The Read – Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr.

The Read – Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr.
Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller Sr. by Ron Chernow

Review by Dappered Arts and Culture Correspondent Ben Madeska

The story of John D. Rockefeller and the Standard Oil Company is the story of modern America, the modern world.  As perhaps the wealthiest private citizen in history, Rockefeller set the bar for modern capitalists, utilizing every advantage he could find, legal and less-than-legal, to destroy competition and maximize profits.  Along the way, he established the first trust, one of the largest and richest multinationals in history, and many business practices still common today.  A towering figure even among the other tycoons of his era, Rockefeller viewed his work as putting order to chaos and had no patience for those lacking vision who stood in his way.  Competitors, and increasingly the public, viewed him as a tyrant.

Rockefeller was the purest of capitalists, but also one of the great philanthropists – a model for Gates and Buffett today.  A reverent Baptist, he believed it was his mission to accumulate wealth in order to turn it towards bettering society.   After retiring from Standard Oil in his late fifties, Rockefeller spent the remaining 40 years of his life devoted to a focused, systematic philanthropy, founding colleges, universities and research facilities.  His fortune established art museums and national parks.
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With guile and surprising grit Rockefeller forged an empire and laid the groundwork for the emergence of America as a superpower, and quietly passed out envelopes of money to the needy congregants of his church on Sundays.  He was complex and contradictory figure, and Chernow does an admirable job cutting through the myths.  In the foreward, Chernow writes, describing his feelings before starting this book, “I couldn’t tell if he was a hollow man, deadened by the pursuit of money, or someone of great depth and force but with eerie self-control.” Both images of the man emerge in this book.
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In many ways, the rules of capitalism that we live by are the rules that Rockefeller wrote.  The debates about wealth, the reach of business, and the relationship between individual enterprise and government regulation that Rockefeller  provoked are still raging today.  The companies formed by breaking up the Standard Oil trust remain among the largest companies in the world.  Rockefeller is without a doubt, for better and worse, one of the most influential figures in history.  “Titan” explains why.