September 2008

Stephen Laniel

nonfiction

Tycoon's War: How Cornelius Vanderbilt Invaded a Country to Overthrow America's Most Famous Military Adventurer by Stephen Dando-Collins

The ground here is so fertile; it's a shame that Stephen Dando-Collins does approximately nothing with it. We start with one of the more badass lines in the history of capitalism -- a letter from a tycoon to his erstwhile business partners:

“Gentlemen, you have undertaken to cheat me. I won't sue you, for the law is too slow. I'll ruin you. Yours truly, Cornelius Vanderbilt.”

The story of wrongs avenged gets better: because while Vanderbilt's partners are scamming him, the American William Walker is trying to take over Nicaragua. Vanderbilt needs Nicaragua; the gold rush is heating up in California, and Vanderbilt wants to shuttle passengers from the east coast to the west. Without a railroad or a Panama Canal, the quickest way to do this had been to send them around the southern tip of South America. Vanderbilt had another idea: send boats through the Caribbean to Nicaragua, get on the San Juan River at Greytown, follow the San Juan to Lake Nicaragua, use mules to cover a small strip of ground between the Lake and San Juan Del Sur, and dump them out onto the Pacific. From there, the trip up to California is comparatively short.

There will be conflict eventually. On the one side we have Walker, the American "filibuster" (a term meaning something like "treasure-seeking cowboy" before it meant "reading from the phone book for 72 consecutive hours"), hoping to carve out a new nation under his tutelage in South America. On the other, we have a ruthless businessman who needs Walker's territory to make his money. While Vanderbilt plots his enemies' destruction, Walker draws thousands upon thousands of Americans down from the north into his private army and names himself president of Nicaragua. How do those thousands of Americans get there? They need to take ships, obviously. The collision course is set.

Unfortunately, Dando-Collins does as little as possible with these promising materials, and by the end of Tycoon's War he reminds us how little he's done with them. For instance: one might want to know what motivates Walker to do what he does. Is it money? Fame? Power? You would think that in a book ostensibly about "America's Most Famous Military Adventurer," his motivations would be weaved into most every page of the book. Yet Dando-Collins saves them for the end, in a couple-page-long chapter entitled "The Protagonists' Motives." Dando-Collins will soon be releasing an edition of the New Testament with an epilogue entitled "Stuff About Jesus."

Dando-Collins wants us to believe that Walker was hugely important within American history. He may well be, but nothing Dando-Collins tells us would suggest so. The best he can come up with is to note that "To this day, there is an historical marker honoring Walker outside the Nashville house where he was born and grew up." Mt. Rushmore it is not.

The unfortunate reality seems to be that Dando-Collins is a William Walker fanboy. Near "The Protagonists' Motives," we get this: "Throughout Central America today, Walker's name ranks with that of Hitler and Stalin." That is the sole unflattering line about Walker in the book's 342 pages, and it takes 334 pages to get there. The reader is not equipped to understand why Central Americans might view Walker that way.

We can at least hope for solid military history. Tycoon's War is a reasonably engaging on that score. Dando-Collins mostly lets the Walker biography, the Vanderbilt biography, the broader story of the U.S.'s role in this hemisphere, and the clash-of-titans aspects drop.

Tycoon's War: How Cornelius Vanderbilt Invaded a Country to Overthrow America's Most Famous Military Adventurer by Stephen Dando-Collins
Da Capo Press
ISBN: 0306816075
384 Pages

Steve Laniel lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he can hate America like all Cantabrigians do. He also writes book reviews at http://books.laniels.org/