His latest book is Sensing the Past: Hollywood Stars and Historical Visions.
Recently I asked Cullen about what he was reading. His reply:
Sometimes you choose books; other times they choose you. Right now I’m reading T.J. Stiles’s The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt. I backed into the book, which I’ve just started, in a funny way. Aware of its good reviews, I made a mental note of it at the time of its publication in 2009, though I never got around to it. A couple of years ago, I was at the book exhibit at an Organization of American Historians meeting, where the publisher of the paperback edition (Vintage) was giving away copies. But I was put off by the size of the book—it clocks in over 700 rather large pages – and the limits of what I could lug as carry-on baggage for my flight home the next day. I finally did buy The First Tycoon a few months ago, at a time when I was planning to write a book on the myth of the self-made man. Because that project is now in doubt, it fell in rank among my reading priorities and I contemplated giving it away.Learn more about Sensing the Past at the Oxford University Press website, and visit Jim Cullen's American History Now blog.
Last week I found myself with a sliver of time on my hands and picked it up. In one sense I almost instantly regretted it, because of pressing other reading commitments: I was in the middle of reviewing David Shambaugh’s new book China Goes Global: The Partial Power (Oxford University Press) and about to begin re-reading Harlem Renaissance novelist Nella Larsen’s 1928 novella Passing for a class I’m teaching (Larsen’s book was even better than I remembered). But once I made room for Stiles’s Vanderbilt, he wouldn’t let me go. I realized very quickly why Stiles won the Pulitzer Prize for this biography: it isn’t simply a portrait of a man, but a world. I was riveted by his evocation of Vanderbilt’s early 19th century metropolitan New York, which still consists of overgrown Dutch hamlets. I was also amazed to learn that of young Vanderbilt’s role in the landmark Supreme Court decision Gibbons v. Ogden (1817), which proved formative in the emergence of a truly national U.S. economy. Vanderbilt always seemed the most remote and least interesting of the 19th century Robber Barons. I’m happy I’m going to learn otherwise.
The Page 99 Test: Sensing the Past.