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Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr. Paperback – March 30, 2004
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“A triumph of the art of biography. Unflaggingly interesting, it brings John D. Rockefeller Sr. to life through sustained narrative portraiture of the large-scale, nineteenth-century kind.” —The New York Times Book Review
“Important and impressive. . . . Reveals the man behind both the mask and the myth.” —The Wall Street Journal
“One of the great American biographies. . . . [Chernow] writes with rich impartiality. He turns the machinations of Standard Oil . . . into fascinating social history.” —Time
From the Inside Flap
Born the son of a flamboyant, bigamous snake-oil salesman and a pious, straitlaced mother, Rockefeller rose from rustic origins to become the world's richest man by creating America's most powerful and feared monopoly, Standard Oil. Branded "the Octopus" by legions of muckrakers, the trust refined and marketed nearly 90 percent of the oil produced in America.
Rockefeller was likely the most controversial businessman in our nation's history. Critics charged that his empire was built on unscrupulous tactics: grand-scale collusion with the railroads, predatory pricing, industrial espionage, and wholesale bribery of political officials. The titan spent more than thirty years dodging investigations until Teddy Roosevelt and his trustbusters embarked on a marathon crusade to bring Standard Oil to bay.
While providing abundant new evidence of Rockefeller's misdeeds, Chernow discards the stereotype of the cold-blooded monster to sketch an unforgettablyhuman portrait of a quirky, eccentric original. A devout Baptist and temperance advocate, Rockefeller gave money more generously--his chosen philanthropies included the Rockefeller Foundation, the University of Chicago, and what is today Rockefeller University--than anyone before him. Titan presents a finely nuanced portrait of a fascinating, complex man, synthesizing his public and private lives and disclosing numerous family scandals, tragedies, and misfortunes that have never before come to light.
John D. Rockefeller's story captures a pivotal moment in American history, documenting the dramatic post-Civil War shift from small business to the rise of giant corporations that irrevocably transformed the nation. With cameos by Joseph Pulitzer, William Randolph Hearst, Jay Gould, William Vanderbilt, Ida Tarbell, Andrew Carnegie, Carl Jung, J. Pierpont Morgan, William James, Henry Clay Frick, Mark Twain, and Will Rogers, Titan turns Rockefeller's life into a vivid tapestry of American society in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It is Ron Chernow's signal triumph that he narrates this monumental saga with all the sweep, drama, and insight that this giant subject deserves.
"From the Hardcover edition.
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The book begins with a bang and builds to a crescendo- at first. The development of Rockefeller's origins, early life and ascendancy to the worlds richest man, and the captain of American Industry is breathtaking. The detail about his massive and discrete giving are awe inspiring. I couldn't put the book down and burned through the first 300 pages in a few days. Then it happened: Chernow's hatred of Rockefeller's Evangelical Christian world view became too much for him to bear and the book sags into leftist drivel and sanctimony by page +/- 325. It just gets worse from there. It becomes pretentious, and snippy- slouching toward all out hatred for Rockefeller's success springing from the Christian doctrines of self denial, industry, thrift and generosity.
While Chernow treats Rockefeller's Bible Based World View with fairness and thoroughness in the beginning, and attributes Rockefeller's genuineness and success to Rockefeller's Christian convictions, the envy and contempt of the author bleeds through and stains the rest of the book.The reader is treated to constant haranguing and insults directed toward Christianity generally, and Rockefeller's practition thereof specifically.
Rockefeller's life was nothing short of overwhelming. His candor, authenticity, tireless commitment to Abolition, Education, and Temperance all bubble from the wellspring of his Christian convictions. His detractors such as Ida Tarbell and other angry socialists do as much to burnish Rockefeller's reputation as his own good works.
I was taught as a youth to "hate" the "Robber Barrons" (another totally fake Identifier of the original American builder/makers) and dismiss Rockefeller as an evil greedy man. I was lied to! I have a new and great admiration for this authentic and invaluable American hero- thanks to Chernow's book, and my trained critical thinker's discipline to consider the motive of all editorials.
Chernow is, as usual, an excellent stylist. The book can roughly be divided into two parts: 1) how Rockefeller got the largest fortune in American history at the time and 2) how Rockefeller gave most of that away in philanthropic work. He drove thousands of small businesses out of the market and put multiple thousands of workers out of work using ruthless and cutthroat techniques, many (not all) of which were legal at the time. Cooperation with him was always better than competition and woe to anyone who did not agree. His personality is fascinating and Chernow does an exceptionally good job at bringing that out. In fact, Rockefeller’s personality and character are central themes that run throughout the book – how this pious Baptist who thought God wanted him to make as much money as possible so he could give it away could go through life with massive repression and apparent equanimity. His (and his son’s) philanthropy is incredible, from founding the University of Chicago to Rockefeller University to the Rockefeller Foundation. Millions for this, multiple millions for that in late 19th century and early 20th century money! It is mind-blowing. The book begins with Rockefeller’s father, a patent medicine quack showman who kept two separate families and ends with Rockefeller giving more money to advance real medicine than any individual in history.
The book expands the reader’s consciousness and is a fascinating and enjoyable read at the same time. Though Chernow’s Hamilton gets all the press these days, I learned more from this book about America and enjoyed it more. In my view it is a pinnacle of biographical writing - by any author.
Top international reviews
However, the books suffers from two reasons, and thus the three stars. Firstly, the most interesting part of a self-made billionaire is how he got to be one. But this is told only suscinctly and in a handful of pages - we see John D Rockefeller as a trader in Ohio and ten pages later he is already an oil tycoon.
Secondly - and this is common in these "great lives" of Mr Chernow - once the main character retires, there's really not much to tell, and we have the sensation of the author's will to produce a large book, just for the sake of it. So we spend two hundred pages reading John Rockefeller's odd habits and routines, playing golf, travelling to Europe and doing all those things the American millionaires do when they retire, and which are not interesting at all. Add to this that his heir, John jr, is a far less interesting character. However, we're told what he likes and does and how many children he had. (This happens too in another good book by the same author, that one about the House of Morgan).
But again, the story is well told (if it could be much better 200 pages shorter). Also on the plus side, it is worth mention that it draws an excellent view on the American change of the Century, from the XIXth to the XXth, obviously, and a very worthy review of the American politics and society of those days.
Described unfairly as a robber baron, Rockefeller amassed a fortune and an empire the world had scarcely seen. Yes, he ruthlessly ripped apart competition; yes he bribed his way to industrial sovereignty. But one must not forget that he was working his way in old frontier America, an America which hardly had any competition or industrial laws. Cowboy capitalism was the name of the game, and Rockefeller was our Clint Eastwood- the strong, silent leader.
Reading this book is an education- one sees the forces of capitalism, law, politics and personalities clash and collide, creating new industries, new wealth and new leaders. Its wonderful. Its addictive.
What stands out in the whole narrative is the man himself- Rockefeller was an enigma. Deeply religious, he often displayed eerie powers of self control and awareness. His rock-solid composure often made me think of the Bhagwan Gita’s idea of samata. Despite one setback after another, this man just pushed on.
Not only do we get to know how he made his empire, but also how he retired at the age of 55 and devoted himself fully to philanthropy and religion. It was Rockefeller who started the University of Chicago and many other educational and medical institutions. What is striking is to see how difficult, how exhausting and nerve wracking even philanthropy proved to be. When you see and read what Rockefeller went through, you often wonder whether accumulating wealth is worth the trouble
Truly a titan. If you’re interested in fascinating men, or even the growth and spread of corporate America interlaced with law and politics, just go for it.