Monday, February 18, 2013

Jim Cullen

Jim Cullen teaches history at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School in New York City. He is the author of The American Dream: A Short History of an Idea that Shaped a Nation, Born in the U.S.A.: Bruce Springsteen and the American Tradition, and other books. Cullen is also a book review editor at the History News Network.

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.

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.
Learn more about Sensing the Past at the Oxford University Press website, and visit Jim Cullen's American History Now blog.

The Page 99 Test: Sensing the Past.

--Marshal Zeringue