T.J. Stiles
Biographer
05:52

Inside the Psyche of a Robber Baron

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Cornelius Vanderbilt couldn’t spell, but he had a consummate passion for competition.

T.J. Stiles

T.J. Stiles is a biographer whose works include "Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War" (2002) and "The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt" (2009), for which he won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. Stiles also authored a five-volume series of historical anthologies, and has written a number of articles for Smithsonian, the Denver Post, and the Los Angeles Times. His next biography will focus on the life of General George Armstrong Custer.
Transcript
Question: Was Cornelius Vanderbilt really illiterate?

TJ 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 perviously 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.

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

TJ 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.

Recorded May 25, 2010
Interviewed by Andrew Dermont


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