price to grow.

They expect the actual assets to increase in value and that's what investors look for. Dividends are a secondary issue at best. In Vanderbilt's day and I look in my book the theories of why this is so at the time, dividends are what investors wanted, so in order to have a healthy company, to have a highly valued company, you had to return a large share of your profits every year in large dividends to your investors. Vanderbilt was a major, often majority shareholder in his companies and so his only income came from dividens which meant that he had to make his companies profitable year end and year out. And that he only got the remuneration that came from running a healthy, productive company that was profitable.

In today's world the, you know, there's many different companies with many different compensation structures and yet we often see that - a very different attitude. For example, because growth and sort of vaguer ideas about what represents - what contributes to the value of a share potential, you know, market share, growth and the potential for growth. A lot of things that don't have to do with actually having a healthy underlying financial outlook for the company, a CEO can be rewarded by creating the proception that a company is healthy and growing and promises great things in the future. And actually could potentially running it into the ground, and yet gets rewarded because he's creating - he or she is creating this perception.

In Vanderbilt day - of course Vanderbilt as a major shareholder would benefit by perceptions as well but again most of his income - most of his wealth came from steady return on the profits in his company - a share of the profits in his company. Whereas in today's world that's necessarily the case. Another troubling factor which our course creates a potential for a CEO not doing right by a shareholders in the end, another potential problem is the fact that in the modern world management is removed from ownership. And CEOs today often have the ability to basically pick their own boards. The oversight of what the CEO and the way the other executives are doing is often very limited.

Often shareholders have very little say over who is managing their company and sometimes this leads to, this is fine. You know, you have a professional manager who's conscientious and does great things with the company. We can't make blanket statements and yet the removal of management from ownership creates a potential for self-dealing, a conflict of interest. And throughout history we repeated see this so this is troubling to me in way that, for example the shear size of executive compensation is not as troubling. Of course, I love the ideal of having a very equal society but in a corporate capitalist economy what troubles me most is when there's a conflict of interest and the people who are running a company have no oversight. And there's no one looking over their shoulder, there's no one there an- in practical terms, they're answerable to.

And when you have that situation then you have somebody who's potentially taking money that rightfully belongs to the shareholders. And the terminology that they use in Vanderbilt's time is very interesting. They would refer to the shareholders as the owners. They didn't talk about, you know, the shareholders, they talked about owners and they referred to the company as your property in their annual statements for example. And this is very important, this is having that attitude as a CEO keeps you honest. And being able to run the management out of town if necessary, you know, having that threat is important, I think to keep something healthy. We have that in politics and we have enough trouble in politics as it is.

And we need that in corporate management as well. So I don't want to make a blanket condemnation, it's just that of today's executives. When we do have problems and we do have controversies I often think it's connected to the fact that a lot management of large corporations are no longer answerable to people that actually own the company. And when that happens I think that's when trouble often steps in.

Question: Why is it so important for politicians and policy makers to read history?

T.J. Stiles: 
I think it's important for us today to have a deep understanding of the complexity of human affairs and the ways in which for example, business and law, and politics, and culture all intersect. And in Vanderbilt's lifetime for example, we see that the business world was very closely connected to changes in political values and changes in cultural values in American. Vanderbilt's early life wasn't simply about a poor farm boy who was lifting himself up by his bootstraps. It's about the end of an older hierarchical patrician culture in America that we had during the colonial era and that the revolution had helped to undermine and that the rise of a new competitive individualistic commercial marketplace helped really wipe out.

And that it was also closely tied to the new Jacksonian politics, you know, those very kind of individualist anti-hierarchical attitude towards society, towards business towards politics. It was all intersected and the ways in which, you know, early cultural and social, and political attitudes continue on and often the thread continues even though it kind of twists around and shows up in odd places. For example, in today's world we have the Tea Party Movement and people are often flummoxed that there's this kind of populism outrage at the government when in fact the great mass of people actually benefit from a lot of so-called government programs like Medicare and Social Security, but in fact, a kind of fear of a large central government started off in life in American History as a very radical idea because government originally would have intervened in the economy intended to grant favors to wealthy and patrician men.

And so the radicals said, “No, stop doing this. Keep the government out of the economy because we want every individual to rise by his or her own merits." And once you had big business - you had the rise of big business then that changed the playing field. And the political discussions started to change. Regulation became the radical view and yet there was an American culture still this idea, this kind of gut instinct that originated in a very different world, very different America. But it doesn't mean that the idea does, the kind of attitude toward government does. It kind of lives on and twist around and takes a different shape and so when I look at today's political landscape for example, I'm never dismissive of people's attitudes whether I agree with them or not.

I can see the fact that there are deep roots to them even when I disagree with them in many cases. All over the political spectrum there are ideas I agree with and disagree with but I can see how they have a historical life of their own in a sense. But, you know, more specifically I would like, you know, people who are involved in both in business also I think it's important for them to think about some of the issues that I mentioned about the CEOs responsibilities to shareholders, to regulators, to people who are policy makers in Congress for example to understand the complexity of the relationship between the large enterprise and the public sector. And that regulation is something that is both necessary but also has to be handled with a certain amount of circumspection, the fact that we get things wrong. We don't have a clear picture of our world until much later and even then people argue about it, which doesn't mane that regulation is not necessary. It often is.

It's just that we have to realize that we may get it wrong. We have to be willing to adapt. I think that history doesn't so much teach us specific lessons as much as it gives you an appreciation for the complexity of things, for how difficult it is to get it right even though we sometimes have to act before we know exactly what the right answer is.

Recorded May 25, 2010
Interviewed by Andrew Dermont