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The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt

A man of brutal force, Cornelius Vanderbilt – for better and worse – helped to shape American business culture.

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When a man named Cornelius Vanderbilt started his career as a lowly boatman in the early 19th century, the word “tycoon” didn’t exist. And for good reason: neither did great industry, cutthroat competition, nor fantastic wealth. No big business, no tycoons.

But then things changed. Vanderbilt, a walking ball of intensity, saw to that. Perhaps more than anyone else, he ushered in a new era of corporate power in which only fools adhered to strict morals.

From steamboats to railroads, he controlled the way that Americans moved and created an empire in a country that had just tried to escape one a few decades earlier.

Corporate leaders feared, envied, and idolized him. Critics failed to stop him, while smart politicians scrambled to get out of his way.

Vanderbilt, the “first great corporate tycoon in American history,” would actually “overshadow democratic government,” writes historian T.J. Stiles in his new history, The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt.

Not bad for a poorly educated man who couldn’t spell and started at the very bottom before rising to the very top. Vanderbilt’s story is indeed epic, and so is “The First Tycoon.”

In 736 pages, Stiles exhaustively catalogs the strategies of the brute and brilliant force that was Vanderbilt. The book’s length will intimidate many casual readers, as will the in-depth discussion of business strategies. But those who brave its heft will find many rewards.

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