Thanks to Steve Fraser for his lengthy review of my book, The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt [“The Misunderstood Robber Baron,” Nov. 30]. I wish to offer a few words in response, but I hope I don’t sound querulous. Fraser offers a healthy amount of praise, and his criticisms largely spring from a sympathy with wage workers. That’s precisely the attitude readers–including me–want and expect in your pages. We certainly don’t find enough of it elsewhere.
But I would like to stress the nuances that I tried to impart to my portrait. Fraser leaves the impression that my book descends into simple praise for a great capitalist, whereas I tried to uncover the complexities of Vanderbilt’s long career. Vanderbilt’s life, I found, contributed to the central conundrums of a corporate economy in a democratic society.
A key point of the review is Fraser’s claim that I take it as axiomatic that associating Vanderbilt with modernity is “a good thing.” I could not disagree more. I tried to illustrate the contradictions that accompanied the emergence of modernity, with rising wealth and productivity on one hand, and increasing polarization of incomes and power on the other. I do not use “modernizing” as a synonym for “making better.”
Fraser writes that I am “willfully blind” to the distinction between “dynastic capitalism” and the modern corporation. On the contrary, I stress Vanderbilt’s “peculiar role” as a transitional figure. He promoted the institutionalization of modern capitalism and was an individual who towered over banks and corporations–“both a relic of a bygone era and an aggressive leader of the new.” I contrast the owner/manager model of Vanderbilt’s corporations with the Pennsylvania Railroad, in which ownership and management were separated. I point out how the Pennsylvania model showed the way to the future, though I also describe the corruption and self-dealing that came with it.
More important is the question of how I treat the liberal reformers–E.L. Godkin, Henry and Charles Francis Adams Jr. and others. Fraser also writes that I take a “cheap shot” when I connect the liberals’ criticism of Vanderbilt with their distrust of democracy, and that I am engaging in “intellectual snobbery.”
This criticism may seem convincing within the confines of his review. In my book, however, I describe how the liberals’ distrust of popular government led them to oppose any attempt at government regulation. Fraser writes that I do not explain why the New York Times‘s attack on the “modern aristocracy of capital” was incoherent. But he leaves out the rest of my quote of the editorial in question: “It is no part of our present purpose to suggest a remedy. Indeed, we must frankly confess we see none.” I contrast this with new demands for federal regulation, which were endorsed by such agrarian radicals as the Grangers, to the liberals’ distress.