Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr.
by Ron Chernow
Random House (Vintage Books)
Published: May 1998
“Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr.” is the fourth of seven books Ron Chernow has written. Among his others are the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Washington: A Life,” the widely-acclaimed “Alexander Hamilton,” his inaugural book “The House of Morgan” and his recent biography of Ulysses S. Grant.
Anyone familiar with Chernow’s writing will quickly recognize his trademark style. This book’s narrative is uncommonly engaging, exceptionally insightful, appropriately thorough and magnificently eloquent. Chernow has a knack for choosing incredibly interesting biographical subjects and then thoroughly researching, dissecting and conveying their essence in a fluent and incisive manner.
The famously taciturn (and often expressionless) Rockefeller is carefully uncovered layer-by-layer and ends up a far more intriguing and multi-faceted individual than many readers might expect. If not quite someone I’d want to grab a drink with (he was a lifelong teetotaler in any event) this “desiccated fossil” of the Gilded Age turns out to be extraordinarily interesting…and incredibly human.
The narrative does a terrific job reviewing Rockefeller’s childhood, revealing his parents’ backgrounds (and pathologies) and exploring which personality traits they each passed on to him. It will not take most readers long to realize that Rockefeller’s father – also known as “Devil Bill” – deserves a biography all to himself.
In later chapters, coverage of Rockefeller’s wife, children and his sons- and daughter-in-law proves outstanding. Each of these family members, along with several of his unrelated contemporaries, essentially receive their own riveting mini-biographies.
Other excellent aspects of the book include its review of the important role Christianity played in Rockefeller’s life, careful analyses of Standard Oil’s strategic objectives and concomitant business tactics, and a marvelous chapter documenting Rockefeller’s relationships with fellow Robber barons Andrew Carnegie and J.P. Morgan.
But no biography of Rockefeller would be complete without devoting considerable attention to the work of muckraking journalist Ida Tarbell. Her groundbreaking nineteen-part series on Standard Oil exposed Rockefeller’s monopolistic business practices and helped lead to its dissolution in 1911. Chernow’s review of Tarbell’s work and its impact on Rockefeller’s personal and professional lives is superb.
If this biography of John D. Rockefeller is not perfect, its flaws are few and far between. Some readers may be bothered by the author’s reluctance to skim the tree tops on some less-interesting topics; Chernow consistently chooses to fully investigate not only what happened but also why.
In addition, while this is not a particularly difficult read, the narrative does not lend itself to high-speed consumption. On many pages, every sentence seems meticulously designed for maximum potency – with virtually no extraneous verbiage. That, along with the book’s length, makes this a more demanding than average biographical journey…but with commensurate compensation, to be sure.
Overall, Ron Chernow’s “Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr.” ranks among the very best of the nearly 300 biographies I’ve read. As only a masterful biographer can manage, Chernow expertly analyzes and fully humanizes his subject. With a brilliantly crafted narrative and penetrating style, this biography will appeal to nearly anyone with an interest in the Gilded Age, the use of unrestrained corporate power, or an incredibly compelling life story.
Overall rating: 4¾ stars