Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr. is a biography of one of the most powerful and influential businessmen in American history. Written by historian Ron Chernow, the book covers Rockefeller’s life from his humble beginnings as the son of a traveling salesman to his rise as the founder of Standard Oil and one of the wealthiest men in the world.
The book begins by painting a portrait of Rockefeller’s childhood, growing up in a strict Baptist household in upstate New York. His father, William, was a con man and bigamist who constantly moved the family from town to town, leaving them in debt and poverty. Rockefeller was determined to escape this life of instability and insecurity, and he saw business as the key to achieving his goals.
Rockefeller’s early business ventures included selling candy and raising turkeys, but he soon discovered the oil industry and realized its potential for profit. He formed Standard Oil in 1870, using his shrewd business sense to buy up smaller oil companies and create a monopoly that controlled almost 90% of the oil market. This brought him enormous wealth and power, but also drew the ire of his competitors and the public.
Chernow paints a nuanced picture of Rockefeller, highlighting both his ruthless business tactics and his philanthropic efforts. He was known for driving hard bargains and crushing his competitors, but he also gave generously to charity, funding universities, medical research, and the arts. Chernow argues that Rockefeller’s philanthropy was not just a way to assuage his guilt over his ruthless business practices, but was motivated by a genuine desire to improve society.
The book also covers Rockefeller’s personal life, including his marriage to his wife, Laura, and his relationships with his children. Rockefeller was known for being a devoted family man, but also for being somewhat distant and unemotional. He was a strict disciplinarian, enforcing a rigid schedule and diet for his children, and often imposing his own beliefs and values on them.
Chernow delves into the controversies that surrounded Rockefeller and Standard Oil, including accusations of price-fixing, bribery, and monopolistic practices. He also discusses Rockefeller’s role in the labor disputes and strikes that plagued the oil industry, painting a picture of a man who was often out of touch with the struggles of the working class.
Despite these criticisms, Chernow ultimately presents Rockefeller as a complex and fascinating figure, one who embodied both the best and worst aspects of American capitalism. He was a visionary businessman who revolutionized the oil industry and helped to build modern America, but he was also a ruthless monopolist who crushed his competitors and exploited workers.
Overall, Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr. is a meticulously researched and engaging biography that provides a detailed portrait of one of America’s most powerful and controversial figures. Chernow’s writing is clear and concise, and he balances the successes and failures of Rockefeller’s life with a nuanced understanding of the social and economic context of the time. Whether you’re interested in business, history, or biography, Titan is a must-read for anyone looking to understand the complexities of one of America’s most iconic businessmen.