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.

Je Suis Ida

"Ida M Tarbell crop" by On recto: J.E. Purdy & Co. Copyright by J.E. Purdy, Boston. - Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons -

“Ida M Tarbell crop” by On recto: J.E. Purdy & Co. Copyright by J.E. Purdy, Boston. – Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons –

There has been a lot of media attention on the “Je suis Charlie” movement after the execrable terrorist attack on Charlie Hebdo editorial staff. I’m not going to enter into the discussion of freedom of the press vs. respecting religious sensitivities. I am not familiar with Charlie Hebdo except from the news coverage. Broadly speaking, I defend press freedoms to the hilt while at the same time wanting to hold the press to standards of responsible journalism that recognize the power of images and rhetoric either to inflame or promote deeper understanding. I will leave the discussion of Charlie Hebdo to others.

What I would like to do is hold up an ideal of responsible journalism that I came across in reading Doris Kearns Goodwin’s wonderful The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism. One of the delightful surprises in her book is her account of some of the journalists that covered Roosevelt, Taft, and their age, particularly the group of journalists Sam McClure gathered to write for his monthly publication, McClure’s Magazine.

One of the figures who stands out, along with Lincoln Steffens, Ray Stannard Baker, and William Allen White is Ida M. Tarbell. For my Youngstown friends, she began her career as a teacher at Poland Seminary (now Poland Seminary High School in Poland, Ohio). She later went to France to pursue post graduate studies on the life of Madame Roland. It was here that McClure recruited her to write a series of articles on Napolean Bonaparte. Subsequently she researched and wrote a 20-part series on Abraham Lincoln that stood out particularly for the meticulous research into Lincoln’s childhood and youth.

Meticulous research marked everything Tarbell wrote, and nothing more than the 12 part series she wrote on John D. Rockefeller and Standard Oil that led to the breakup of Standard Oil’s monopoly on the oil business. She spent nearly three years doing careful research of depositions, company and government documents, interviews with oil producers forced out of business by Rockefeller, and even a partner of Standard Oil, Henry H. Rogers, who provided the company’s side on all that she was uncovering. She set a new standard for investigative journalism that indeed warrants Goodwin’s assertion of “golden age” for the journalism of her day.

This didn’t mean that she was “neutral” in her assessment of Standard Oil. Her meticulous research marshaled an incontrovertible case for illegal and monopolistic activity that provided the basis for the government’s efforts to break up the Standard Oil trust. Her measured consideration and refutation of corporate arguments made the case far more persuasive than a “hatchet job.”

If I were to identify with anyone journalistically, I would like to identify with people like Ida M. Tarbell, who were both careful and courageous in their writing. In an article titled “Muckraker or Historian,” cited in the Wikipedia article on Tarbell, she wrote:

“All the radical element, and I numbered many friends among them, were begging me to join their movements. I soon found that most of them wanted attacks. They had little interest in balanced findings. Now I was convinced that in the long run the public they were trying to stir would weary of vituperation, that if you were to secure permanent results the mind must be convinced.”

My question with our own age is whether this is the journalism we want, and are willing to pay for. To give a writer three years to research a story is probably more or less unheard of today. Yet the same internet that stresses news organizations’ viability also makes possible fact-checking that doesn’t always require physically crisscrossing the country as Tarbell did.

Maybe what this means is identifying the publications that are still striving for this ideal and supporting them with our subscriptions, or more. And maybe with my payment, I’ll send a note: “Je suis Ida.”