Thursday, October 24, 2013

Newport Stories: Cornelius Vanderbilt II, or, On Whether a Child of Privilege Can Also Be a Horatio Alger Story

[Here we present the first installment of a series of posts by Benjamin Railton that originally appeared on his blog AmericanStudies.]

Like so many evocative American places, the Newport, Rhode Island mansion The Breakers contains and connects to numerous histories, stories, and themes worth sharing. So in this series, I’ll highlight and analyze five such topics. As always, your thoughts will be very welcome too!

Cornelius Vanderbilt II (1843-1899), the man for whom The Breakers was built (as perhaps the most luxurious “summer cottage” in human history), was named after his grandfather, Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt (1794-1877), who at his death was the wealthiest man in the United States. Which is to say, young Cornelius wasn’t just born into privilege; he was perhaps the closest thing to the royal baby American society has produced. Moreover, over the thirty-four years between his birth and his grandfather’s death, a period that culminated quite tellingly with the start of the Gilded Age, the family’s fortune only increased further. None of that is young Cornelius’s fault, and if he had decided to give the fortune away he’d have been about the first person ever to do so—but it does make it hard to see him as anything other than the scion of an American dynasty.

Yet as illustrated at length by Cornelius’s entry in Appleton’s Cyclopedia of American Biography (1900), the young man’s life did in some interesting ways mirror those of a Horatio Alger, rags to riches, self-made protagonist (without, of course, details like being orphaned or living on the streets). Beginning at the age of 16, Cornelius spent the next five years working as a clerk in two small New York banks, learning the ins and outs of the financial world; he then did the same with the railroad industry in which his family had made their fortune, working for two years as treasurer and then ten as treasurer of the New York and Harlem railroad company. Which is to say, when he became vice president of that railroad in 1877, at the age of 34, he did so after nearly thirteen years in the industry, and more than twenty in financial services; while it’d still be fair to say that he had been destined for the position and role from birth, it certainly would not be accurate to argue that it was in any blatant or nepotistic sense handed to him.

So what? you might ask. Do those years of work make the egregious excess, the truly conspicuous consumption of The Breakers less grating or more sympathetic? Do they in any way complicate Cornelius’ status as the poster boy for Gilded Age inequities? I don’t know that they do—but I do know that they remind us of the complexities, nuances, contradictions, the messy dynamic humanity, at the heart of most every American identity and life, story and history, individual and community. It’s entirely fine—and, I would argue, an important part of a public AmericanStudier’s job—to critique what we see as the worst actions or attributes of historical figures like the Vanderbilts. But it’s not at all okay to do so by oversimplifying or mythologizing (in positive or negative ways) lives and identities, by turning the past into the black and white caricatures that such myths demand. Cornelius Vanderbilt II was a scion of privilege who built one of the most garish mansions in American history; he also worked, and apparently worked hard and well, for forty of his fifty-six years of life. That’s all part of the story of The Breakers for sure.

Next Breakers story tomorrow,

PS. What do you think?

1 comment:

hcr said...

I love your nuanced take on this, Ben. So easy to portray these guys as all good or all bad, but they were very much products of their time, and very much human. BTW, Cobblestone Magazine is about to publish a special issue on "Captains of Industry" that has articles about men like Vanderbilt.

Can't wait to see the rest of this series.