July 03, 2014


Ida M. Tarbell: The Woman Who Challenged Big Business—and Won! By Emily Arnold McCully. Clarion. $18.99.

Ain’t It Time We Said Goodbye: The Rolling Stones on the Road to Exile. By Robert Greenfield. Da Capo. $25.99.

     Times that were not historically so long ago seem positively ancient when explored with the detail to which these books are devoted. Emily Arnold McCully’s biography of McClure’s Magazine investigative journalist Ida M. Tarbell focuses primarily on events of a little more than a century ago, but Tarbell (1857-1944) comes quickly to seem like someone out of an ancient manuscript as McCully details her life, the world she grew up and worked in, and her attitudes. Had she wished, McCully could have made a parallel with the protagonist of an old-fashioned epic poem clear – after all, the author does mention that Tarbell was named Ida for a poem about a women’s college and given the middle name Minerva for the goddess of wisdom. The fact that McCully did not choose to pursue Tarbell’s name in more depth speaks to the author’s desire for a dose of hagiography, for the poem was Tennyson’s The Princess, an exceedingly long, tedious and rather ambiguous exploration of higher education for women that was most effectively parodied by Gilbert and Sullivan in Princess Ida – one of whose most famous arias has Ida calling on, yes, Minerva. Well, no matter: McCully is writing in the 21st century, at a time when businesses are again being cast repeatedly in a negative light by both genuine and self-indulgent, self-proclaimed reformers, and presumably the story of Ida Tarbell is therefore supposed to resonate with the younger readers for whom it is written. Actually, it would be a good thing if it did resonate, because Tarbell was a dogged reporter who worked long hours and did meticulous research, pushing back against societal expectations at a time when women had very few opportunities indeed. Tarbell is thus an excellent role model for anyone genuinely interested in getting to the bottom of corporate excesses rather than simply mouthing slogans; but this is not how McCully presents her. Instead, what readers get is a traditional and straightforward David-vs.-Goliath story, with Tarbell as the crusader whose views were honed in childhood and oil magnate John D. Rockefeller as the evil overlord mercilessly crushing all those unfortunate enough to get in his way. Actually, McCully is scarcely the first to portray Rockefeller this way, and certainly Rockefeller did engage in business practices that would never be condoned today (and then managed conveniently to forget details about what he did when he was called before government regulators). But by largely removing nuance from the descriptions of Rockefeller and Tarbell alike, McCully distances the story of their conflict over Standard Oil even more than time alone does.

     Many interesting elements of Tarbell’s investigations for McClure’s are mentioned only in passing. The magazine’s decision to focus on Standard Oil, for example, resulted largely from discussions that “prompted Ida to reminisce aloud at staff meetings about her childhood experience in the oil fields.” That is, Tarbell’s personal predisposition – her desire, in modern terms, to “get” Rockefeller and Standard Oil, because of her own early experiences (which McCully does mention) – lay at the heart of her investigation. This sort of personal “gotcha” element is scarcely unheard of in modern journalism, and could provide a connection with the 21st century for readers; but here it goes by quickly. Similarly, McCully gives only one paragraph to a key element of Tarbell’s investigation, which involved not digging but pure luck: an office boy at Standard Oil kept some documents about espionage and dirty tricks instead of destroying them as ordered, and those documents eventually were given to Tarbell. Again, parallels with modern investigations are clear but are never made here.  Still, McCully’s biography, however overly simplified, contains a great deal of fascinating material about a woman whose contributions are largely overlooked today because Tarbell herself was not, by modern standards, sufficiently politically correct. For example, she was indifferent to the issue of women’s suffrage and believed that “poverty, war, and ignorance could be defeated by education, but not by legislation.” Her “ideal society ran on goodwill, ethics, and natural law. Behavior could not be legislated, but must be implanted and nurtured – by women in their homes.” In our time, when legislation and government intrusion are cited by so many as the answers to so much, when many people do in fact believe (or out of their own ambitions profess to believe) that behavior and even thought can be legislated and forced into socially acceptable channels (that is, the ones deemed socially acceptable by those currently holding the reins of political power), Tarbell’s stance seems hopelessly old-fashioned; and thus, so does she. Tarbell deserves better, both as trustbuster (a thoroughly retrograde but accurate term) and as journalistic crusader in the same vein as the earlier, also-neglected Elizabeth Jane Cochrane (who wrote as Nellie Bly).  Women’s suffrage leader Jane Addams, hearing of Tarbell’s views on the subject, unkindly commented, “There is some limitation to Ida Tarbell’s mind,” and that seems to be the view today among those relatively few who know anything about Tarbell at all. Hopefully McCully’s book will inspire at least some young readers to learn more about Tarbell and her times than is contained in the book itself.

     Written for adults – ones old enough to remember when the Rolling Stones were a new and fresh band, and to care about those days many decades ago – Robert Greenfield’s Ain’t It Time We Said Goodbye is another of the many celebrities-behind-the-scenes books designed to show the pleasures and pitfalls of fame, money and “living large.” Like other exercises in celebrity voyeurism, it is intended to make readers imagine they are somehow “in the know” about people they really know nothing about – and, not incidentally, to proclaim that the author is in the know about the famous and does know a lot about them. Greenfield was 25 back in 1971, when the Stones went on their farewell tour of Great Britain before going into tax-related exile in France. How long ago that time seems, now that British taxation has been significantly moderated and the French political leadership has declared outright tax war on the rich! Greenfield was the only journalist who went with the Stones on their farewell-to-England tour, and he quite obviously took careful and copious notes: his chapters are meticulously dated, with Part One of the book (“Goodbye, Great Britain”) running from March 4 through March 30, 1971, and Part Two (“Aftermath”) going from March 25, 1971 (yes, there is a touch of overlap) through December 1972. Greenfield tries from the start to indicate how seminally important this tour was to the Stones’ later years: “[T]he future of the band seemed bright with rosy promise, [but] their [Mick Jagger’s and Keith Richards’] long-term friendship was about to finally fall apart, never to be repaired again.” Ain’t It Time We Said Goodbye, then, is not supposed to be read as merely an insider’s story of celebrities on tour more than 40 years ago – it is the chronicle of the end of an era as well as the beginning of a new one. Anybody who believes that the Rolling Stones are of earthshaking importance and their music and personalities worthy of intense attention and dissection (perhaps “vivisection” is more apt) will find Greenfield’s book attractive. Jagger’s personality swings and Richards’ heroin struggles are here, happening – along with the other events of the books – in the present tense, which means (for example) that “both Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin [are] less than six months dead.” Greenfield uses sections in italics to give his current perspective on the events detailed in the chapters: “Along with so much else the Stones had seen and done, Altamont was now firmly in their past. And so it should come as no surprise that no one on the tour ever talked about it again.” Greenfield makes it clear that following the Stones was only part of the work he was doing at the time for, yes, Rolling Stone magazine: “I stopped off in Paris to interview a high-ranking member of the North Vietnamese delegation to the Peace Talks which had already been going on for years without doing anything to end the war in Vietnam.” But clearly his heart and focus were with the band, and remain there all these years later. Those of Greenfield’s fellow aging baby boomers who were once deeply devoted to the Rolling Stones, and perhaps still are, will enjoy this foray into a dim past age by someone who, if scarcely involved in making musical or celebrity history, was certainly present while some portions of it were made.

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