Top positive review
A journey well worth taking
Reviewed in the United States on May 16, 2018
Though I read and enjoyed Chernow’s biographies of Washington, Hamilton and Grant, I found this biography of Rockefeller his best. I did not expect that. The bland grayish cover, which shows a grim, almost sadistic-looking Rockefeller against a sterile cityscape, does not inspire a potential reader to think of “enjoyable read.” Likewise, the pre-book knowledge I had of Rockefeller’s founding of Standard Oil led me to think that this biography would involve a lot of dry reading about Rockefeller’s financial dealings. But I was completely wrong. This is a gripping story, much of it about an America we now live in but know little about the origins.
Chernow is, as usual, an excellent stylist. The book can roughly be divided into two parts: 1) how Rockefeller got the largest fortune in American history at the time and 2) how Rockefeller gave most of that away in philanthropic work. He drove thousands of small businesses out of the market and put multiple thousands of workers out of work using ruthless and cutthroat techniques, many (not all) of which were legal at the time. Cooperation with him was always better than competition and woe to anyone who did not agree. His personality is fascinating and Chernow does an exceptionally good job at bringing that out. In fact, Rockefeller’s personality and character are central themes that run throughout the book – how this pious Baptist who thought God wanted him to make as much money as possible so he could give it away could go through life with massive repression and apparent equanimity. His (and his son’s) philanthropy is incredible, from founding the University of Chicago to Rockefeller University to the Rockefeller Foundation. Millions for this, multiple millions for that in late 19th century and early 20th century money! It is mind-blowing. The book begins with Rockefeller’s father, a patent medicine quack showman who kept two separate families and ends with Rockefeller giving more money to advance real medicine than any individual in history.
The book expands the reader’s consciousness and is a fascinating and enjoyable read at the same time. Though Chernow’s Hamilton gets all the press these days, I learned more from this book about America and enjoyed it more. In my view it is a pinnacle of biographical writing - by any author.