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Ida Minerva Tarbell is recalled as the writer who blew the whistle on the first and most powerful trust in America. The History of the Standard Oil Company, her most important work, was published in 1904 and immediately convinced the public that the Standard Oil Company and its imitators in other industries threatened the underpinning of democracy—equal opportunity. The Supreme Court of the United States eventually concurred; in a 1911 decision the Court decreed the breakup of Standard Oil. Tarbell became known as the Joan of Arc of the oil regions, a historian who not only recorded history but also helped powerfully to shape it.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Born of Pioneers
Ida Tarbell was born in 1857 on the Erie County, Pennsylvania, farm of her maternal grandparents, known to history only as the McCulloughs. She came from a long line of Scottish and English ancestors who had first arrived on the continent in the seventeenth century and had continued ever since to push west. At the time of her birth, her mother, Esther Ann Tarbell, was staying with her parents while her husband Franklin sought new farmland in Iowa. Two years after Ida’s birth, the discovery of oil about forty miles south of the McCullough farm sent Franklin Tarbell on a new quest and launched the family into the oil age. He built a shanty in a settlement near the oil fields, where he would become a successful prospector and driller.
The Standard Oil Takeover
During Tarbell’s high school days, John D. Rockefeller and his associates in the Standard Oil Company swiftly completed a takeover of the Pennsylvania oil regions. Although many able independent drillers joined Standard, Tarbell refused. He was outraged by the South Improvement Company, a scheme through which Standard meant to ruin competitors by high freight rates arrived at in collusion with the railroad companies, while at the same time receiving from the railroads secret rebates from their own and their rivals’ shipments. This particular scheme was discovered in time to prevent its implementation, but Tarbell and his daughter remained convinced that Standard gained control of the oil industry through such unfair and illegal means.
Pursuing a Career
Despite her father’s troubles in the oil industry, Tarbell went on to attend Allegheny College in Meadville, Pennsylvania, where she was the only female member of her freshman class. Her college years were rewarding; she profited from her academic program, majored in biology, and managed to avoid what she considered the pitfall of marriage. She graduated in 1880, aware that her desire to continue her studies in biology at the graduate level would remain a dream.
Nevertheless, Tarbell continued to refuse to marry and focused instead on pursuing a career. After two unhappy years as a teacher, she took an unofficial job as managing editor of a Meadville-based magazine, Chatauquan. Though she was never officially recognized for her work, she developed a passion for writing, along with an interest in prominent women during the French Revolution that would lead her to study historiography, at age thirty-three, in Paris, France.
While in France, Tarbell supported herself as a free-lance writer of articles on Parisian life. Her work caught the eye of Samuel McClure, founder of McClure’s Magazine, who commissioned her to write a serialized biography of Napoleon Bonaparte for his magazine. The articles, which were extremely popular among the magazine’s readership, were published as Tarbell’s first book-length work, A Short Life of Napoleon Bonaparte, in 1895.
Encouraged by the success of Tarbell’s Napoleon biography, Scribners published Madame Roland: A Biographical Study in 1896. The book did not sell well, but it is a benchmark in Tarbell’s development as a historian/ biographer. Her next assignment, a biography of Abraham Lincoln, brought her more fame and the magazine more fortune.
Muckraking: A New Direction in Journalism
Around 1900 McClure and his staff, which included Ray Stannard Baker and Lincoln Steffens, became restless. They were seeking originality, a new direction in journalism that would attract readers. They decided on muckraking, the practice of digging up dirt on people, businesses, and institutions to reveal their flaws to the public. McClure assigned Tarbell to cover the history of Standard Oil, Baker to probe the practices of labor unions, and Steffens to sniff out municipal corruption. From 1902 to 1904 these writers revealed to eager readers the injustices and corruption that permeated big business, labor, and politics, and lambasted the sleazy morality that tolerated them.
The History of the Standard Oil Company, published in 1904, marks the high point of Tarbell’s achievement and probably that of muckraking journalism. Seven years after its publication, the Supreme Court ruled to dissolve Standard Oil’s holding company. The connection between her work and the Supreme Court decision was pointed out by American historian Charles D. Hazen: ”Miss Tarbell is the only historian I have ever heard of whose findings were corroborated by the Supreme Court of the United States.” In 1906, after a policy dispute with the tempestuous and erratic McClure, most of his staff, including editor John S. Phillips, Tarbell, Baker, and Steffens, quit. They bought the American magazine from Frederick L. Colver and started production of a magazine that imitated the one they had helped bring to great popularity and influence. Capitalizing on her success with Standard Oil, Tar-bell ran a series titled The Tariff in Our Times from 1906 to 1911, the year it was published in book form.
The Woman Question
From 1909 through 1913 Tarbell wrote three series of articles on women. Despite her belief in equal opportunity in business, and despite her own status as a woman, she argued against women’s suffrage, or right to vote—a question that was being much debated at the time. Historians have struggled to reconcile these two seemingly contradictory opinions. A recent feminist theory holds that Tarbell accepted the fact of male dominance as a necessary norm, believing that women were not up to full equality. Others believe that Tarbell, an advocate of gradual change, saw the suffrage movement as revolutionary and therefore damaging to society as a whole. The question, however, has never been satisfactorily resolved.
The End of Muckraking
After World War I, Tarbell became once again a freelance writer and lecturer. She did not, however, return to her previous successes for inspiration; she felt that muckraking journalism had served its purpose and that big business practices had changed. Her laudatory biography The Life of Elbert H. Gary: The Story of Steel appeared in 1925 and was considered by many critics a betrayal of her earlier views. But, she maintained she had not changed; business had.
Tarbell’s last major history of business was published in 1936, when she was seventy-nine years old. It was The Nationalizing of Business, 1878-1898,vol-ume 9 of the distinguished A History of American Life series edited by Arthur M. Schlesinger Sr. and Dixon Ryan Fox. The fact that Tarbell was invited to contribute to this series is ample evidence of respect for her among academic historians, who by 1936 were largely predominant in the field of history.
All in the Day’s Work, Tarbell’s autobiography, was published in 1939 near the end of her long and productive life. Self-revelation was not easy for Tarbell, and her care to observe the proprieties results in lack of color. In the latter part of the autobiography, however, a chronicle of her many activities as a writer and public figure demonstrates a love of work and a zest for the life she chose.
Tarbell died of pneumonia at the age of eighty-six in a Bridgeport, Connecticut, hospital near her home. She was returned to Titusville to rest in Woodlawn Cemetery among kinfolk and neighbors whose rights she had so valiantly defended.
Works in Literary Context
Tarbell is best known for her biographies and her history of the Standard Oil Company. The latter was one of the first book-length works ever published that could be considered muckraking, and it became one of the most influential books of the age.
Biography, according to seventeenth-century British dramatist John Dryden, is ”history of particular men’s lives.” Like the definition itself, the authorship of biography has been historically dominated by men. Tar-bell’s contribution to the genre, however, was exceptional not only in the fact that she was a woman, but also in that, at the time of its publication, Tarbell’s Life of Abraham Lincoln was the most extensively detailed and accurate biography of Lincoln ever written. It remained a standard work of study until 1947, when the Lincoln papers to which she had been forbidden access were finally released to scholars.
Muckraking, a style of journalism pioneered by Tarbell and her fellow writers at McClure’s Magazine, was heralded in January 1903 with the appearance of several articles on municipal government, labor, and trusts, written by Tarbell, Steffens, and Baker. The movement as such largely disappeared between 1910 and 1912. Among the novels produced by muckrakers were Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle (1906), about the meat-packing industry in Chicago, and Brand Whitlock’s The Turn of the Balance (1907), which opposed capital punishment.
Tarbell is considered a pioneer of the muckraking movement, as her articles on Standard Oil were some of the first ever to be published in the movement. She herself, however, saw the movement not as a permanent shift in journalistic style, but as a response to a need for societal change. Tarbell’s biography The Life of Elbert H. Gary: The Story of Steel, published fourteen years after her last great muckraking work, demonstrates through its laudatory depiction of its subject that she felt muckraking had served its purpose.
Works in Critical Context
In both biography and journalism, Tarbell was widely acclaimed during her lifetime by critics and readers. Her work had a profound influence on the politics of business during the early twentieth century, and her biographies of Abraham Lincoln and Napoleon were considered authoritative for several decades after their publication. Today, due to later biographies that have displaced hers in the literary canon, Tarbell is remembered almost solely for her great contribution to muckraking journalism and to American business ethics: The History of the Standard Oil Company.
The History of the Standard Oil Company
The History of the Standard Oil Company, though actually written at a turning point in Tarbell’s career, is generally acknowledged as her most important work. Writing just after its publication in 1904, George Alger stated: ”It is impossible for us to read this story and miss its meaning. . . . The enormous evil which finds graphic illustration in her book is the power which the transportation companies have been given over the accumulation and distribution of wealth in this country.” Though the problem to which Alger referred had been felt by American citizens for many years, it had not been successfully articulated until the appearance of Tarbell’s book.
Modern critics continue to point to the immense importance of this work. Though Mary Tomkins states in her 1974 essay that ”all the other productions of [Tarbell’s] variegated career are forgotten”—a statement that is no longer true— she also remarks, ”The historic encounter between Ida Tarbell and the forces represented by the Standard Oil Company lives on in the public’s memory… [because] the issues she raised . . . have continued to be of vital ongoing concern for the nation.”
- Brady, Kathleen. Ida Tarbell: Portrait of a Muckraker. New York: Seaview/Putnam’s, 1984.
- Marzolf, Marion. Civilizing Voices: American Press Criticism, 1880-1950. New York: Longman, 1991.
- Schudson, Michael. Discovering the News: A Social History of American Newspapers. New York: Basic Books, 1978.
- Tarbell, Ida. Allin the Day’sWork. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2003.
- Tomkins, Mary E. Ida M. Tarbell. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1974.
- Alger, George. ”Miss Tarbell’s ‘History of the Standard Oil Company’: How the Railroad Makes the Trust.” McClure’s Magazine 24, no. 2 (Christmas 1904): 217-223.
- Reitman, Janet. ”The Muckraker vs. the Millionaire.” Scholastic Update, Teachers’ Edition, 131 (November 1988).
- ”The Dismantling of the Standard Oil Trust.” The Linux Information Project. Accessed November 25, 2008, from http://www.bellevuelinux.org/standardoil.html.
- ”People and Events: Ida Tarbell, 1857-1944.” The Rockefellers: A Family of Wealth and Power. Accessed November 25, 2008, from http://www.pbs.org/ wgbh/amex/rockefellers/index.html.
- ”Trusts [and] Monopolies.” 1896: The Presidential Campaign. Accessed November 25, 2008, from http://projects.vassar.edu/1896/trusts.html.
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