November 19, 2009
News & Opinion: The First Tycoon: The Epic Winner of the NBA's Nonfiction Prize
T.J. Stiles won the National Book Award in Nonfiction last night for his book The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt. It was published by one of my favorite publishers, Alfred A. Knopf, and edged out these other finalists:
- Following the Water: A Hydromancer's Notebook by David M. Carroll, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Remarkable Creatures: Epic Adventures in the Search for the Origins of Species by Sean B. Carroll, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
- Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford's Forgotten Jungle City by Greg Grandin, Metropolitan Books
- The Poison King: The Life and Legend of Mithradates, Rome's Deadliest Enemy by Adrienne Mayor, Princeton University Press
MC: What questions drove you as you worked on The First Tycoon? In other words, what was it that you hoped to better understand by writing it? TJS: My interest in both the individual life and the historical context drove my work on Commodore Vanderbilt (as he was known). I wanted to understand the mind and personality of someone who clawed his way from the bottom to the top. I was also interested in the effects of that personality, and those ambitions, on his family. And I tried to grasp what Vanderbilt’s career could tell us about the making of the modern United States in the broadest sense. How did he help to shape the American economy—our ideals of equality and opportunity—our arguments over the role of government, and our economic imagination? I began to see his career as part of a great transformation: the abstraction of economic reality, with the rise of paper currency, corporations, securities, and financial markets. This invisible architecture of commerce—which we live in today—troubled many Americans, who were accustomed to a tangible economy of precious metals, physical property, and human beings.Head on over to the National Book Foundation Website to see the finalists and winners in the other categories and read more of the interview(s).