The History of the Standard Oil Company (1904) remains Ida Tarbell’s lasting contribution to the development of American journalism. An indefatigable researcher and fearless reporter, Tarbell assembled a painstaking and unassailable case against the Standard Oil Trust, accusing it of ruthlessly ruining its competition, fixing railroad shipment rates, and engaging in other anticompetitive practices that made it impossible for independent oil producers and refiners to make a profit. Prone to biographical interpretations of history, Tarbell viewed the Standard Oil Trust as the embodiment of John D. Rockefeller’s rapacious personality. After publishing her landmark book, she followed up with a profile of Rockefeller in McClure’s Magazine, suggesting that his various charities were merely a public relations front to rescue the reputation of a man who engaged in restraint of trade and other unethical practices that contributed to his company’s monopolistic control of the refining of oil in the United States and abroad.
In Taking on the Trust, Steve Weinberg emulates Tarbell’s biographical approach insofar as he regards the clash between Tarbell and Rockefeller as deeply rooted in their family backgrounds, the former deeply influenced by her entrepreneurial father and strong mother, the latter influenced by his mother’s religious convictions and his father’s deceitful business practices.
Both were innovators. Early on in her education at Allegheny College, Tarbell learned the value of consulting primary sourcesthe documents that could establish the truth behind the stories people told her. Before taking on the enormous task of investigating Rockefeller and Standard Oil, Tarbell researched the lives of European and American historical figures, notably the biography of Abraham Lincoln. She searched courthouses and other public institutions for records of Lincoln’s life and found much new evidence overlooked by the president’s authorized biographers. Indeed, Tarbell can rightly be considered one of the inventors of American unauthorized biography, since she began with no one’s sanction or approval but rather with a series of questions and issues that she pursued with relentless determination and ingenuity. Heretofore, biography had been a rather staid genredistinguished, to be sure, by a few biographers such as James Partonbut lacking in the kind of undaunted and resourceful independence that Tarbell patented.
Weinberg shows that Tarbell’s initiative derived from close observation of her father’s experiences in the oil business. Frank Tarbell knew at first hand about Rockefeller’s efforts to intimidate his competition. Tarbell’s mother, Esther, early on recognized that her daughter would not fit the conventional mold of the conforming, sedate, and conventional nineteenth century woman. In sum, Tarbell had the staunch support of her family that enabled her to pursue her radical search for truth.
At nearly the same time, Rockefeller arose from a family marked by a curious blend of the raffish and the religious. His father was often away from home on business trips, indulging in sexual affairs, and bent on bilking others in get-rich-quick schemes. Rockefeller never acknowledged his father’s unethical and illegal behavior or that he may have learned a trick or two from dad. On the contrary, Rockefeller overly identified with his mother’s piety. A devout Christian, Rockefeller apparently believed that his business dealings were honorable.
Like Tarbell, Rockefeller showed remarkable initiative. He pioneered better ways to refine oil, and he was constantly making other improvements in the exploration and distribution of fuel at a time when other refiners relied on shoddy equipment that often led to fires and other industrial accidents. A keen appraiser of talent, Rockefeller employed the best executives, often drawn from the companies Standard Oil took over.
Drawing on the later scholarship of writers such as Allan Nevins and Ron Chernow, Weinberg shows that Tarbell had an excessively narrow view of...
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