The Narrows, with Staten Island in the foreground and Long Island to the right, 1854
From time to time, I'm reposting earlier entries on the art of writing biography. Here's one of them.
One of the most important things for a biographer—perhaps for any writer—is a sense of place. But this is trickier than it sounds. When writing historical biography, space and time are inseparable.
My previous biography, Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War, was very well received by the people of Missouri, where most of its action takes place. But every now and then I would hear grumbling that I wasn't "from here," that as a New Yorker I couldn't write authoritatively about the creekbeds and woods of Clay, Jackson, and Lafayette counties. Maybe the grumblers had a point. But no one alive today, I should point out, is from the nineteenth century. Missouri today is a very, very different place than it was in 1855 or 1875. I immersed myself in this lost place, trying to build a rich, complex, and complete world.
Naturally I tried to do the same in my new book, The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt. Here I had the advantage of living in New York (and later San Francisco, another scene of the action, where I now reside). But, after writing Jesse James, I was wary of assuming that I knew nineteenth-century New York just because I lived in the current version. More than that, I realized that a sense of place must extend to more than physical geography. I had to range from colliding ferryboats to genteel Washington Square, from docks and railroad depots to corporate boardrooms. But I also had to recapture the social life of New York's aristocrats, the business culture (or cultures) of bankers and steamboat men, the violent poverty of Five Points and Corlear's Hook. Multiple layers of society overlapped—and some of those layers were themselves divided.
Vanderbilt's life was so far-reaching, I had to try to breathe life into anarchic early San Francisco, provincial and corrupt Washington, D.C., war-torn Nicaragua, and the stuffy London offices of English investment houses. But trickiest of all was the fact that these places changed dramatically over time. When Vanderbilt first started to pilot a sailboat back and forth across New York Harbor, the city was described by a visitor as "an overgrown seaport village." It was ruled by eighteenth-century landed gentry. By the time he died, a million people crammed onto Manhattan, home to factories, gasworks, the nation's leading stock exchange and biggest banks, not to mention the hemisphere's largest railroad depot, Vanderbilt's own Grand Central. Society and culture were transformed over that same period, in part due to Vanderbilt's own efforts.
So I've done my best to create a sense of place that seems true, yet incorporates these complexities and changes. Whether I succeeded or failed will determine much of the value of my book.
It's a curious fact that I was a passenger on the Staten Island ferryboat Andrew J. Barberi on the fatal voyage in October 2003, when it crashed into a service pier, killing eleven passengers. Being present at that event was revealing, for I was already at work on The First Tycoon, which includes numerous nautical disasters (including on the Staten Island Ferry). I don't know that I actually wrote anything differently because of that experience, but it deepened my sense of what such disasters were like. The impact of being there was subtle, but I am left with the feeling that it was important. In any case, I was nowhere near the carnage, and was in no sense a victim. My heart still goes out to those who suffered, died, or lost loved ones that day.