by T.J. Stiles, Knopf, 2009, 719 pp.; $37.50
Having visited Biltmore Castle in the 1980's, I could not resist the lure of The First Tycoon.
Cornelius Vanderbilt founded the vast fortune that his descendants would use to build a summer home in Ashville, North Carolina. This man, lowly born in those aristocratic days, was so uneducated that only with difficulty could he write a note. He spelled words as he said them.
Nevertheless, he was blessed with an abundance of 'horse sense.' Indeed, horses were his hobby, a passionate hobby that he lavished money on once his fortune allowed.
Vanderbilt's climb to the top of the business ladder began with one small sailboat to ferry people between Staten Island, his birthplace, and a tiny, budding New York City.
Yet for all his accomplishments in the financial world that we learn about in this book, we learn very little about the private man. As a history of the founding and growth of New York City, of banking, of the Stock Market, of the very economy of this era; this is a great work.
As the story of a man, I found it lacking. I can only absorb so much of the chapter after chapter of the ins and outs of the economy. Yawn! For true history buffs and professional economists, it is a bonanza, but it is not for me.
Vanderbilt's most lasting legacy will always be the railroads. His originals may be gone, but these same lines carry hundreds of thousands of commuters from all over New York, to and from Boston and environs of the Northeast today.
This nation would not be the same without such men in those days, so full of growing pains, political as well as financial. Vanderbilt was a man of his environment — locally, financially and politically. He, more than any other, defined an era.
Alsie White is a grandmother and an avid book reader.