Pulitzer Prize-winning author T.J. Stiles visited MSUM on Feb. 6 to lecture about his award winning book, “The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt.”
In his lecture, titled “One Man’s Empire in Every Man’s Republic: How Cornelius Vanderbilt Helped create Big Business and Start an Argument We’re Still Having Today,” Stiles touched on the marvelous business mind of Vanderbilt. He discussed how Vanderbilt made money by playing the stock market, how he single handedly bankrupt the railroad and shut down New York City and then bought the railroad and made it successful.
“Vanderbilt, like the modern corporate economy itself, is a conundrum,” Stiles said. “He can’t be reduced to a hero or a villain. He’s a man who showed the possibility of big business; that showed the productive power of the modern cooperation. He actually restructures the geography of the United States in many ways.”
Stiles chose to research and write about Vanderbilt because of the important, colorful and dramatic figure he was, he said. Stiles spent years digging and researching before the book was complete.
“He (Vanderbilt) perpetuated and helped create this whole gilded age of aristocracy,” he said.
Stiles has not always been a biographer, however. After graduate school at Columbia University in New York City and his dissertation, he went into publishing. He began writing while he was still working full time in publishing, but in 1999 he received a contract to write his first book “Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War.”
“That’s when I quit my job and started writing full time,” Stiles said. “So I’ve been writing full time since 1999.”
Stiles was awarded the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Biography and the 2009 National Book Award for Nonfiction for “The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt.” It was a New York Times Notable Book and one of the best books of the year in multiple major newspapers across the country. Stiles’ first book, “Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War,” won the Ambassador Book Award and the Peter Seaborg Award for Civil War Scholarship.
“The Pulitzer Prize goes to books that I modeled mine after,” Stiles said. “It is books that speaks to something important about who we are as a nation, a modern culture, a modern society, but it also has a compelling narrative in a literary form.”
Although Stiles modeled his books after prizewinners, the Pulitzer was unexpected.
“It truly is humbling when you look around after having received the prize and then realizing how many good books could have gotten it, and nobody would have been upset if my book didn’t get the prize,” he said.
Winning the Pulitzer Prize was life changing for the Foley, Minn., native.
“Just receiving an email from someone that enjoyed my book is a wonderful experience,” Stiles said. “Receiving a major prize is saying people heard what you have to say.”
As an accomplished biographer, Stiles has solid advice for young aspiring writers.
“Read a lot, read outside of your default genre, as a nonfiction writer I benefit greatly from reading fiction,” he said. “Keep writing and seek feedback, and realize it’s a long haul.”
Currently, Stiles is working on his third biography about army officer, George Armstrong Custer. He is roughly a quarter through the manuscript and hopes to have the book completed within the next couple years.
BY MEREDITH WATHNE
PHOTO BY JESSICA FLEMING