T. J. Stiles
Fellow: Awarded 2011
Field of Study: Biography
Competition: US & Canada
As a biographer, T. J. Stiles attempts to integrate scholarship with literary craft, in the best tradition of the form. He hopes to throw new light on American history, and also to capture the depth and complexity of individual lives in turbulent times.
His first biography, Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War, was published by Alfred A. Knopf in 2002. Drawing on the bandit's own statements and the contemporary debate about him, Stiles depicted an expressly partisan figure who emerged from a slave-owning family and the Confederate guerrilla movement in Missouri. What set him apart from other outlaws, Stiles wrote, was his insistence on injecting politics into his criminal career, and his success in becoming a rallying point for ex-Confederate Democrats. Jesse James was reviewed on the cover of the New York Times Book Review, received the Ambassador Book Award and the Peter Seaborg Award for Civil War Scholarship, and was named a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize in biography.
In 2009, Alfred A. Knopf published Stiles's second biography, The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt. The first serious biography of the "Commodore" since 1942, it explored the turbulent personal life and influential business career of one of the creators of the modern corporate economy. A major figure in the transportation revolution, the rise of the railroads, and the emergence of Wall Street, Vanderbilt demonstrated both the wealth-creating power of American capitalism, and the political controversies generated by the emergence of big business. The First Tycoon received the 2009 National Book Award in nonfiction and the 2010 Pulitzer Prize in biography.
With the support of a 2011 Guggenheim fellowship, Stiles is currently writing a biography of George Armstrong Custer. He will be examining Custer as a figure on a chronological rather than a geographical frontier, exploring the apparent contradictions between his personality and domestic life, and the vast changes that were transforming America—changes advanced by Custer himself. As a Union general, Reconstruction soldier, conqueror of the frontier, protector of railroads, mining entrepreneur, and writer for the emerging national media, he helped to create the modern United States, yet (like many contemporaries) he never adapted to that modernity.
Stiles is an elected member of the Society of American Historians, and sits on both the Authors Guild board of directors and the advisory council of the Biographers International Organization. He previously held the Gilder Lehrman Fellowship in American History at the Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library. He has published essays and reviews in the New York Times Book Review, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg, Salon, San Francisco Chronicle, Minneapolis Star-Tribune, and other publications, and served as an advisor for two films in the PBS series The American Experience. Stiles also teaches traditional Japanese Shotokan Karate-Do at the Japan Karate Association of San Francisco, in the city where he lives with his wife and two children.