The muckraking journalist Ida M. Tarbell, once considered by magazine publisher Samuel S. McClure to be "the most generally famous woman in America," is not well-remembered outside of journalism schools. Her life and what she accomplished, though, were significant in American history, and even today she stands as a model for the investigative reporter.
Tenaciously chasing facts and figures at the turn of the century, and motivated, probably, by some intensely personal issues, Tarbell reported on the predations of John D. Rockefeller and his Standard Oil Co. in a monumental series in McClure's Magazine that contributed to a new understanding of the harm of the business monopoly. Tarbell's work was encyclopedic and damning, and it tarnished Rockefeller's polished image for the remainder of his life.
A new book by Steve Weinberg, "Taking on the Trust: the Epic Battle of Ida Tarbell and John D. Rockefeller," does a fine job of depicting these two strong personalities and manages to be a good read, too. Weinberg is well-situated to write this: He is an investigative reporter and former executive director of Investigative Reporters and Editors Inc.
Weinberg sets up parallel stories of these two lives as they unfolded, Tarbell's starting in 1857 in northwestern Pennsylvania and Rockefeller's in 1839 about 250 miles away in upstate New York. Tarbell's family was responsible, loving and close, while Rockefeller was the son of a charming con man. Weinberg finds common ground for them, though. Both "... would share other traits -- a sly wit, religious belief fostered by an upbringing in an organized church, puritanical values, extreme self-sufficiency, outsized persistence, regard for work as a lifelong calling ... and an abiding belief that one person could change the world."
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The News & Observer
Tarbell lived an unusual life for a woman of that time. Her family was reasonably well-off, as her father profited from a tank business at the height of oil's boom around Titusville, Pa. The family enjoyed activities that had been unavailable to the parents, such as trips to Chautauqua Lake in western New York. She attended Allegheny College in Meadville, Pa., where her curiosity was honed and she experienced some of the most modern technology of the day. She spoke on a telephone, used a microscope and even considered a career as a "microscopist" or some other line of science.
But a chance encounter with the Rev. Theodore L. Flood, editor of The Chautauquan Magazine steered Tarbell toward journalism. She undertook a number of different positions at the magazine and the companion newspaper published during the season at Chautauqua Institution. After seven years there, she departed on bad terms with Flood and moved to Paris for three years, to pursue a lifelong fascination with the French and to write about French Revolutionary figure Madame Roland.
Tarbell supported herself with freelance writing until she was lured to New York City by Samuel McClure to write for his magazine. Warming up with well-received biographies of Abraham Lincoln and Napoleon Bonaparte, Tarbell hit her stride with the 13 parts in the series on Rockefeller and the Standard Oil Co.
Weinberg crafts the path to the McClure's series deliberately, taking Tarbell and Rockefeller through the years to their monumental clash. By this time, Tarbell's father's business had been badly hurt by "the Standard," and despite her claim to have worked with an open mind, that seems hard to believe. Even her father warned her, "Don't do it, Ida. They will ruin the magazine." Having suffered under Standard Oil, no doubt he also had a father's worry for his daughter's well-being.
Weinberg's book was written to focus on Tarbell and Rockefeller, and only about 10 percent of it deals with their lives after the groundbreaking series. That's fitting. Ida Tarbell's life after the series, while it went on for more than 30 years, never had the luster the series bestowed upon her.
She wrote a number of nonfiction books about U.S. business figures and issues, tried a novel and discussed the women's questions of the day. Oddly, Tarbell, as a highly successful, single woman, wrote that a woman's place was in the home, tending to family and household. Weinberg raises some questions about Tarbell's sexuality, but there simply is no way to know how she really saw herself in that area.
Rockefeller spent much of his remaining years trying to deny or evade the allegations made by Tarbell, and he spent considerable time either in court or trying to avoid it. A great irony is that the dissolution of Standard Oil made Rockefeller even wealthier, and he became, almost certainly, the first billionaire in the country.
Weinberg's use of extensive resources in researching this fine book honor, in a way, the same use Tarbell made of her sources. He makes extensive use of a terrific range of sources, even gaining admittance to Tarbell's final home in Connecticut.
The book gives new perspective to the early years of oil in this country, perspective that has a resonance today as the price of gasoline approaches $4 a gallon. It's a great way to see how more than 100 years has done little to erase the controversy over petroleum.