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Book Review

Revisiting a clash between Gilded Age titan and reformer

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Patrick J.Walsh
July 3, 2008

Taking On the Trust: The Epic Battle
of Ida Tarbell and John D. Rockefeller
- How an Investigative Journalist
Brought Down Standard Oil
By Steve Weinberg Norton,
304 pp., illustrated, $25.95

"What is the chief end of man? - to get rich . . . dishonestly if we can; honestly if we must."

So wrote Mark Twain in "The Revised Catechism," an 1871 article in the New York Tribune. He declared that "gold and greenbacks and stock" were America's Holy Trinity, and later labeled the period following the Civil War the "Gilded Age."

Steve Weinberg's well-written "Taking On the Trust" chronicles this epoch when enormous fortunes were made by men like John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, Jay Gould, Cornelius Vanderbilt, and J.P. Morgan, names still synonymous with money. Rising wealth was matched by increases in immigration. Between the years 1860 and 1900 the US population soared from 36 million to 76 million. Many immigrants sought work in industry and lived in cities, transforming a rural republic into a secular urban industrial empire. Trade unions rose to battle corporations. "Taking On the Trust," the author says, is a "hybrid of biography and dramatic narrative," but it is more a period history told through the lives of Ida Tarbell and Rockefeller, since the epic battle between the two figures takes up only some 70 pages at the end of the book. Weinberg, a teacher/journalist, has a high regard for Tarbell yet is scrupulously fair in his treatment of Rockefeller. The best part of this well-researched book describes the businessman's rise to power.

Having founded the Standard Oil Co. in 1870, by 1877 he controlled 90 percent of the US oil market. A shrewd businessman, Rockefeller became highly adept at securing bank loans, acquiring discount rates from railroads for transporting his oil, and buying out his competitors. Some corporations - especially the sugar, beef, and whiskey industries - sought to squeeze out competition by creating a monopoly, or trust. Standard Oil became the most notorious.

As the Gilded Age melded into the Progressive era, trusts came under the scrutiny of reformers seeking relief from the excesses of unregulated capitalism. In 1902 McClure's magazine published the first of a series by Tarbell exposing the misdeeds of Standard Oil. Tarbell experienced these firsthand; her father had been an oil refiner in western Pennsylvania. Her research and attention to detail set the journalistic standard for what came to be known as investigative reporting. The two-year exposé of Standard Oil caused a public sensation among Americans appalled by the company's lack of fair play. Tarbell portrayed the company as a dread power, cruel, omniscient, always ready to spring, and charged Rockefeller with "commercial Machiavellism."

Under fire, Rockefeller maintained a strict public silence. Privately, he retaliated by calling his nemesis Miss Tar Barrel. McClure's published its series in the book "The History of the Standard Oil Company." A bestseller, it spawned further legal investigations, leading to a landmark Supreme Court decision that dissolved the Standard Oil trust in 1911.

In his 1953 biography, "Study in Power: John D. Rockefeller, Industrialist and Philanthropist," historian Allan Nevins made clear his appreciation for Tarbell's book but took exception to her "shrill abuse of Rockefeller." The tycoon suffered from a generalized alopecia that made him bald and left him without eyebrows or eyelashes, and Tarbell described him as "the oldest man in the world - a living mummy."

Weinberg observes that Tarbell and Rockefeller shared a few characteristics: "puritanical values, extreme self-sufficiency, outsized persistence, regard for work as a lifetime calling." Both also held a standard faith in capitalism and in the worldly creed of material progress. The book's black-and-white photographs seem to accentuate the two figures' drab personalities, along with an era much like our own - materially rich but spiritually impoverished.

Patrick J. Walsh is a writer in Quincy.

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