Meet the Governor’s Lecturer

Telling good stories, asking big questions

During this sesquicentennial year, T.J. Stiles will deliver the Governor’s Lecture on October 3 at the Holland Center in Omaha. Shortly after receiving the national book award for “The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt,” he spoke with Laurie Hertzel, Books Editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune. We hope you enjoy these excerpts of their conversation, used here with permission.

LAURIE HERTZEL: Your books seem to be both scholarly and populist. “The First Tycoon” is very readable, and I wondered, was this a conscious decision?

T.J. STILES: There is no reason why we have to sacrifice scholarly standards and investigation for reading pleasure. What I like to do in my writing is to tell good stories and ask big questions. I want to write books that are about complex characters that tell compelling stories. I don’t want to simply provide information or analysis because I know it. It has to be something that makes the reader think and want to read more, something that is significant and goes to the heart of what this person is all about.

How—and when—did you determine what your themes
would be, what the point of this book would be?

I came in with certain questions, but certain questions presented themselves as I went along. 

I knew that I wanted to write about the creation of the modern corporate economy. But there are a number of important themes that I only discovered in the process of writing the book, [such as] the way in which we think about the role of the government in the economy, and how that’s gone through dramatic changes. 

One of the larger themes really speaks to what we’ve been through recently—the way in which economic reality was undergoing an abstraction in the 19th century. The idea of a corporation, and the way that money ceased to be simply precious metal coins…stocks and bonds, and the way financial markets began to develop—all these were huge changes in American culture and in the way
that our minds work. It was a real struggle for people to cope with it and understand it.

I set out to be true to the work, true to the subject, to carry out my investigation with integrity. I didn’t try to teach lessons to the present. The present sort of imposed itself after I’d completed the book.

Talk about conducting your research.

I found out why there had not been a biography of Vanderbilt: he left no collection of papers. I really despaired of finishing [the book] at certain points, because it took much longer than I anticipated. I didn’t realize that so much could be had—there was so much material that would shed light on his life—but that it would take so much work to get at it.

For instance, at the New York Public Library, I found letter after letter from people who were dealing with Vanderbilt during a period that was previously largely unknown, the 1830s and 40s. Old lawsuits provided insights into his personal life and his dealings, lawsuits from his passengers during the gold rush and were stranded in Nicaragua. They would describe what his office was like, and where his desk was, and how he put on his reading glasses, just vivid descriptions, contemporary descriptions that I had no idea existed when I started the process. 

Tell me about how you made the characters come alive.

Since Vanderbilt didn’t leave a collection of his own papers, I had to look at all the people who lived around him. That had the unexpected benefit of fleshing out all of these other characters who surrounded him. I was forced to pay attention to the secondary characters, which I think—I hope—helped make my book more enjoyable.

When you talk about your work, you use the word ‘investigate.’ Is that different from research?

Research is at the core of what I do. Investigate involves intellectual engagement, and thinking about what matters, and thinking about where this information I found leads me. An example is I’ve often read historical accounts that describe a subject in the 19th century called “stock-watering”—increasing the number of shares in a company. Research would tell me that Vanderbilt was criticized for stock-watering. Investigation is saying, well, why? 

I see investigation as a matter of trying to take nothing for granted—trying to really get inside a world and to assume that just because they use the same words not to assume that they meant the same thing.

T.J. Stiles will deliver the free, public Governor’s Lecture in the Humanities on October 3 at the Holland Center for Performing Arts in Omaha. For tickets to the benefit dinner preceding this lecture, please call 402.474.2131.

Meet T.J. Stiles at “Humanities After Hours”


“Humanities After Hours with T.J. Stiles” brings together fun and interesting people to socialize, talk with others about the lecture, meet the speaker, and support Humanities Nebraska. Join T.J. Stiles following the Governor’s Lecture on October 3, from 9 – 11 pm at the Zinc Bar in the Holland Performing Arts Center, Omaha.  

Admission for “Humanities After Hours” is $10 per person and includes one free beverage, a chance to win a signed copy of Stiles’ Pulitzer Prize winning book on Custer, outstanding networking opportunities, and HN’s grateful appreciation for your support. Watch for details and registration later this summer on Humanities Nebraska’s website and social media.



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