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Stuff of a capitalist

BOOK>> THE FIRST TYCOON: THE EPIC LIFE OF CORNELIUS VANDERBILT, • By T J Stiles, Knopf • Rs 800

 
By Rohan Sengupta
Last Updated: Saturday 04 July 2015

imageAmerican capitalism often arouses extreme emotions.

It’s loathed as an arrogant system standing in the way of an equitable world order. It’s also lauded as an agent of liberalism and democracy. Capitalists who had very little idea about big business laid the foundations of this great economy; they engaged in street brawls, had little idea of fair play, but did not know where the adventure would lead them.

When a man named Cornelius Vanderbilt started his career as a steamship sailor in the early 19th century, the word “tycoon” didn’t exist. But in a few decades he controlled the way Americans moved. From steamboats to railroads, most American modes of transport in mid-19th century were part of the Vanderbilt empire. T J Stiles’ biography of the US’ pioneering industrialist is worthy of its subject. It shows Vanderbilt as a cocky teenager taking on aristocrats of the Manhattan docks. Vanderbilt’s fast and cheap boats supported a textile revolution in New Eng land. During the Gold Rush Vanderbilt would often personally steer steamships through the Nicaraguan rapids.

imageLater, his campaign moved to railways. He decried monopolies when it suited him but embraced them when it enriched him. Stiles ferrets out Vanderbilt’s letters; one is a correspondence with Mark Twain. The author had lampooned him for mowing down pedestrians in fine horse-drawn carriage. Vanderbilt retorted, “You are the idol of a crawling swarm of small souls.” Twain, as Stiles puts it, saw Vanderbilt as a false idol in “a culture grown vulgar, selfish, materialistic and corrupt.”

Rohan Sengupta is a journalist in New York

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