Aesthetic Realism Consultant Nancy Huntting

Ida Tarbell
Ida Tarbell (1857-1944)
Journalist and Author
Aesthetic Realism Seminar
What Are Women Hoping For?
by Nancy Huntting

With a consideration of the life of Ida Tarbell, courageous journalist & "muckraker."
Presented in 1989 at the Aesthetic Realism Foundation, 141 Greene Street, NYC 10012.

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!

1. 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.

To Part 2: Justice Is the Means to Our Greatest Hope

© Aesthetic Realism Consultant Nancy Huntting. All rights reserved