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Commodore Vanderbilt: An Epic of American Achievement by Arthur D. Howden Smith is a biography that tells the story of poor Vanderbilt, from his childhood days to his apex in the world of business as one of the richest men of the 19th century. Stories of parvenus are always very intriguing, especially to the already established bourgeoisie class. They find it difficult to comprehend how a newcomer could have succeeded to penetrate and impose within the rungs of their socio-economic status quo. It is true in any ordinary society from villages to cities, as it was and still is, in American society. Americans have always been ambivalent about the ordinary citizen who builds massive empires out of nothing. But many are they who have come out from nothing to be something, from nowhere to somewhere. Such is the story of Cornelius Vanderbilt, a shipping and railroad tycoon, as captured in this inspirational biography.
Writing the biography of a business guru and legend such as Cornelius Vanderbilt is not an easy task. That is why Commodore Vanderbilt: An Epic of American Achievement by Arthur D. Howden Smith is considered a masterpiece.
Nicknamed “The Commodore,” Vanderbilt was born to Jacob II and Mary as the youngest child in a family of seven. Growing in a poor background, Vanderbilt became of age in the pinched days of the Revolution. This gives clues to the character he developed to be later in life. Due to the tough life he faced as a child and young adult, he had little time to fret over his image.
Interestingly, before he died in 1877, Vanderbilt was the richest man of his time. He is said to have owned, at least on paper, almost a ninth of the American currency in circulation. But it was his humility amid affluence that drew admiration. Though a tycoon, his relation with the public catches the attention of the author. Howden Smith writes in his biography that Vanderbilt was many things, some of which were not admirable, but he was never a phony. Loved and hated in equal measure, he commanded respect from both friends and foes alike.
The biography Commodore Vanderbilt: An Epic of American Achievement gives a better insight into how he made his wealth. Most of his contemporaries made their wealth via inheritance and good breeding. Vanderbilt has a different story. He left school at 11 years and taught himself to become a successful and highly revered entrepreneur, a self-made man.
Life in poverty
The biography starts with a narration of Vanderbilt’s early life. It tells of his roots with Holland as well as his struggling childhood. The author gives a detailed description of how the family found it hard to settle in the new country, having left Holland. Being under British colonialism, the author feels that this family might have been more of a Royalist as opposed to Patriot. He notes that “Their poverty must have compelled them to trim their course to live.”
Howden Smith pictured the life of young Vanderbilt in 1780. At this time, the revered businessman was 17 years old. He started to earn his living by selling products sourced from his father and other farms. At his age, he would have been in adventures with mates, but he sacrificed this to achieve an ideal. The author creates the mental picture needed for us to better understand his upbringing. He goes on to explain how Vanderbilt’s path crosses that of Phebe with who he was in a relationship. The two were complete opposites of each other. The soon-to-be tycoon was strong physically, handsome, and was big, open-faced. Phebe, on the other hand, was a whole lot different. Howden Smith says that he found a picture of her, which reveals her as being an older woman with a mighty, strong face and straight mouth. The two later got married, and that marked a turning point in his life. Scholars would later accord Phebe much credit for her husband’s success as well as that of her son.
Throughout the biography, one is captivated by the transition of Vanderbilt’s life from one stage to the next. How the tycoon curved a business out of an idea that many had never thought of. The fact that his ideas were unique didn’t mean that all was rosy for him. He had to work harder than any competitor. “He would drive himself to exhaustion to make the swiftest trip.”
The second part of this biography focuses on Vanderbilt’s entry into the ferry business. The author attempts to portray how underdeveloped the country still is at this time. Vanderbilt taps into the need of the residents to cross over to New York. “Every morning, New York-bound passengers appeared at the Stapleton landing to find his ferry waiting.” As he grew in business, his overall physical appearance also changed. This is well captured when Howden Smith says that his boyish features were replaced with little groves at the corners of his mouth and nostrils.
His determination to excel as a businessman is evident. He never had a sufficient sleep. After finishing his regular schedule, if the weather were fair, he would boatload several young revelers to give them an experience of the moonlight at a fee, of course.
Rewards for his hard work as a ferryman started trickling in after a year. He was able to take good care of his family and even had more than enough. Phebe is quoted to have at one moment expressed surprise when her husband gave her eleven hundred dollars.
There is a valuable lesson to be drawn here. Besides just handing money to his family, Vanderbilt tells them that he saved more. This shows that the tycoon’s rise in wealth was not just out of hard work but also self-discipline to save more. His business grew to dominate the shipping industry.
Building an empire
This biography breaks down the steps that Vanderbilt followed in creating his empire. The author does not leave any stone unturned. He tells of how the ferryman acquired Harlem and Hudson lines, empowering him to control a sizeable region. He had the vision to set up an empire, and this required that he acquires the Central to compliment what Harlem and Hudson’s lines had enabled him to do.
However, his venture into Central was not an easy one. He met with organized and determined opposition. His opponents from the steamboat days, Dean Richmond, Hudson, and Peter Cagger, were not willing to let him have his way there. To strike back, Vanderbilt’s refused to make connections with the Central. Of course, reparations were sure to follow. The first to be impacted were the stock markets. New York Central stock declined by 15 percent. Legislatures immediately realized that Vanderbilt had grown so big that he was becoming a menace.
A committee was set up to investigate his actions, and he was summoned for a hearing. Interesting to read are the exchanges on the day of the hearing that the author of this biography was able to get. Even though some may regard his responses as arrogant, Vanderbilt puts humor while answering all questions he is asked. For example, it is hilarious when he says that the reason he did not make a connection with Central is that he was at home playing cards; “I never allow anything to interfere with me when I’m playing.”
Appreciation of the biography
It captures the life of Vanderbilt, using a step by step progression from poverty into wealth. We can all see what he does to make him the tycoon that he became. One of the book’s major strengths is the author’s apparent access to resources that allow him to talk about Vanderbilt’s life in greater detail. There are also images all over the biography to complement the author’s narrations. However, some readers might have a bit of a challenge comprehending some sentences where the use of the 19th century colloquial English is predominant.
Vanderbilt established a continental empire out of his love and expertise of steam. It was not an easy industry. Captains were always at the forefront with acts of unfair competition by pushing engines past their limits. Cases of ships crashing into each other, and boilers exploding were the norm. Death in the waters no longer surprised anyone. Despite all these hurdles, the ferryman never gave up. As noted in his biography, it was as if these challenges rather served as a motivation to push towards more challenges and success. And indeed, he managed it.