Tarbell & Standard Oil

November 5: The investigative journalist Ida Tarbell was born on this day in 1857. Tarbell disliked her reputation as a muckraker, regarding that term as a disservice to her painstaking research. Her History of the Standard Oil Company (1904), the book which established her fame, builds a dispassionate, documentary case against Standard Oil's monopolistic practices, though it clearly sympathizes with the unions, the sincere politicians, and the small oil producers—Tarbell's father had worked for one—who experienced "the hush of defeat, of cowardice, of hopelessness." In her Appendix, Tarbell provides a more personal profile of Standard Oil's CEO, John D. Rockefeller, portraying him as bloodless, systematic, and inescapable:

Now, it takes time to secure and to keep that which the public has decided it is not for the general good that you have. It takes time and caution to perfect anything which must be concealed. It takes time to crush men who are pursuing legitimate trade. But one of Mr. Rockefeller's most impressive characteristics is patience. There never was a more patient man, or one who could dare more while he waited. The folly of hurrying, the folly of discouragement, for one who would succeed, went hand in hand. Everything must be ready before he acted, but while you wait you must prepare, must think, work. "You must put in, if you would take out." His instinct for the money opportunity in things was amazing, his perception of the value of seizing this or that particular invention, plant, market, was unerring. He was like a general who, besieging a city surrounded by fortified hills, views from a balloon the whole great field, and sees how, this point taken, that must fall; this hill reached, that fort is commanded. And nothing was too small: the corner grocery in Browntown, the humble refining still on Oil Creek, the shortest private pipe line. Nothing, for little things grow.

Following the success of her attack upon male, corporate America, Tarbell was approached by the leading feminists of the day, who hoped to capitalize on her fame as a voice for change. Far from supporting the feminist cause, Tarbell wrote two books in defense of the traditional gender roles. Perhaps expressing her own regrets at being unmarried and childless, she glorified motherhood as a woman's best and only true job: "Learning, business careers, political and industrial activities—none of these things is more than incidental in the national task of woman."


Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John's, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

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