The crusading American journalist Ida Minerva Tarbell (1857-1944) is known as the muckraker who cracked the oil trust. She was also an outstanding biographer of Abraham Lincoln.
Ida Tarbell was born on Nov. 5, 1857, in Erie County, Pa., the daughter of a small oilman driven to the wall by the Rockefeller oil monopoly. Tarbell, unlike many famous people, spent an unusually well-adjusted childhood and had a healthy appreciation of her parents. She wrote of the log house in which she was born and of the pleasant memories it gave her. She felt loved and was perhaps even smug about it.
In Titusville High School, Tarbell led her class and decided never to marry. She took a bachelor of arts degree at Allegheny College in 1880. In 1882 she became a staff member of the Chautauquan newspaper and eventually became its managing editor. Driven by desire for more education, she went to Paris and studied at the Sorbonne and the University of Paris from 1891 to 1894, sustaining herself by writing magazine articles. She was with McClure's Magazine from 1894 to 1896, when she became associate editor of the American Magazine; she remained in that post until 1915.
Tarbell's fame for biography rests mainly on her two-volume Life of Abraham Lincoln (1900). However, in Paris she also did studies of Madame de Staël (1894), Napoleon Bonaparte (1895), Madame Roland (1896), Judge Elbert H. Gary (1925), and an "ideal businessman, " Owen D. Young (1932). Eight of her books relate to Lincoln. Nevertheless, when she shifted to Lincolniana, her heart fell, and she told herself, "If you once get into American history …, that will finish France." It did mean the end of great attention to her other projects, her desire to determine the nature of revolutions, and any important contribution to women's rights.
Tarbell is particularly well known for her two-volume History of the Standard Oil Company (1904), first issued as a 19-installment series in McClure's. Despite her reputation as a trustbuster, she came to the defense of American business in her later years. Her book on Young, plus other writings at the time, were expressions of hope and faith in a new kind of businessman. She supported "socialized democracy" and was opposed to left-flank movements, which she said would make people "mere cogs in a machine."
Tarbell died of pneumonia in Bridgeport, Conn., on Jan. 6, 1944. The New York Times noted editorially that "her mind and personality never took age, they simply matured in richness and wisdom."
Tarbell's autobiography, All in the Day's Work (1939), is easily the most informative and helpful work relating to her. Harold S. Wilson, McClure's Magazine and the Muckrakers (1970), has extensive biographical and background material on her life and career. See also Cornelius C. Regier, The Era of the Muckrakers (1932), and David Mark Chalmers, The Social and Political Ideas of the Muckrakers (1964).