As y’all might know, I’m a pretty critical reader, so it is very hard to read biographies of wealth.
I’m reading the a bio of John D. Rockefeller, Titan, by Ron Chernow. Like the bio of wealth I read before it, about J. Paul Getty, it is awful, full of prattling about willpower and concentration while describing mere ruthlessness and opportunity and ignoring chance.
So, Titan wants to present Rockefeller as a genius – a man of rare intellectual ability, concentration, and willpower, who brought an empire into being out of nothingness. But the actual story doesn’t seem to support that analysis.
John D. Rockefeller was, without doubt, a hardworking and skilled businessman. There are a lot of those, though. The narrative of his success, as told in the book, is stated to be one of genius but the events tell a different story. Titan tells of a talented businessman who, in his youth, started a commodities business on the eve of the Civil War. The remarkable success of his commodities business wasn’t due to any particular or unusual talents of Rockefeller, but his good luck to be a Cleveland businessman during the Civil War. Ohio was the breadbasket of the Union Army, and people who bought and sold foodstuffs made a lot of money. Rockefeller did not anticipate the war; he simply went into what he thought would be a profitable business, and before the war, it was profitable but not remarkable.
Then during the war, flush with cash from profitable wartime commodities trading, a man came along looking for funding for oil fields in Titusville, Pennsylvania, less than a day away from Cleveland. Rockefeller, at the time, did not think very much of the oil industry, which hadn’t taken off. He was simply a local businessman in the nearest city of note who happened to have a lot of money due to circumstances beyond his control. Rockefeller knew nothing about the oil business, then, and didn’t think it would amount to much, just a side business to his commodities trading.
This is not the origin story of genius. Unlike the man who intuited that Pennsylvania petroleum could be refined into a cheap illuminant (in this case, kerosene), Rockefeller didn’t have the vision of a future market in mind. Unlike the Yale professor who discovered the refining process, Rockefeller did not have the scientific acumen to process raw petroleum into finished products. And unlike the engineer who figured out how to drill for oil, Rockefeller added nothing to the extraction. He was just there with money.
As I said, one dollar is much like another, and one businessman is much like the other.
But at no point in discussing the origin of John D. Rockefeller’s origin does Chernow admit that chance played a big role in the creation of Standard Oil. Despite his numerous descriptions of the various ways that chance played a role in creating Rockefeller’s wealth, the book presents this advance as not primarily luck but unusual abilities. I believe this is to retain the narrative that the intellectually undistinguished Rockefeller nevertheless has some unique quality – a genius – that justified his incredible wealth. The other story – the one where a talented but mostly unremarkable businessman found himself in the right place at the right time – is far less heroic, after all, and makes business success seem more like circumstance than ability. The narrative of that circumstance is more important than ability is contrary to capitalism’s ideology, and is avoided in the United States.
That is precisely what Chernow describes. It could have been any capable businessman with four grand in his pocket that started Standard Oil. Any at all.
Another example of how atrocious Titan is, Chernow never once considers that part of the reason that Rockefeller didn’t fight in the Civil War was that Rockefeller didn’t want to get shot. The possibility that cowardice might have been at the root of Rockefeller avoiding the Civil War was not brought up. It is an interesting lacuna. When a possibility is unpalatable to a capitalist-loving audience, Chernow simply dispenses with it. There is considerable irony because Chernow does acknowledge that Rockefeller had a selective memory.
The book is useful in the sense of providing the details of the life of Rockefeller. I’m capable of doing the interpretation on my own, and I have trained myself to see inconsistencies and contradictions, but the book is awful.
Lastly, I want to criticize editors, again. The problems in Chernow’s book aren’t subtle. He never demonstrates how, for instance, Rockefeller has more concentration than someone else. He consistently ignores alternate explanations for events in Rockefeller’s life despite them being obvious and plausive (such as Rockefeller being a physical coward as the reason he avoided fighting in the Civil War). But since Rockefeller’s business life is the center of the book, ignoring the extent to which chance played a role in Rockefeller’s business is particularly galling, editorially. If someone gave me a manuscript and said that Rockefeller succeeded due to the non-specific traits of “willpower” and “concentration,” but described success due to chance, I’d send the manuscript back. I’d say, “There is a disconnect between your description of Rockefeller and your description of his actions. It wasn’t genius or willpower or concentration that got him into the oil business, but happenstance – that he was flush with money from wartime speculation in commodities and someone happened along and convinced him oil would be a good side business. If Rockefeller had lived in a different time or place, if he had stayed in Owego, New York, instead of moving to Cleveland, or been born ten years later, we would never know about him.”
Once again, I find myself wondering at the usefulness of content editors if they miss what seems so obvious to me. At the bare minimum, it suggests that content editing does not improve a manuscript, but instead simply improves it for a specific audience – while, at the same time, moving it away from other audiences. Editorial decisions to ignore the role of chance in Rockefeller’s life to create the illusion of a capitalist genius formed by willpower sells to a different group of people than a book which openly admits that time and chance play a role in everything we do – and perhaps the biggest role.