By Nancy Huntting
With a consideration of the life of Ida Tarbell, courageous journalist & “muckraker.”
Eli Siegel has explained, after centuries, what the deepest hope of every person is: to like the world on an honest or accurate basis. I learned that the chief cause of pain in my life was that I, like every person, also had another hope, opposed to my deepest hope.
I was asked in an Aesthetic Realism consultation when I was 27: “Do you think you came to a picture of the world that had too much contempt in it?” Yes, I had. Aesthetic Realism defines contempt as “the lessening of what is different from oneself as a means of self-increase as one sees it.”
The reason I felt so heavy and stuck and lonely was, I began to see, because I hoped to find flaws in the world and in people, so I could feel I was better than them all. My desire to be superior had me not want to know or see good in others. I often acted amenable and sweet because I wanted people to like me, but actually I was quite cold and selfish.
When I learned my purpose in life was to like the world, and as I recognized and criticized my contempt, I began to have feelings about people and the world that made me proud and I became a kinder person. I believe it is this education every woman is hoping for!
Tonight I will be speaking about aspects of the life of an important woman early in the 20th century, Ida Tarbell, first widely known in 1900 for her Life of Abraham Lincoln, and as one of the foremost “muckrakers,” journalists who criticized economic and political injustice, for her book The History of Standard Oil in 1904. Eli Siegel mentions The History of Standard Oil in one of his historic Goodbye Profit System lectures, saying it is “one of the notable works by a woman.”
In her expose of Standard Oil, Ida Tarbell was passionately against injustice; and, she wrote about the large good meaning she saw in Lincoln. But in 1924 Ida Tarbell wrote a biography praising the head of U.S. Steel, Elbert Gary, who was brutal to thousands of steel workers and their families, who caused people to die as he tried to break The Great Steel Strike of 1919. There was something so large and good in her—but there was also in her the hope to have contempt. She wanted to own things and other people. Here, she was like the people she criticized who ran the large corporations of America. Her life is important for every woman in understanding the fight in us between two opposed hopes, what effect this fight has—and the choice we can make!
The Family and the World: Two Hopes Begin
Eli Siegel describes in Self and World the beginning fight in every person:
“Every child has this debate: Shall I…see the world as magnificently and as delicately as possible; or shall I see the world as the material for victories for just me?”
Ida Tarbell was born in a log cabin in Erie County, Pennsylvania in 1857, just 30 miles from where the first oil well in the world was drilled in Titusville in 1859. Her father, a teacher and carpenter, saw the need for wooden tanks to store the oil and eventually had a prosperous business, and she grew up in the midst of the booming oil industry. That she had the desire to “see the world as magnificently and delicately as possible” can be seen in how, in spite of the oil-stained, blackened land with its many derricks and debris which surrounded them, she describes in her autobiography All In the Day’s Work the hillside where she loved to play:
“It was clothed with the always changing beauty of trees and shrubs, the white shadflowers and the red maples, the long garlands of laurel and azalea in the spring, the green of every shade through the summer, the crimson and gold, russets and tans of the fall, the frost-and-snow- draped trees of the winter.”
In her teens her greatest intellectual passion, she says, was for the microscope—she wanted to find “the starting point of things and having that, see why and how they grew into something else.”
But she also had the desire to “see the world as material for victories for just me.” The victory in possessing or owning shows in the earliest incident she tells. Her father was in Iowa when she was born and could not return because he did not have the money. When he did arrive, she was one and a half, and—
“According to the family annals, I deeply resented the intimacy between the strange man and my mother, so far my exclusive possession. Flinging my arms about my mother, so the story went, I cried, ‘Go away, bad man.’ “
I know from my own life that a little girl can be very adept at getting exclusive attention. In an Aesthetic Realism class Mr. Siegel asked me: “Do you believe there is something so precious and distinguished between you and your mother, no other person should be centrally present?” What was so precious to me, I saw, was that I got my mother’s praise for everything I did. I used my mother to feel that other people didn’t exist unless they catered to me as she had.
I think Ida Tarbell may have felt as I once did, “no other person should be centrally present” in her relation with her mother, and it made her want to get rid of her baby brother. In her autobiography she tries to make what she did seem innocent: She had a “curiosity” about the fact some things floated on water and other things sank, and a deep and rapid brook near their cabin “set me to wondering what would happen to my little brother, then in dresses, if dropped in. I had to find out.” She did drop her brother in, and fortunately his screams brought someone to the rescue. Though what she did is extreme, it represents an ugly hope in every woman—that other people whom we see as interfering with our importance, not exist. As her life went on this hope would undermine the energy in her to know what was true.
Justice Is the Means to Our Greatest Hope
In a recent Aesthetic Realism consultation we said to a young woman, Laura Key: “If you really felt the main thing in your life was to have the world seen truly by yourself and other people, you would feel unified.” This is the purpose in life which every woman needs to have, or there will be a constant, painful fight between two hopes in us—the hope to like the world, which is our greatest hope, and the hope to have contempt for the world.
There was a desire in Ida Tarbell to have the truth seen by people, and the two books of permanent value she wrote came from this desire in her. Ida Tarbell was 8 years old in 1865 when Lincoln was shot, and it affected her tremendously as it did thousands of people across America. As a writer for McClure’s magazine when she was in her 30’s, she began to research his life:
“The more I knew of him, [she writes] the better I liked him and the more strongly I felt we ought as a people to know about how he did things….He had come to mean more to me as a human being than anybody I had studied. I never doubted his motives…. The greatest regret of my professional life is that I shall not live to write another life of him. There is so much of him I never touched.”
This moved me very much. It stands for a hope women have had always—to meet a person in this world we can truly respect in a very big way.
Ida Tarbell’s large respect for Lincoln had a powerful good effect on her and encouraged her to care more for her whole country. “The four years I put in on The Life of Abraham Lincoln,” she writes, “aroused my flagging sense that I had a country, that its problems were my problems.” I believe it was Lincoln’s passionate fight against slavery that gave her the courage to fight injustice she had seen growing up.
Miss Tarbell writes of the outrage in her father and many other people when they discovered that John D. Rockefeller had struck a secret bargain with the railroads to give Standard Oil lower rates and charge others much higher rates to transport oil. “In walking through the world there is a choice for a man to make,” she writes with honest passion:
“He can choose the fair and open path which sound ethics, sound democracy and the common law prescribe, or choose the secret way by which he can get the better of his fellow man…there was born in me a hatred of privilege—privilege of any sort…contradicting as it did the principle of consideration for others…”
The choice she is describing here about economics is the choice Aesthetic Realism describes every person has, between respect and contempt. Eli Siegel writes in TRO #262:
“[W]e solve our life problems through the honoring of contempt or the honoring of respect. Contempt is easier in this world, though the results are hurtful. When respect is seen as not only more desirable, but in the long run also easier than contempt, we shall have a different world.”
In 1902 Ida Tarbell began the series of articles for McClure’s that would later be her book, presenting evidence of the secret bargains Standard Oil made to control the supply and raise the price of oil. She wrote:
“For many in the world it is a matter of little moment… whether oil sells for eight or twelve cents a gallon. It becomes a tragic matter sometimes, however, as in 1902-1903 when, in the coal famine, the poor… depended on oil for heat (and) throughout the hard winter…the price of refined oil advanced.”
Her criticism of both her country’s ethics and the cruel motives of the owners of Standard Oil was powerful:
“We have here in the United States allowed men practically autocratic powers in commerce… the price of a necessity of life within the control of a group of 9 men…as ruthless… as any nine men the world has ever seen.”
The History of Standard Oil had an immediate, far-reaching effect, and was respected and rightly praised by many. But Ida Tarbell would suffer because she didn’t see that “secret way by which he can get the better of his fellow man” was in her, too, as she criticized it so usefully in others.
The Hope for Praise–and the Hope to Deserve It
The largest question people have, Eli Siegel said in an Aesthetic Realism class, is “Can we be just to ourselves without being just to what is not ourselves?” In Aesthetic Realism he answered this question clearly for the first time, and in this class he said with compassionate intensity: “If you can’t feel you are just, you have to feel bad. If this were known and really seen, how much torture and agony would not have been.” The kind and tremendously important thing Aesthetic Realism shows is the world is in us, insisting we be fair to it. There is a conscience in every woman that doesn’t rest, and I’m so glad Eli Siegel showed me I had it—he showed people how beautiful it was, how strong it was, he honored and encouraged it. He writes in Self and World:
“We want to be praised, to have power, but we also want to deserve this. There is such a thing as the ethical unconscious…if we praise ourselves and we know we have been unfair to outside reality in doing so, there is a troubling conflict in us…to love ourselves really we have to want to know outside reality; that is the outside form of ourselves, or the world.”
At the time Ida Tarbell had reason to be truly proud of herself for fighting injustice, she was not. She describes her disappointment that powerful people in government and business attacked her book:
“I had hoped the book might be received as a legitimate historical study….This classification of muckraker, which I did not like, helped fix my resolution to have done for good and all with the subject which had brought it on me.”
Ida Tarbell was too ready to give up the fight for justice because she had another self that felt the way to take care of herself was to get the praise of the rich and powerful who seemed to run the world. She decided to prove she was not a muckraker, and began a series of articles to show there were owners of industry who wanted to “improve the lot of workers.” She writes:
“I had taken satisfaction in picturing the worst conditions I could find, badly ventilated and dangerous factories, unsanitary homes, underfed children. But in looking for this material I found…substantial and important efforts making to improve conditions, raise wages, shorten hours, humanize relations….Was it not as much my business as a reporter to present this side of the picture as to present the other?”
It was not owners but working people, organizing into unions and fighting, some dying, for every bit of the improvement she mentions. She herself saw something of the wrong she was doing, when she gave series of lectures to workers on these “improvements”:
“I was not conscious that there was a large percentage of condescension in my attitude. My first audience revealed my mind to me with painful definiteness, and humbled me beyond expression. It was a steel town… face to face with these men, within the sound of the heavy panting of the great furnaces, within sight of the unpainted, undrained rows of company houses…the memory of many a long and bitter labor struggle that I had known of in that valley came to life, and all my pretty tales seemed now terribly flimsy. They were so serious, they listened so intently to get something; and the tragedy was that I had not more to give.”
Ida Tarbell had a conscience, but she did not sustain what she felt here—she did not see how crucial it was for her life. We can never like ourselves unless we are proud to see where we are wrong and change. This is what Aesthetic Realism consultations make possible.
The Hope to Know Versus the Desire to Own
In 1924, Miss Tarbell accepted $20,000 from Elbert Gary, the head of U.S. Steel, to write a praising biography of him and his company. Gary’s union-busting, strike-breaking policies included having mounted police club and run down people who were simply walking the streets of their towns, people who had to work an inhuman 12 hours a day.
I grew up largely unaware of the cruelty and injustice of the Profit System—the private ownership of the means by which people live. I liked the imagined feeling that having money and owning things made me superior.
Eli Siegel was passionate about what every human being deserves. “While any child needs something he hasn’t got the Profit System is a failure, ” he said: “Only contempt could permit a man to make money from the work of another, as man has done these hundreds of years. Only contempt for other people could bear the idea that another man might work only if oneself were the means of his employment…”
The desire to be powerful through owning and managing the world, the admiration for other people who owned and controlled land, industry and people in America, made Ida Tarbell, who had written so passionately about ethics, hard and cold to other people’s feelings. It also affected how she saw men and love. I believe there was a desire to dominate people that made her unyielding. Most of her life she lived with members of her family whom she supported, and she never married. She said with great arrogance, “I never met a man I would want always by my side night and day, and I am sure I will not.” There is an increasing aloofness and sadness in her autobiography, written in 1939 when she was 82. Her last chapter is titled “Nothing New Under the Sun,” and she writes:
“Looking forward at life at thirty, forty, fifty, sixty, generally finding myself tired and a little discouraged, having always taken on things for which I was unprepared, things which were really too big for me, I consoled myself by saying, ‘At seventy you stop.'”
Ida Tarbell never knew what her greatest hope was. She had the chance to know Eli Siegel—she wrote articles in the early 1930’s that appeared in the same issues of Scribner’s magazine as Eli Siegel’s book reviews. In them, as Ellen Reiss writes in her commentary, “is that seeing of the world, art, people, which would come to be Aesthetic Realism.”
“What is the greatest desire in woman?” Eli Siegel asked in an Aesthetic Realism class in 1974, “to be complete, or seemingly happy?” And he asked me, “What is your complete self?” I said, “A person wanting to know.” “Can you put it another way?” he said–“‘My complete self wants to like the world’?” Studying Ida Tarbell’s life makes me feel so deeply the good fortune that came to me. It is the honor of my life to try to express how Aesthetic Realism meets the hopes of women and all people.