Ida Tarbell: Madame Roland, Napoleon, and Abraham Lincoln (part 2)

March 26, 2020 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: journalism, Women writers and journalists, writers, writing.

Ida Tarbell might have stayed in France for a very long time if it hadn’t been for Abraham Lincoln.

Tarbell had moved to Paris in 1891 when she was 34 years old. She gave up a secure job as an editor of The Chatauguan in New York and went to France with the idea of writing a biography of Madame Roland, a feminist leader of the French Revolution. In Paris, she built a social life and a circle of friends that she truly enjoyed. She supported herself by writing for a variety of American publications. She attended lectures at the Sobornne and studied the way that French historians did their research.

What she found out about Madame Roland left her disillusioned. She had hoped her biography would celebrate an important feminist leader; instead, she found that Roland had encouraged the violence of The Terror — until it turned on her and eventually took her life. Tarbell also researching the life of Napoleon Bonaparte.

One day while in Paris, Samuel McClure showed up at her door and offered her an editorship at his new publication McClure’s Magazine. Tarbell had written some articles for McClure’s syndicate, and he was determined to get her to join him in New York. She turned him down but continued to write articles for the syndicate and the magazine and became the magazine’s correspondent in Paris.

McClure persisted in trying to get her to come to New York, however. When she returned to America in 1894 to visit her family in Pennsylvania, he contacted her about a series for the magazine on Napoleon. By the time the last installment was published, the magazine’s circulation had quadrupled, and Tarbell’s reputation as a meticulous researcher and solid write had been established.

The idea of writing a biography of Abraham Lincoln was one she considered with reluctance. Lincoln had fascinated her, and she remembered news of his assassination when she was a young girl. “If you once get into American history, I told myself, you know well enough that will finish France.”

Still, she had a challenge. She spoke with John Nicolay, one of Lincoln’s secretaries, who had published a biography of Lincoln, and he told her to forget about it. He had written all there was that was worth knowing about the 16th president, he said. Like any good reporter, Tarbell was skeptical.

Tarbell spent many months researching Lincoln’s life. She traveled to Illinois and interviewed people who had known Lincoln as a young merchant and lawyer. She tracked down copies of lost speeches letters. She even went to England to chose a story that Lincoln had appealed to Queen Victoria not to recognize the Confederacy — a story the turned out not to be true.

When Tarbell’s biography of Lincoln was published in 1895, McClure’s circulation topped 250,000 and continued to rise to more than 300,000 by 1900. The profits were such that McClure was able to buy a printing plant and a bindery.

Tarbell by this time had become a top editor at the magazine and was about to take on her greated project, A History of Standard Oil. But her position of responsibility had brought continued headaches as McChure’s behavior became more erratic and his decisions more arbitrary and confusing. In 1906 she left McClure’s to help found The American Magazine.

Next week: Life after Standard Oil

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