71 pages 2 hours read

Ron Chernow

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

Nonfiction | Biography | Adult | Published in 1998

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Summary and Study Guide


Ron Chernow’s Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr. (1998) is a comprehensive, 676-page biography of a complex man who became one of America’s most controversial business moguls, as well as its foremost philanthropist. Chernow, the author of The House of Morgan (1990) and Alexander Hamilton (2004), the latter of which inspired a Broadway musical, has established himself as a celebrated biographer of leading figures in US economic history.

John D. Rockefeller (whom Chernow calls “Senior” following the 1874 birth of his son, John D. Rockefeller, Jr.) founded Standard Oil, an industrial behemoth that effectively monopolized the US oil industry in the late-19th and early-20th centuries, served as a model for top-down consolidation in other industries, and provoked intense opposition from the era’s reformers, who believed that such a powerful corporation threatened both democracy and the concept of fair play in economic competition. Meanwhile, as his name and his company became synonymous with greed, and as his private fortune swelled into the country’s largest, Rockefeller donated his money to causes he deemed worthwhile, both in the United States and around the world.

By the end of his life, his charitable organizations had given away hundreds of millions of dollars, and the name of this once-notorious tycoon had become associated with unparalleled generosity. Titan, therefore, is the story of an industrial-pirate-turned-global-benefactor. Chernow, however, does not see Rockefeller as a repentant evildoer, but rather a fascinating man of remarkable inner depth, whose rapacious and beneficent sides coexisted throughout his life.   


As a biography, Titan follows a basic chronological narrative, but Chernow also makes organizational decisions that highlight some of the book’s major themes.

Early chapters describe Rockefeller’s boyhood and adolescence, first in upstate New York and later in the Cleveland area. His father, William Avery Rockefeller, was a charming, talented, gregarious wanderer, a larger-than-life conman who earned money through mysterious and unscrupulous means, a pathological liar who preyed on young women, and a bigamist who abandoned his first family and secretly married another woman in Canada. Rockefeller spent most of his life trying to erase his father from memory. His beloved mother, Eliza Davison Rockefeller, on the other hand, was a model of piety and gentle forbearance. With her guidance, and with a strong Baptist faith, Rockefeller set out to become everything his father was not, though along the way the son exhibited a capacity for deception reminiscent of the absentee father whom he never forgave.

Early in his business career, Rockefeller learned crucial lessons that would turn into guiding principles, and the result would be nothing short of a revolution in American capitalism. When he entered the oil business in the 1860s as a refiner, he noticed that the infant industry was susceptible to wild market fluctuations, and he concluded that the only way to save the industry was to eliminate rivalries and consolidate for the common good. Here is one of Chernow’s major insights: Rockefeller, an industrial titan, remembered as a symbol of the 19th century’s supposedly unrestrained capitalism, in fact thought more like Karl Marx than Adam Smith. This preference for economic Cooperation Over Competition dictated Rockefeller’s behavior for the rest of his career.

Of course, there was always a self-serving element to Rockefeller’s push for consolidation. As the head of Standard Oil, he sought to dominate the industry, not to equalize its benefits. Beginning in the late 1860s, Rockefeller and his associates at Standard Oil negotiated special deals with the railroads. They used these deals to coerce owners of other refineries to sell their properties. They bought pipelines, storage facilities, and tank cars—everything relevant to the manufacture and distribution of kerosene under the Standard Oil umbrella. They also committed industrial espionage, encouraged their marketing agents to threaten and intimidate local merchants who refused to carry their product, and engaged in more flagrant acts of political corruption than their harshest contemporary critics ever knew. Chernow documents all of these developments in the first half of the biography, arriving at Rockefeller’s retirement from Standard Oil at the book’s midpoint.

In the course of describing Rockefeller’s business exploits, Chernow makes important organizational decisions that showcase and amplify one of the book’s themes. For instance, six consecutive chapters present different parts of Rockefeller’s life that show the industrial titan alternately at his best and worst. Chapter 11 (“The Holy Family”) depicts Rockefeller as a gentle (and present) family man, devoted to his children, wife, aging mother, and Baptist church. On the other hand, as if to belie Rockefeller’s Christian professions, Chapter 12 (“Insurrection in the Oil Fields”) describes Standard Oil’s ruthless attempt to crush the rival Tidewater Pipeline by bribing state legislators and even contemplating outright sabotage.

Chapter 13 (“Seat of Empire”), however, portrays Rockefeller as an innovator who built Standard Oil’s monopoly on sound economic reasoning, as well as a benevolent manager respected by his employees. Then, in Chapter 14 (“The Puppeteer”), Chernow excoriates Rockefeller for acquiescing to Standard Oil’s most unethical practices and later disingenuously pretending that he never knew anything about them. Once the reader is convinced that Rockefeller was an evil monopolist, Chernow again shifts his focus in Chapter 15 (“Widow’s Funeral), where he humanizes Rockefeller by bringing his father back into the narrative following Eliza’s death in 1889. Finally, in Chapter 16 (“A Matter of Trust”) Chernow highlights Rockefeller’s legendary instincts and ingenuity in capitalizing upon the 1885 oil strike in northwest Ohio. By alternating between different sides of Rockefeller’s personality without abandoning the book’s chronological and narrative structure, Chernow demonstrates the concurrent influences of The Spiritual and the Material in Rockefeller’s life.

Following the titan into his retirement, which lasted 40 years (1897-1937), Chernow examines Rockefeller’s revolutionary philanthropy. While still directing Standard Oil’s day-to-day operations until 1897, Rockefeller found time to support institutions of higher learning such as the Atlanta Baptist Female Seminary (renamed Spelman Seminary) and the University of Chicago, the latter of which Rockefeller founded in the early 1890s. After his retirement, however, his major contributions were to medicine. Through the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research, the General Education Board, and especially the enormous Rockefeller Foundation, Rockefeller gave away hundreds of millions of dollars. In addition to improving medical science, this unparalleled philanthropy helped elevate his battered public image in the wake of journalist Ida Tarbell’s scathing exposé The History of Standard Oil (1904). By the 1920s, The Transformation of John D. Rockefeller from industrial titan to benevolent philanthropist was complete.

Chernow’s extensive focus on Rockefeller’s retirement years also enriches his portrait of the Rockefeller family. John D. Rockefeller, Jr. (“Junior”) appears prominently in the second half of the book, both as a leading agent of Rockefeller philanthropy and as heir to the primary Rockefeller fortune. Junior plays the role of steward, a dutiful custodian of his father’s money and legacy. Giving ample space to Junior’s development and activities allows Chernow to explore the Father and Son dynamic on two fronts, comparing Rockefeller’s dysfunctional relationship with his father Bill to his much healthier relationship with Junior.

Finally, Rockefeller’s philanthropic contributions to medical science highlight one of the book’s other major undercurrents: The Plight of the Rockefeller Women. Having watched his mother Eliza suffer hardship, betrayal, and declining health, Rockefeller, notwithstanding his gargantuan fortune, was helpless to prevent his wife Cettie, along with daughters Bessie and Edith, from succumbing to various anxiety-related illnesses. Chernow cites these frequent, debilitating, and ultimately deadly ailments as motivating factors in Rockefeller’s lengthy career as a philanthropist.