December 4, 2020

Lincoln Steffens: Muckraker’s Progress

Lincoln Steffens isn’t much remembered today, though Peter Hartshorn’s absorbing biography, “I Have Seen the Future,” makes it clear why he should be. As one of the original “muckrakers,” Steffens wrote newspaper and magazine exposés that gave journalism a new purpose, a voice in American democracy beyond simply endorsing one party or another.

Born in 1866 to a rich businessman and his wife — one family home later became the California governor’s mansion — Steffens passed an idyllic childhood exploring the Sacramento countryside on his beloved pony. He gained an early education in the ways of the world, discovering that the horse races his father bet on were fixed to take advantage of the “suckers.” While he loved his father, he “did not care for suckers” — and determined never to be one.

After acquiring a degree (and a secret fiancée) at Berkeley — “It is possible to get an education at a university. It has been done; not often” — Steffens prevailed on his father to send him to Europe for three years of study in philosophy, ethics, art history and science. No idler, he read everything and studied at universities throughout Germany and France. But here, too, he was frustrated by his professors: “They could not agree upon what was knowledge, nor upon what was good and what evil, nor why.” Returning to America with a trunkful of English clothes, “a book-length essay on ethics,” a (secret) young wife and vague intentions of becoming a businessman, the 26-year-old Steffens was stunned to receive a letter from his father with a hundred dollars and an order “to stay in New York and hustle” until he learned the “practical side” of life.

It was the making of him. Hustling desperately, too proud to tell his family he was married, he landed a job as a reporter for The New York Evening Post, where he learned the workings of both Wall Street and the immigrant slums of the Lower East Side, and made friends with a vigorous young police commissioner named Theodore Roosevelt. He learned to write and to invest, and within nine years was the managing editor of McClure’s, one of the most popular and prestigious magazines in the country.

He was, as usual, in the right place at the right time. Volatile Sam McClure was transforming his namesake publication into a journal that would rip the veil from American life, forcing readers to confront the corruption that had seeped into every seam of their democracy. The January 1903 issue alone featured an installment of Ida Tarbell’s groundbreaking history of the Standard Oil Company; Ray Stannard Baker’s reporting on a coal miners’ strike in Pennsylvania; and Steffens’s own exposé of political corruption in Minneapolis.

No one had ever done journalism like this before. McClure’s took on corporate monopolies and political machines, the awful conditions most Americans lived and worked in, the tainted food and water they ate and drank. The public devoured it, even while claiming to want more “positive” stories. (They didn’t. A book Steffens wrote solely about crusading reformers, “Upbuilders,” sold all of 684 copies in its first year.)

Steffens wanted to go beyond the simple idea “that political evils were due to bad men of some sort and curable by the substitution of good men.” Working constantly, traveling ceaselessly, he visited one city after another, trying to decipher how the whole system worked — why it was corrupt, as well as how. He brought to the job a penetrating intelligence, a great human sympathy and a knack for turning a phrase; whole books could be filled with his aphorisms: “I was never again mistaken for an honest man by a crook”; “You ask men in office to be honest, I ask them to serve the public”; “Nothing fails like success”; “You cannot commit rape a little.”

Kevin Baker is writing a social history of New York City baseball.

Article source: http://feeds.nytimes.com/click.phdo?i=044a996f25621cf6933067c3b6edaf80

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