Monday, July 07, 2014

Times A'Changin'! Ida M. Tarbell:The Woman Who Challenged Big Business and Won! by Emily Arnold McCully

Sometime between the Civil War and the turn of the twentieth century, a new America evolved. The world lighted by candles and whale oil lamps flickered out as the energy wars began.

Coal became the fuel of industry, followed by the petroleum first found in Pennsylvania, and both bred huge conglomerates, the mega-corporations, the "trusts," which evolved with the power to set prices and wages and fueled the growth of an urban working class.

And into this world came Ida Tarbell, ironically raised in the very area of Pennsylvania where "Seneca Oil" bubbled to the surface. The hard-driving John D. Rockefeller realized that there was an unforeseen market for refined oil, first to replace the limited whale oil in lamps, but soon put to use to power engines in turbines, tractors, and, of course, automobiles. Ida's parents were both educated as teachers, but Ida's father was eventually drawn into the developing petroleum industry and eventually driven out of business by Rockefeller's first trust, a consortium of banks and railroads and petroleum producers.

A much-loved first child, Ida M. (Minerva for the goddess of knowledge) Tarbell was a headstrong but promising student, and unlike most young women of her time, she was college educated, graduating from Allegheny College, an early advocate of coeducation. But finding full-time employment as a woman was difficult, and after a year of teaching, Ida moved on to become a writer for the Chautauquan, where she was predictably given the "women's viewpoint" articles. Restless, she began to freelance, and her skill at fact-based reporting drew the attention of one Sam McClure, the mercurial and manic aspiring editor of what he conceived to be a new journalistic form, an intellectual public policy magazine that would eclipse Scribner's, Harper's, and Cosmopolitan. McClure founded his eponymous McClure's Magazine in 1893, with Ida Tarbell on board.

Ida's penchant for research and straightforward informative writing suited McClure's readers. Ida established herself as a serious journalist with her serialized biographies of Napoleon and Abraham Lincoln.

Ida reminisced aloud at staff meetings about her childhood experience in the oilfields. She had seen the birth of the oil industry firsthand; she remembered the early signs that Rockefeller was out to dominate.

Listening to Ida, [her editors] realized that her life experience, along with her writerly and scholarly skills, uniquely equipped her to tell the story of the Standard Oil Trust--the mother of all trusts, the only one created by a single man. Ida reluctantly agreed to take it on.

But Ida soon ran into a missing documents mystery. It was evident that Rockefeller had actually bought up copies of records and articles which revealed his ruthless acquisitions. Dogged in her digging, Ida finally found two damning documents. A librarian in Baltimore located one of only three surviving copies of a revealing pamphlet about Rockefeller, and a copy boy provided her with company documents slated to be burned. Tarbell had what she needed. In November of 1902 McClure's published the first installment of her magnum opus, "The History of the Standard Oil Company."  The issue sold out immediately, and circulation boomed.

John D. Rockefeller was forever established as the poster child for "robber barons," and Ida Tarbell was famous.

Ida's rise as an investigative journalist paralleled the rise of Teddy Roosevelt, who used the groundswell of ire begun by her expose' to fuel his historic "trust-busting" presidency. Ida Tarbell's so-called "muckraking" articles secured her a place in the Progressive pantheon, and her "just the facts" style set the mark for future writers. After Ida Tarbell and her flamboyant contemporary, "Nelly Bly," (Elisabeth Cochran), no one could rationally argue that women couldn't hack it in the world of journalism.

Caldecott author Emily Arnold McCully's extensive biography, Ida M. Tarbell: The Woman Who Challenged Big Business--and Won! (Houghton Mifflin Clarion, 2014) tells the story of a unique woman who helped define her times and our own. Ida herself would approve of McCully's meticulous research and fair and straightforward writing. This is a book that belongs in school and public libraries as part of the story of the making of modern American life. For student researchers, Arnold's text is filled with photographs and provides an appendix which includes extensive notes and bibliography, including selected writings by her subject and a link to Tarbell's complete works, and a full index. A timeline of Tarbell and her times would have also been helpful, however.

School Library Journal's starred review says "Readers will not only get a feel for Tarbell, but they'll also get a sense of the changing world she inhabited."

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