Author: Ida Tarbell
Book: The History of the Standard Oil Company
Publisher: McClure’s Magazine, Vol. XX No. 1, November 1902
As we move through the literature of the Gilded Age, we begin to read more and more work written with the purpose of exposing the serious social problems of the era. The writers of these works became known as muckrakers, a term coined by Theodore Roosevelt (see fig. 1). The muckrakers emerged during the end of the nineteenth century and were constantly looking at the flaws and problems within society, with reform in mind.
Today in class we discussed the work of Ida Tarbell , an author, teacher, and journalist that became famous during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. She is best known for her book The History of the Standard Oil Company , which we read the beginning of for class. The book was published in McClure’s Magazine , a progressive magazine known for its muckraking journalism (see fig. 2).
Tarbell offers a detailed and factual look into the Standard Oil Company, its owner tycoon John D. Rockefeller, and how the company came into such power. Her goal is to give the readers, “a clear succinct notion of the processes by which a particular industry passes from the control of many to that of the few” (vii). She is offering a portrayal of an institution, rather than a personal account of her own experiences. This is different than what we’ve read previously, and offers us interesting insight into a more investigative type of journalism.
In order to relay her findings through her writing, Tarbell uses a distinct style that includes a factual and objective tone, long paragraphs, descriptive phrases and language, and the use of photos in her account. Many of these aspects are quite different than the style of Jack London, author of The People of the Abyss, and will be compared throughout this entry.
One of the most notable features of Tarbell’s writing is the enormous amount of investigative information she includes. In her preface, she lists five main sources for her findings: court testimonies, newspaper clippings, private correspondences, interviews, and her discussion with company officers (x). This is unlike many of the other literary journalism pieces we have read, in which the authors are simply giving us a firsthand account of their experiences and observations (as seen in London’s The People of the Abyss and Charles Dickens’s American Notes for the General Circulation).
Tarbell presents all of this research in a very factual, objective style. The book is filled with her straightforward, simple manner in which she offers the facts and lets the reader draw their own conclusions. She starts with the declarative statement, “One of the busiest corners of the globe at the opening of the year 1872 was a strip of Northwestern Pennsylvania, not over fifty miles long, known the world over as the Oil Regions” (1) and never wavers from stating the details.
One of the things we did notice was the lengthy paragraphs that Tarbell writes. This contrasted with Jack London’s use of short paragraphs in his personal account. Overall, the class seemed to view the shorter style as more favorable, but regardless of personal preference, the difference is still quite noticeable between the two authors. On one page in the magazine excerpt, a paragraph continues for the length of an entire column (12).
Within these long paragraphs, however, Tarbell displays her command of language. While she is very objective and factual, she still manages to insert descriptive language and creative comparisons that bring the details to life. One example of this is when she writes, “The story is a fair illustration both of the habits and the earnings of the Oil Creek teamsters. Indispensable to the business, they became the tyrants of the region- working and brawling as suited them, a class not unlike the flat-boatsmen who once gave color to life on the Mississippi, or the cowboys who make plains picturesque today” (8).
It is important to acknowledge the inclusion of photos in the book. Around this time, photos were becoming more and more popular in accompanying journalist pieces, including in The People of the Abyss, and Tarbell followed this trend in McClure’s Magazine. Throughout the carefully organized pages are maps of the regions, pictures of the landscapes being described, and portraits of the famous men, like the one below (see figure 3). The photos make the writing visually and aesthetically appealing.
All the while, Tarbell is exposing the monopolizing ways of the Standard Oil Company as Rockefeller becomes the wealthiest man in the country. Her muckraking book was actually credited with speeding up the breakup of Standard Oil – showing how powerful literary journalism can be.