Review: Ida M. Tarbell

Ida M. Tarbell: The Woman Who Challenged Big Business — And Won!, Emily Arnold McCully. New York: Clarion Books, 2014.

Summary: A biography for young adults highlighting Tarbell’s journalistic career including her series of articles and books taking on Standard Oil, her relationship with Sam McClure, her views on women’s suffrage, and her lifelong labor to support her family.

Probably no one was better fitted to take on Standard Oil, the empire Rockefeller built. She grew up near or in Titusville, where the oil boom began. Her father’s and brother were in the oil business, and directly affected by Rockefeller’s monopolistic practices. At an early age, she determined not to marry, believing wedlock was bondage. But she had not thought of becoming a journalist. She loved science. She pursued her ambitions at nearby Allegheny College, being given the run of Professor Jeremiah Tingley’s laboratory. At that time though, the only careers open for women were teaching and missionary work. Having her doubts about God, she chose teaching and accepted an offer to teach at Poland Union Seminary in Poland, Ohio. Teaching only lasted two years until she returned home to Titusville, set up her microscope in the tower room, and tried to figure out what to do with her life.

A visit by Reverend Theodore Flood led to a chance to work on science articles for women in The Chatauquan. She quickly mastered every aspect of the business, making herself indispensable. She became interested in the fate of laboring people and the growth of trusts. Her capacity to quickly master a subject, and write with clarity led to an endless stream of writing assignments until she felt she was no longer developing. She decided to risk all, move to Paris, research Madame Roland, and try to support herself with articles from Paris. She sold a short story and some articles, one of which was on the paving of Paris streets, and lived a more or less hand to mouth existence. Then Sam McClure came along and changed her life forever. He’d read Ida’s article on paving streets, and told his partner, John Phillips, “This girl can write.” First she freelanced and eventually joined the staff of the fledgling McClure’s which became the home of a brand of investigative journalism dubbed by its enemies, “muckraking.”

Emily Arnold McCully chronicles her rise at McClure’s. Much was due to her own writing talent. But there was a synergy between that talent, including her dogged research skills, and McClure’s dynamic (and sometimes erratic) character. McClure inspired pathbreaking journalism, while lacking real business sense. She wrote articles on Lincoln and on Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders. McCully’s narrative describes the talented group around her and both the stress and fun of putting out the magazine. Perhaps at the publication’s peak, Tarbell was assigned the task to research and write on Standard Oil and John D. Rockefeller, the work for which she was most famous and would eventually be published as a book, leading to the breakup of Rockefeller’s monopolies.

By 1906, the magazine began to unravel as McClure struggled with debt. While Tarbell easily found work throughout the remainder of her life, it was never quite the same and her writing never after achieved the same greatness. Her continuing challenge from then on was her family, supporting her mother and brother. McCully also explores what many consider the black mark on her career, her resistance to women’s suffrage and legal equality of women with men. Her views were complicated because she supported opportunities for women in education and work and championed the cause of women had no choice but to work, often in harsh conditions. But she didn’t think women needed laws to be equal, and worried about the effect politics would have on women.

Ida M. Tarbell lived until 1944. She wrote several more business biographies and a book on life after eighty, even as she struggled with the onset of Parkinson’s disease. McCully gives us a highly readable account of this life in full, written for a young adult audience. The book includes a number of photos of Ida and the people and places with which she was associated. While not a feminist, she demonstrated the possibility that a woman could equal men by the sheer excellence of her work. She was striking in not trying to have it all. Perhaps the closest thing to a partner for her was Sam McClure. He pushed her, even as she helped hold McClure’s together. McCully gives a well-nuanced account of this brilliant and complicated woman.