Pointed contrasting portraits of the pioneering investigative journalist and the titan of industry.
Weinberg (Journalism/Univ. of Missouri; Telling the Untold Story: How Investigative Reporters are Changing the Craft of Biography, 1992, etc.) recounts the connections that both figures had with the oil industry: Tarbell (1857–1944) grew up around the oil fields of Titusville, Pa., and witnessed the effects on her father’s small business of the growing trust established by Rockefeller (1839–1937). The author contrasts their childhoods: Rockefeller’s was unstable, his mother harsh, his father a conman and a bigamist; Tarbell had a traditional middle-class background. Weinberg shows Rockefeller struggling to get an education and Tarbell becoming a biology major at Allegheny College, the only female graduate in the class of 1880. He then follows Tarbell’s subsequent career as editor and reporter for the Chautauquan, her years as a freelance journalist in Paris and her move to New York City to become an editor and investigative journalist for McClure’s magazine. (Rockefeller mostly drops out of the narrative here.) After producing two circulation-boosting series on Napoleon and Lincoln, she tackled Standard Oil, writing a serialized exposé of the trust’s business practices that when published in book form became her most famous work, The History of the Standard Oil Company. The author details Tarbell’s painstaking research into government documents, court records, newspaper files and church records, as well as her extensive interviews with Standard Oil executive Henry Rogers; extensive quotations reveal the eloquence and clarity of her prose. Tarbell’s investigation, Weinberg reminds us, aroused public resentment against Rockefeller and Standard Oil that led to the government’s legal actions against the petroleum trust and eventually to its breakup in 1911.
Rockefeller remains a sketchy figure, but Tarbell emerges as a remarkably intelligent, diligent and principled woman with great independence of spirit.