IDA TARBELL: Portrait of a Muckraker by Kathleen Brady

IDA TARBELL: Portrait of a Muckraker

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This is, as stated, the first full-length biography of muckraking journalist/author Ida Tarbell (1857-1944). Given her contemporary renown, on a par with Jane Addams' and Lincoln Steffens', and the lasting importance of her History of Standard Oil, that's an odd oversight--explainable partly perhaps by Tarbell's having written her autobiography (All in the Day's Work, 1939), but also perhaps by her having been an anti-feminist. That's what piques Brady: this is a poor book--stilted and trite as a life-story, a near-blank on journalistic history, sub-textbook on the Progressive movement--made even worse by constant nattering about what-kind-of-woman Tarbell was. She evidently had no sexual relationships of any kind. To Brady, ""she doubtless had the curiosity and apprehensions of any eligible girl,"" she had many prospective suitors (each described), she probably had a romance going with both her dynamic boss, publisher/editor S. S. McClure, and his steady second-in-command, John Phillips--all of which is conjecture, seemingly directed to claiming that, in her eventual elevation of the homemaker's role, Tarbell was saying that ""she had misspent her own life."" Well, maybe--but maybe, despite her exceptional curiosity and drive, she was essentially conservative. That would also explain the central dichotomy in Tarbell's life that Brady doesn't address--between her early, severe dissection of Standard Oil and her later, broadly pro-business writings. (It might be, too, that her pursuit of Standard Oil did stem directly from her father's victimization by Rockefeller, as some of her contemporaries said.) On Tarbell's career generally--editing The Chataquan, Paris freelancing, ""the McClure's gang"" and break-up, lecture tours, early and late bios (and ghosting)--she herself is a far richer, livelier source. (For the life and times of McClure's, there's Peter Lyon's splendid biography of S.S.) Brady has been to the archives, spliced in some incidental detail, added particulars on Tarbell's typically dreary final years (dependent and unstable relatives, declining health, a pesky hanger-on, money problems). But there's no grasp of the subject, no zest in the presentation.

Pub Date: Sept. 28th, 1984
ISBN: 0822958074
Publisher: Seaview/Putnam