T.J. Stiles, author of Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War, won a National Book Award in November for his second biography, The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt. In an hour-long interview with Star Tribune (Minneapolis, Minn.) books editor Laurie Hertzel, he talked about the difference between research and investigation, building compelling characters in a work of non-fiction, the rise of e-books, and the importance of story. Here are excerpts:
Your books seem to be both scholarly and populist. The First Tycoon is very readable, and I wondered, was this a conscious decision that you made, and how difficult is it to marry those two?
I believe that there is no reason why we have to sacrifice scholarly standards and investigation for reading pleasure. If we think of the great works of literature, whether they’re fiction or nonfiction, they’re a real treat to read. What I like to do in my writing is to tell good stories and ask big questions. I like to write about the making of the modern world. I want to write books that are about complex characters that tell compelling stories, and I want to give the reader a reason to turn every page.
Even when I’m discussing an issue, when I’m presenting information, my rule is if it’s not advancing the story it doesn’t belong on the page. I don’t want to simply provide information or analysis because I know it. It has to be something that makes the reader think and want to read more. I want it to be a part of a cohesive narrative—something that is significant and goes to the heart of what this person is all about and what the events are all about.
How—and when—did you determine what your themes would be, what the point of this book would be?
I came in with certain questions, but certain questions presented themselves as I went along. I knew, for example, that I wanted to bring out the drama of this very physical and dramatic life. I knew I wanted to write about the creation of the modern corporate economy.
But there are a number of important themes that I really only discovered in the process of writing the book. One of them is the way in which we think about the role of the government in the economy, and how that’s gone through dramatic changes. That was something that I didn’t anticipate exploring to the extent I did, and yet it was very much what Vanderbilt’s life was about—modern ideas about government regulation and about corporate powers, America’s transition from an 18th century hierarchical society to an individualistic competitive commercial society.
And then one of the larger themes which really speaks to what we’ve been through recently—the way in which economic reality was undergoing an abstraction in the 19th century. The idea of a corporation, and the way that money ceased to be simply precious metal coins and became paper money that was a government-issued marker. Stocks and bonds, and the way the financial markets began to develop—all these were huge changes in American culture and in the way that our minds work. It was a real struggle for people to cope with it and understand it. This was a major theme and it’s still something we struggle with today. I had no idea how topical, how pertinent, how contemporary these themes would be as I was writing the book.
I set out to be true to the work, true to the subject, to carry out my investigation with integrity. I didn’t try to teach lessons to the present. And yet the present sort of imposed itself after I’d completed the book.
Talk about how you went about conducting your research.
I found out after I got the contract to write the book why there had not been a biography of Vanderbilt in so long. It’s because he left no collection of papers. And the research process, one year after another after another, was a real struggle, bringing it all together. I really despaired of finishing it at certain points, because it took much longer than I anticipated.
I didn’t realize that so much could be had—there was so much material that would shed light on his life—but that it would take so much work to get at it.
For instance, as I would investigate at the New York Public Library, I found letter after letter from people who were dealing with Vanderbilt during a period that was previously largely unknown, the 1830s and 40s. Old lawsuits provided insights into his personal life and his dealings, lawsuits from his passengers during the gold rush who were stranded in Nicaragua and came to see Vanderbilt in his office. They would describe what his office was like, and where his desk was, and how he put on his reading glasses, just vivid descriptions, contemporary descriptions that I had no idea existed when I started the process. I had no idea it would take so long to pull it all together, and that there was so much of it.
Tell me about how you made the characters come alive.
Since Vanderbilt didn’t leave a collection of his own papers, I had to circle around his life and look at all the people who lived around him. And that had the unexpected benefit of fleshing out all of these other characters who surrounded him.
One of the pitfalls for a biographer is that you get so focused on your main subject that you forget to flesh out the other characters. I was forced to pay attention to the secondary characters, which I think—I hope—helped make my book more enjoyable.
For example, the anti-hero of my book was his son, who was the opposite of everything he was. He was a gambling addict, he was verbose, he was boastful, he was self-loathing, and he wrote incessantly. And so he sheds light on these hidden emotional sides of his father’s life. And he himself emerges as this full character. Because I had to go to his letters to understand his father, I was also able to flesh out this son and his tortured life as well, which I think makes the main story a little richer.
When you talk about your work, you use the word ‘investigate.’ I’m assuming you see it as something different from research.
Research is at the core of what I do. Investigate involves intellectual engagement, and thinking about what matters, and thinking about where this information I found leads me. An example is I’ve often read historical accounts that describe a subject in the 19th century called “stock-watering”—increasing the number of shares in a company. I hadn’t run across a real discussion of why it was such a bad thing. Historians would condemn it because their 19th century sources would condemn it.
Whereas, Warren Buffet just carried out a 50-1 stock split when he acquired Burlington Northern. Nobody is complaining. It’s simply changing the number of shares in your company. But in the 19th century he would have been viciously condemned for doing that. Research would tell me that Vanderbilt was criticized for stock-watering. Investigation is saying, well, why? What does this mean? What does this tell us about the way that people envisioned the economy in the 19th century? What does it tell us about how the idea of the corporation was different then than it is now?
I see investigation as a matter of trying to take nothing for granted—trying to really get inside a world and to assume that just because they use the same words not to assume that they meant the same thing.
Investigation is research, plus creatively analyzing and thinking about the meaning of what you’ve researched.
How long did you think the book was going to take, and how long did it take?
I thought it would take about two years. I thought I would spend a year or so researching and a year or so putting it together. The entire process was about seven years. I basically worked on it full-time; it was really my main endeavor for over six years. I was joking to friends that if I won (the National Book Award) I would ask the audience to have a moment of silence for the 401K that gave its life so that this book could live.
In your acceptance speech, you thanked your designers and copy editors, which made me wonder—can you envision someone reading The First Tycoon on a Kindle?
Oh, sure. My remarks were not meant to be a slam on e-books. My point was with the advent of e-books, there’s a danger that some people will start to think that all people who make my book no longer matter. Librarians, book reviewers, the bookstore clerks and owners—all of the people who inhabit the culture of the book but don’t get the attention the authors do. No book exists without them. Like in any ecosystem, one species cannot survive by itself.
Even an e-book is edited, it is proofread, it is copy edited, it is designed. That’s not the typeface that comes out of the author’s word processor. Even in the Kindle there is a designed page.
Personally, I think e-books are and will be simply one more format. The codex is not going to disappear. It’s a brilliant technology. It’s got a wonderful operating system that never crashes, it has a great power source that never fails, the information in it does not degrade over time, it is a wonderful way to store and access information. It will not disappear.
I do wonder, though, if the digital world will make life more difficult for future biographers, because there won’t necessarily be that wealth of letters that you talk about.
Yeah, why do you think I’m writing about dead people? I completely agree, and it’s kind of ironic—in a way we’re all writing much more than we were ten or twenty years ago because we’re constantly texting or e-mailing, and yet it’s so ephemeral, it’s all disappearing. So yes, future biographers are going to have a very hard time.