Nonfiction: Two Sides of a Showdown
Steve Weinberg, Taking on the Trust: The Epic Battle of Ida Tarbell and John D. Rockefeller (Norton, March 2008)
When Samuel S. McClure approved, in 1901, his magazine’s best-known writer, Ida Tarbell, to write a 25,000 word, three-part history of The Standard Oil Company, he ignited public outrage, reformist political will and, eventually, triggered the judicial action that broke up the most monopolistic corporate network of its time. In historical perspective, McClure did something else perhaps equally important. Through his magazine he pitted the woman who revolutionized journalism and invented investigative reporting against John D. Rockefeller, the man who revolutionized the industrial corporation and who, if he did not invent corporate trusts, certainly perfected them.
Steve Weinberg’s new book, Taking on the Trust, traces parallel biographies of Tarbell and Rockefeller: childhood, education, careers, the McClure’s articles, the subsequent personal profile of Rockefeller (also by Tarbell), and the effect of her publications on both Tarbell and Rockefeller. For Tarbell, there was a polarity in how she was publicly perceived. Though a hero to many, she was also portrayed as a lying, hysterical radical by some conservatives. Rockefeller’s public image was irreparably harmed by the revelations in Tarbell’s reporting. The world’s wealthiest man was enshrined as a conniving, scheming villain despite his success, wealth and unprecedented philanthropy. It was a label he would never shake, nor understand, and most certainly would never accept. Weinberg’s narrative is charged from the outset by a sense of destiny: that a showdown between Tarbell and Rockefeller was in the works for the entire adult life of Tarbell, coincident with the corporate life of Rockefeller’s oil interests, incorporated as The Standard Oil Company in 1870.
Tarbell was the daughter of an independent businessman who manufactured barrels for the Pennsylvania oilfield. One of the many interesting anecdotes in the book is how Mr. Tarbell was influential in gaining acceptance for the forty-two gallon barrel as the industry standard. Commodity market reports ever since have reported the cost of one barrel of oil. Tarbell watched her father and then her brother struggle to operate as independents against the growing malevolent juggernaut of Standard Oil. This provided her with a slow-burning passion that she would later need for exhaustive research. For a reporter to unearth a smoking gun against Standard Oil, unprecedented resourcefulness and determination would be needed. As Weinberg convincingly shows, though Tarbell could not have known it, her life in retrospect was a systematic acquisition of the methods, skills and contacts she would need to take down Rockefeller.
In contrast to Tarbell, Rockefeller was the son of a philandering con man who was as unsupportive of his children as he was absent. In reading the Rockefeller history, you can’t help but feel for the young Rockefeller as he suffers the abuses of his father, culminating in a refusal to fund education, pushing him into the workforce at age sixteen. As an adult, he believed that wealth and power were a divine reward to the hard working and pious. He could never grasp the outrage in the accusations leveled against him and the company in which he was the largest shareholder. Late in life, tainted as a villain, his is a sad portrait, like a tight-lipped version of Lear on the heath. He was by his own standards a good man. There is no question that as a business manager and visionary, Rockefeller was a genius. But he also presided over highly secretive price-fixing, corporate espionage, political bribery, and general war against competitors. Tarbell eschewed preconceived notions, sought out previously untapped primary sources, devoured these sources in their entirety and then, based on the facts, presented a compelling narrative. The factual accuracy of her account of Standard Oil has never been disproved. Weinberg employs similar methods in delivering this book, which includes an impressive bibliography of primary and secondary sources. Steven Weinberg shows himself to be Tarbell’s journalistic descendant, with a well-written and compelling story.
Ken Murray is an author and contributing writer for the Brooklyn Rail.