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The Carletonian

The Carletonian

Biography of Vanderbilt earns Carleton alum Pulitzer Prize

<hool, apparently ­channeling the Gilded Age, T.J. Stiles named himself a city boss. Later on, he impeached the Speaker of the House. In fact, this early interest in historical drama has translated to a successful career for the Carleton alumnus as a biographer of such historical giants as Jesse James and Cornelius Vanderbilt.

Stiles, a history major in the class of ’86, recently visited campus to give a public talk and sign copies of his book The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt, which won a Pulitzer Prize this year. The book also received a 2009 National Book Award. History professor Cliff Clark, who introduced Stiles, praised The First Tycoon for its “intrigue, conspiracy, conflict and marvelous insight.”

In a speech entitled “‘I Am Afraid of This Man’: Reflections on the individual in history from the life of Cornelius Vanderbilt,” Stiles discussed the tensions between biography and history. History as a discipline, he said, is inherently suspicious of biography because of its tendency to glorify the role of the individual in influencing the past. However, Stiles believes that this fear, and thus avoidance, of exulting the individual is also detrimental to the art of biography, and that dismissing the particulars to focus on the general has no real value.

“A truly scholarly historical biography plays a double role, exploring the individual and the context. We must engage with the historical context, asking fresh questions, to understand both the individual, and her larger significance,” he said.

Stiles also spoke about the challenges of biography writing itself: the desire on the part of the author to include obscure details resulting from years of painstaking research, regardless of relevance; the elusive balance between subjectivity and objectivity, fiction and history; and the importance of retaining a plot and telling a story while simultaneously remaining true to the historical record.

In response to those who question biography’s merit as a work of literature, maintaining that it belongs on the side of scholarship, Stiles says this: “Done right, it marries the best qualities of each.”

Biography writing is particularly compelling to Stiles in spite of, or perhaps because of, its challenges. Especially with Vanderbilt, who left behind almost no paper trail, Stiles managed to piece together sources from diverse origins to craft his narrative.

“I really enjoy translating various sources into what I hope are three-dimensional portraits of people and their times, and shaping the narrative so that an unfolding story is both compelling and thought-provoking,” he said. “A biographer must be alive to personal agendas, force of habit, personality quirks, social customs, accidents, ambiguity and the characters’ imperfect knowledge of themselves and others.”

After graduating from Carleton, Stiles attended Columbia University but ultimately chose not to pursue a career as an academic. Instead, he worked with historians at Oxford University Press and began writing on his own, according to his personal website. It was then that, itching to write a longer work, Stiles discovered Jesse James. In 2002, Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War was published.

An infamous outlaw and a robber baron seem to have little in common on the surface. Why the interest in James and Vanderbilt?

“I like to tell good stories and ask big questions,” Stiles wrote in an email. “I enjoy writing about physically dramatic lives, and about iconic figures, those who capture something about how Americans think of themselves—about who we are as a people.”

In his talk, Stiles also mentioned the importance of Carleton in shaping his current life.

“Carleton was my gateway to a life of the mind,” he said. In particular, he noted the influences of Professors Emeriti Robert Bonner and Carl Weiner in History, Bardwell Smith of Religion and Lauren Soth in Art History.

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