Another step out of my reading box recently took me to the biography shelf, where I grabbed Commodore: The Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt. My reasoning: stacks of books about natural destruction and heroes & heroines who fight against it haven’t solved enough environmental problems, so maybe a villain’s biography would reveal some answers. At least it would be a refreshing change from Muir’s exuberant, expansive asceticsm in My First Summer in the Sierra to learn about a man who “Commodore” author Edward Renehan describes as a grim, stingy, near-illiterate who founded the greatest personal fortune in history.
Renehan wisely lets contemporary voices delineate Vanderbilt’s character whenever possible. Attorney George Templeton Strong begrudged him respect as an instinctive genius of the most cold-hearted, avaricious kind: “He is like some rudimentary but deadly and swift beast who knows not what he knows, but knows enough—through nature—to endure and thrive on the meat of lesser animals, of which the woods are full. . . . . He is a breed apart: evolved for the sole purpose of money-getting. Either that or his is the dumbest of dumb luck lubricated—I should admit—by a great deal of elbow grease. The beast is never lazy.” That titanic energy was focused single-mindedly toward acquiring money, principally through steamships and railroads, but incidentally through any means, fair or foul.
Vanderbilt’s ruthless greed didn’t surprise me, and it failed to fascinate me enough to read every word of this detailed (and undeniably lively) account of every merger, swindle, collapse, and reorganization that characterized his colossal success. But I was riveted by passages discussing a cynical ethos pervading the business world and much of society the early 1800s. “Sadly,” writes Renehan, “in his fundamental lack of charity, young Vanderbilt was not unlike the bulk of the successful, middle-class businessmen of his day. In point of fact, the first few decades of the nineteenth century were a largely cynical and callous time in American history—a period of institutionalized harshness.” Even formerly generous benefactors succumbed to a view that only about 10% of the poor were “deserving,” and helping the other “degenerates” merely encouraged more to sink into dependency and profligacy—and undermined the prosperity of the rest of society. Writes Renehan, “Like many other young entrepreneurs then and now, he worked conspicuously and diligently for his own personal profit, but never, so far as existing records and contemporary accounts show, for any greater good. Vanderbilt gave no alms to the poor, subscribed not a penny for the support of hospitals or foundling homes, and gave not a nickel to such organizations as the New York Humane Society (which at that time existed to serve the needs of destitute humans rather than stray dogs and cats).”
Self-centered cynic that he was, Vanderbilt can still serve as an object lesson today. His case supports Aldo Leopold’s contention that values are the key to respectful relationships with the natural world. The Commodore knew plenty about the waters and lands traversed by his transportation empire, but somehow he failed to care about them. Yet that even a Vanderbilt can learn to care is apparent at Biltmore, the French chateau-styled home of Cornelius’ grandson George. The younger magnate hired Central Park’s landscape architect, Frederick Law Olmsted, to design Biltmore’s grounds, and perhaps more significantly, the nation's first scientifically-trained forester, Gifford Pinchot, to devise a scientific management plan for the forests. Pinchot’s wise-use approach when he headed the US Forest Service was the germinal idea that grew, through Leopold’s experience as a young forester, wildlife ecologist, and landowner, into the truly wise land ethic. A page devoted to philanthropy on the Biltmore site promises ongoing support for “the legacy of self-sufficiency, environmental stewardship of our natural resources, protection of the integrity of our mountains, and commitment to ensuring our community remains a model for living well and living purposefully.” I like to think scornful old Cornelius is rolling over in his Romanesque granite masoleum.