The Vanderbilt Memorial

The Vanderbilt Memorial

“The Commodore’s acts have touched the public, more or less nearly, in a spot which is tender.”


“The Commodore’s acts have touched the public, more or less nearly, in a spot which is tender.”

All of Mr. Vanderbilt’s acts have been in a sense private acts; which consideration has not, however, exempted all of them from public criticism–some of it, certainly, not gracious. The fact is that many of “the Commodore’s” acts have touched the public, more or less nearly, in a spot which is tender. When a gentleman’s hand is discovered to be pretty regularly in the general pocket, he will inevitably find himself the subject of public remarks; and this though it be his own proper good that he seeks, and seeks with energy and industry and admirable consistency. So, then, though he may have paid for it himself, and has set it up on his own railroad station, got by his own hand, we do not apologize for saying an abusive word or two about the “Vanderbilt Memorial Bronze,” which henceforth charms the eye at the Hudson River Railroad Depot in St. John’s Park.

There is about it in general and in particulars a curious appropriateness, a fitness to the exploits and fame it is to celebrate; this at least the artist may claim as an advantage that his work has over most modern sculpture of the memorial or any other kind. It crowns with monumental incongruousness one of the most vulgar-looking of all staring brick buildings. The brute utilitarianism–not without its own perfection–which is expressed by the big brick-and-mortar freight-depot, is made the more obvious by the attempt–abortive though it be–to crown the ignoble substructure with something noble and fine. But it merely suggests the noble and fine, without being such in any degree; and the attempt makes ridiculous what before was at worst only disagreeable. Thus unfortunate in its position and general effect, our bronze is equally so in its detail and if it is not on that account less happy in its appropriateness, it certainly is not therefore more to be admired. Audaciously or ignorantly, it disregards all laws–of harmony, of grace, of perspective, or of anything else. ”The Commodore” himself, larger than life, stands in a niche in the centre of the work. The figure, stiff and without dignity, is dressed in the fur-lined or fur-lapelled overcoat, which is understood to be the usual wear of the original. At either side, extending for a rod or two, is a sheet of bronze, filled up in what may be called the higgledy-piggledy manner of grouping, with the simulacra in bronze of various objects representing symbolically facts and events in Mr. Vanderbilt’s career, There is the image of the humble boat in which, in the years when he was poor but honest, he carried passengers from the Battery over to Staten Island. There, near it, under a head of steam that she never knew in life, is one of the vessels of the Pacific Mail line, in which, in later years, he transported many more passengers, with much less comfort and much less safety, from this city to the Isthmus and California. There, also, may be seen the vessel which he magnificently gave the Federal Government when the rebellion broke out, and when it was rather more unprofitable to keep a vessel in her deck than it was to give her away to anybody who would take her. There, too, are the figures of bee-hives, which ingeniously typify the industry and devotion to business of a man who never served the country at large, nor the State, nor the city, in any public office; nor ever spent the time which is money in advancing the cause of any charity; nor in promoting education, which the self-made man may despise; nor in fostering the arts, which can always wait. There are the railroads and the river boats, which are witnesses to an energy and a business sagacity which before now have bought whole legislatures, debauched courts, crushed out rivals, richer or poorer, as the unmoral, unsentimental forces of nature grind down whatever opposes their blind force, and which have given Mr. Fisk and other gentlemen a lesson, which even they have not yet wholly mastered, in watering stock to the discomfiture of small stockholders of all ages and both sexes. In short, there, in the glory of brass, are portrayed, in a fashion quite good enough, the trophies of a lineal successor of the medieval baron that we read about, who may have been illiterate indeed; and who was not humanitarian and not finished in his morals; and not, for his manners, the delight of the refined society of his neighborhood; nor yet beloved by his dependents; but who knew how to take advantage of lines of travel; who had a keen eye for roads, and had the heart and hand to levy contribution on all who passed by his way.

Perhaps some of our readers may have had the fortune to go to California or to Europe in steamships of which Mr. Vanderbilt had the control. They know, then, with how much respect the traveling public ought to recollect him. The accommodations on board the vessels, the food that was served, the condition as to seaworthiness of the ships themselves, and the efficiency of the officers and crews, the way in which the traveller was cared for whenever, by act of Providence, one of the steamers was wrecked or delayed, will be fresh in the memory of everybody who, by seafaring, has ever contributed of his substance to increase Mr. Vanderbilt’s store. Others of our readers have perhaps put their earnings into the stock of the recently consolidated Central and Hudson River Railroad; or have paid passage-money on those well-managed roads; or have tramped a mile or two through the snow at midnight to ”make connection,” and thus assist the Commodore in “fighting” some other “big railroad man” who wanted a certain part of the public all to himself, and probably may have needed to have it for the sake of saving a road which the the Commodore wished to capture. And no doubt ethers way have been ”cornered” by ”the old man” in Wall Street; or have gone with him before certain of our judges with whom he has acquaintance; or have ridden on ferry-boats with well-armed friends of his, to the number of fifty or sixty, who were crossing the water to levy war on the Erie cash-boxes and Mr. Daniel Drew; or have called on him with subscription papers at the beginning of hard winters; or in some other way have personally had a taste of the qualities in him which Bishop Janes and Mr. A. O. Hall and Mr. Horace Greeley now ask us to honor.

Are any of us honoring them? Courage, tenacity, a capacity “to toil terribly,” energy–these are of course sure to secure a certain amount of what may be called respect, whether they are found in the butcher or in the noble dirty-white animal which follows at the butcher’s heel. But are not some of us honoring them as we see them employed in the careers of our “kings of the street,” and “railroad men,” and “giants of the stock exchange,” and ”king pins of the gold room?” Uncharitable judges have changed the Board of Brokers–who, yesterday was a week, had a burlesque “unveiling”–with only pretending to laugh at Mr. Vanderbilt, whom, say these censors, every one of them envies and admires, and would imitate if he could. But there is something essentially laughable in the spectacle of a man’s putting out his own cash to pay for civic honors to himself. Read of such things in the dull annals of the later Roman empire–how his fellow citizens came to the most noble So-and-so, and gravely informed him that it had been voted that a statue of him should be set up in the Market Place, and how the distinguished man as gravely made answer that the honor alone was enough–was too much, and that he must beg to bear, himself, the money charges of erecting the memorial–thus read in musty history, the thing provokes a smile; and how else should it be when we have before us in the flesh the public-spirited citizen who is willing to pay such homage to virtue! Nevertheless, the censors we have mentioned are not, we imagine, so far in the wrong in their view of the brokers’ character and views; and should we go too far if we widened the scope of the charge, and made it cover not the Wall Street men alone, but the whole people? Do we not as a people, if not admire, at least not execrate, nor even practically at all visit with condemnation, the acts of men like Drew and Vanderbilt, and, to go a step lower, the Fisks and Goulds? Perhaps those who live in great commercial centers lay too much stress on the evidence which seems to make in this direction. Yet it was in a country of hay-fields, and small shops, and fishing smacks, and little congregations of a hundred or two hundred souls that Butler was sent to Congress. And he was sent because he was “smart.”

There is too much truth in the statement that the tendency today in this country is to count up our list of peculiarly American virtues as consisting of audacity, push, unscrupulousness, and brazen disregard of others’ rights or others’ good opinion; that we make no sufficient objection to a display of unmitigated and immitigable selfishness, if only it be a splendid display–if only it be crowned by success, by the acquisition of wealth or power. Yet we are not going to say that thus is all the truth or at all events, that as yet there is more than a tendency among us to this condition of mind nor that other tendencies are not developing which will in good part neutralize this one. That, after all, is our best hope–to set in motion as soon as possible as many as possible nobler tendencies of thought, and feeling, and better ways of looking at life. Prevention is better than cure–is in fact, if one may say so, the only perfect cure. Meantime the negative mode of procedure–that of scoffing at the so-called successful man–has its uses too.

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