Sunday, November 5, 2017

Muckraker or historian?

Ida Tarbell, muckraker or more accurately one of the first ever investigative journalists, was born 160 years ago today. She came to fame in the first years of the 20th century for a detailed exposé of how John D. Rockefeller had, at times illegally, built up his Standard Oil company. She kept a diary briefly, when in the public limelight because of the Standard Oil revelations; and this has been used by one biographer. Images of the diary manuscript have been made publicly available thanks to her alma mater, Allegheny College.

Tarbell was born on 5 November 1857 in Erie County, northwest Pennsylvania, but the family moved in 1860 to Titusville, a centre for new oil production. Her father, a carpenter, built wooden oil storage tanks, although later he became an oil producer and refiner, and would suffer when the railroads and large oil producers agreed a price fixing scheme. Ida did well at school and and went on to study biology at Allegheny College in 1876, the only woman in her class, and then to work as a teacher at Poland Union Seminary in Ohio. After a couple of years teaching, she decided she preferred writing, and turned to journalism. She found employment with The Chautauquan, a teaching supplement for home study courses. In 1886, she progressed to become the publication’s managing editor.

In 1890 Tarbell moved to Paris to research a biography of Madame Roland for her postgraduate studies. To support herself, she wrote short features on prominent Frenchwomen and Parisian life for a syndicate affiliated with Samuel McClure’s magazine. McClure then offered her a staff position on his magazine, for which she wrote, first, a popular series on Napoleon Bonaparte, and then, once back in the US and based in Washington D.C., another on Abraham Lincoln. The articles were collected into a book, and made her name as a writer and an expert on Lincoln. She moved to New York City, where McClure’s was based in 1898, and in 1902 began a series of articles which would become her most famous work: The History of the Standard Oil Company. This was the result of much detailed investigative research (before the concept of investigative journalism existed). While praising Standard Oil’s owner John D. Rockefeller for various accomplishments, she also exposed the illegal means by which he had monopolised the oil industry in its early years. Popular opinion labelled her type of journalism as ‘muckraking’ though she considered herself more of a historian.

In 1906, Tarbell purchased a country retreat in Easton, Connecticut, with 40 acres, though for the next 18 years she continued to live in New York City, only retiring to Easton aged 67. That same year, 1906, Tarbell left McClure’s and spent most of the subsequent decade writing for American Magazine, which she co-edited. She also wrote books, including The Business of Being a Woman, The Ways of Women (which put her at odds with the suffragist movement of the era) and an autobiography (in 1939), All in the Day’s Work (which includes a chapter Muckraker or Historian?). Many of these are freely available online at Internet Archive. She also served as a member of various government conferences and committees concerned with defence, industry, unemployment, and other issues. She died in 1994. Further information is available from Wikipedia, Allegheny College,,, or Connecticut History.

Although not a well known name internationally, Tarbell’s reputation nationally has not dimmed in time, and a good number of books have been written about her, or with her as their main focus: Ida M. Tarbell: The woman who challenged big business - and won by Emily McCully; Taking on the Trust: How Ida Tarbell Brought Down John D. Rockefeller and Standard Oil by Steve Weinberg; and Muckrakers: How Ida Tarbell, Upton Sinclair, and Lincoln Steffens Helped Expose Scandal, Inspire Reform, and Invent Investigative Journalism by Ann Bausum. However, the definitive biography of Tarbell is considered to be Kathleen Brady’s Ida Tarbell: Portrait of a Muckraker (Putnam, 1984, subsequently University of Pittsburgh Press, 1989). A good portion of this can be read freely online at Googlebooks.

Brady’s biography is the only one, as far as I can tell, to make use of a diary Tarbell kept briefly during the period that the Standard Oil articles were making her famous. She includes a few short extracts in Chapter Eight: Unexplored Land. (F
or clarity I have italicised those paragraphs I’ve taken directly from Brady’s narrative.)

‘So much was happening,’ Brady writes, ‘that even she [Tarbell], who said she always shrank from self-knowledge, felt that she somehow had to sort things out. She was overwhelmed by reaction to the Standard story - especially since she originally doubted that anyone would care to read it. She was shaken by the death of her father and the hedonism of Sam McClure. Tarbell felt the need of a faithful companion, and so she bought a diary. In the next year, much would be written there.’

Brady continues: ‘As she struggled under the strains of the magazine, she thought she might be able to write her problems away by confiding them to a journal. She opened her small leather diary, took up her pen, and wrote: “May 5, 1905. Bought nearly two months ago and not a word written - bought as books of this kind have been before for a companion and so dead to life I could not use a companion. There has come a point where it is life or death-in-life - and I am not willing to give up life. If the innermost accesses are to be entered I must go there alone. I am conscious so much of myself is evading me. And this poor little book is a feeble prop in my effort to reach the land I've never explored.”

Her diary was a safety valve which allowed her to release her strongest emotions. Her first long entry there revealed a very flustered woman with a great reservoir of romantic love and no perspective when it came to a man who impressed her. James was at that time revisiting America after an absence of twenty years. Enthusiastic reception to The Golden Bowl brought him the opportunity of a lecture tour. Having traveled through the South, the Midwest, and California, he was at the end of his journey and back for a last visit to New England. George W. Cable, then a prominent writer of stories set in the South, hosted a dinner to precede James's lecture and invited the Hazens, the writer Gerald Stanley Lee and his wife, and Ida Tarbell. She at first declined the honor. She wrote in her diary: “All the rudeness - the ignorance, the imbecility, and inarticulateness of my life flared up in me and I blushed to think of sitting near. But they wanted me and I wanted to go. I dared to do it. I lay awake nights thinking of it. Afraid and eager. For I knew there was something there for me.”

She so yearned for James’s esteem, it seemed no one else’s had ever mattered. “It is a thirst for his particular formal assurance I’m on the right road. I’m real as far as I go. I am not a sham - that the soul is not dead or sleeping for the soul is there  - the being one with its noble walk, its wide vision knows that is something. I wanted to be assured. How pitiful I am!” [. . .]

She wrote staccato fashion in her diary: “I might have done better, was sadly conscious all the time that was the end of HJ for us. Am in a funk of soul because there could be no more. We talked a little of Paris, its charm. I know what she says to him. She says it to me too well - that much in common! I told him how I missed him chez Daudet and when he left he said, ‘I hope we shall not miss again.’ ”

Still under the spell of James she wrote: “A great leap and then dull renunciation! Que bon? I am not equal to it. But I deliberately sought another chance to see him. He had asked when I went home. I said I went to Boston and he was - or did I fancy it - disappointed! Ce qu’on veut il voit!” ’

And then, a few pages later, Brady refers to Tarbell in three more (separate) paragraphs as she goes into some detail as to how Tarbell and other staff members, affronted morally by McClure’s adultery, left his employ.

‘To it was added the lingering hurt of his philandering and her need for a change. When [Tarbell] started her diary, it seemed she had no place to run. Now seven months later it seemed that if escape was needed, she could flee Sam McClure. Her rupture from The Chautauquan nearly fifteen years before lifted the dead weight of closed opportunities and approaching age. Might she have thought in her innermost self, her “land I've never explored,” that the way to rejuvenate herself was to rebel? To give up security and opt, as she had done in her youth, for freedom?’

‘McClure frantically tried to discuss it with Ida, but she said [John] Phillips [an associate editor] would speak for her. She scribbled in her diary: “Persisted only that I didn’t like the whole business [of the insurance company and so on] - the way it had been done - all the crazy features (he seems to acknowledge craziness now).” McClure was dumbstruck to learn that Tarbell preferred Phillips to him. Tumultuous days followed.’

‘The financial state of McClure’s was so complicated and the principals so emotional that matters were not settled for a year. Boyden, Steffens, Baker, Siddall, Dunne, David McKinlay of the book company, and McClure’s cousin Harry joined Tarbell and Phillips in their walkout. As for her diary, Ida Tarbell never felt the need to write in it again.’

Allegheny College’s Pelletier Library holds a substantial archive of Tarbell’s papers, including a very small amount of diary material: three pages from 1888, and the more substantial 25 page document from 1905-1906. Much of the archive - including the two diary manuscripts - is available to view as pdfs on the college’s website (though Tarbell’s handwriting is hard to read at times, and there is no transcription).

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