Commentary Magazine


The Muckrakers, 1902-1912, Edited by Arthur & Lila Weinberg

Crusading Journalists

The Muckrakers, 1902-1912.
by Arthur and Lila Weinberg.
Simon & Schuster. 449 pp. $7.50.

It has been argued that the uniqueness of the “Progressive Era” as a time of muckraking has been somewhat overplayed. It might even be said, as Daniel Aaron believes, that the literature of exposure published in the 90’s was at least as good as that which appeared in the first decade and a half of the 20th century; in some ways it may have been better. I myself know of a study currently being done on the 1870’s: even in that “genteel” age, there was muckraking on a variety of public evils to an extent we seem either to have forgotten about or are just unaware of today. Muckraking, moreover, goes on; the magazine article, its most serviceable vehicle, is a perennial device for the promotion of reform.

But granted all this, how do we account for the community’s acute and extraordinary sensitivity to this form of literature in the Roosevelt-Taft-Wilson era and not in that, say, of Hayes, Arthur, and Collis P. Huntington? The articles collected and so ably arranged by the Weinbergs in this handsome and useful volume are representative of their age. They were published in periodicals that had a substantial circulation; they were widely read; their resonance was considerable; and they functioned as agendas for various kinds of action.

That all this should occur when it did may, to some extent, have been a generational matter. Other kinds of tension besides those of class are needed to explain the cross-purposes of American life, and it is quite conceivable that at least one of them (in the very absence, indeed, of rigidly extended class and family structures) is discords between generations. The men and women who came to maturity in the middle 90’s and early 1900’s had grown up beneath the moral shadow of the Civil War—the profoundest event of the national experience—without having had any direct personal touch with it. For their fathers’ generation, the one that had fought it, the crusade for the Union had provided a backlog of virtue and manhood, a kind of moral bank account that could be drawn upon for the remainder of a lifetime. A generation of peculiarly self-assured and self-righteous men could industrialize and transform the country, look out for their own interests, and be troubled by few self-doubts or self-questionings over the passing damage. Their conviction of moral authority and the basic insensitivity so characteristic of the men of the Civil War generation had been reinforced by the symbolic life of the entire nation; each patriotic holiday could protectively hold up their achievements in a form abstract enough to certify everything else. But for their successors, without such protection, the experience of coming to manhood in the world being created by these formidable fathers must have been profoundly alienating. Personal reminiscences of the period betray this often enough between the lines.

But it was not only a matter, in 1900 and in the ensuing years of reform, of generations confronting each other. As the economic frights of the 90’s were followed by prosperity, a whole nation was free to confront itself with the price it had agreed to pay for its own material success. Decrying, for example, the exploitation of children in the textile mills, Edwin Markham would demand in anguished guilt:

And why do these children know no rest, no play, no learning, nothing but the grim grind of existence? Is it because we are all naked and shivering? Is it because there is sudden destitution in the land? Is it because pestilence walks at noonday? Is it because war’s red hand is pillaging our storehouses and burning our cities? No, forsooth! Never before were the storehouses so crammed to bursting with bolts and bales of every warp and woof. No, forsooth! The children, while yet in the gristle, are ground down that a few more useless millions may be heaped up. We boast that we are leading the commercialism of the world, and we grind in our mills the bones of the little ones to make good our boast.

And so it was with railroads, finance, civic corruption, patent medicine, impure food, tenements, prisons, working conditions, urban delinquency in all its forms. A legion of able and knowing publicists, encouraged by the editors of weekly and monthly periodicals that were building a nationwide circulation, began spying out evils in every corner of the country’s daily life. From all the evidence, the public’s capacity for scandalized fascination and guilty response during these years was extraordinary. “It looks to me,” said Mr. Hennessy, “as though the counthry was goin’ to th’ divvle.” “Put down that magazine, Hinnissy!”

The most famous of the muckraking journalists—Lincoln Steffens, Ida Tarbell, Samuel Hopkins Adams, Thomas Lawson, George Kibbe Turner, Charles Edward Russell, Ray Stannard Baker—are represented in this volume by pieces from McClure’s, Cosmopolitan, Collier’s, American, and Everybody’s, magazines that reached thousands of readers. The articles are grouped under the pertinent evils, and the editors have prefaced each group with helpful background notes and commentary. A number of these same articles are known to have contributed quite directly to reform. President Roosevelt in his efforts to strengthen the Interstate Commerce Commission gratefully acknowledged the literary assistance of Ray Stannard Baker; Charles Edward Russell’s description of convict-lease practices in Georgia had immediate and salutary consequences in that state; the work of the same writer apparently encouraged Trinity Church to tear down four blocks of its worst tenements two years after Trinity’s landlord policies had been described to the appalled readers of Hampton’s. Every student of American history knows about Upton Sinclair’s fruitless efforts to promote socialism by exposing conditions in the meat-packing houses, and how he nonetheless contributed to Pure Food legislation with his stories of tubercular employees falling into the vats and being rendered into lard.

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The best of these journalists seem still to be the ones we always thought were the best, Steffens, Tarbell, and Baker. Reflected in their prose is a simple clarity, a sense of fact, and a judiciousness of mind that make us question whether successful muckraking really has much affinity with revolutionary technique. Even Steffens, with all his amazing vivaciousness, has no use for mere rhetorical tricks. A fair number of the others, of course, did not come up to these standards, and there were some who resorted to sensationalism and humbug. The archetype was Thomas Lawson, whose exposes of high finance skirt the fine edge of hysteria and manage to sound, at the same time, like the patter of the shell-game operator. David Graham Phillips’s “Treason of the Senate” is crossroads revivalism, full of imps and demons but not to be taken seriously as reporting. William Hard’s profile of Speaker Joe Cannon is vaguely libelous. Even “Making Steel and Killing Men,” Hard’s otherwise admirable call for better safety rules in heavy industry, is rendered somewhat repellent by a tone of wheedling incantation which the author probably thought was very artistic. It is not entirely fair to insinuate, as we sometimes do, that Theodore Roosevelt was merely temporizing when he suggested in his famous Gridiron Club address of 1906 that muckraking was a device susceptible of perversion.

Nonetheless, the device is a perennial one. Americans have come to take it for granted and have built it into their culture for a wide variety of uses. Muckraking may have come into prominence and received its nickname at a time when inflamed sensibilities coincided with ballooning circulation in the periodical media. But the Progressive Era is historically instructive for its continuing features as well as its unique ones—and muckraking, with all its strengths and liabilities, was just such a feature. It has, moreover, a certain cultural distinctiveness that is worth noting. When European journalists and intellectuals confront great wrongs, they issue manifestoes and statements of conscience that receive much publicity. The parallel act, for an American, is to expose something.

This can, of course, become a kind of drug. The American reading public’s susceptibility to inside dopesterism can easily be perverted into cheap cynicism, as is plain today from any issue of the metropolitan tabloid press, to say nothing of the shadier weeklies and monthlies. But then anything can be perverted. For a society which is so organized that the energy for purposeful action in the public interest must be recruited ad hoc and mobilized from a diffuse variety of sources, the factual “exposure” is still one of the most healthy, responsible, and constructive forms the culture has developed. To see what has become of it today, you need not bother with Confidential; just pick up one of the first-class monthlies. I imagine that neither Harper’s nor COMMENTARY would think of itself as a “muckraking” magazine, but if not they are mistaken; they are the best we have, in the best vein of a good tradition. From their pages you can pick your own crusade. Urban renewal, segregation, narcotics, teachers’ colleges, gambling, metropolitan real estate: there they all are, and if you want to “do something” you will find there what you need to begin with, the facts. The morality that informs these accounts is not the same as that which informs manifestoes, but it may be more dependable, deriving as it does from the best standards of American journalism. We can thank Lincoln Steffens and Ida Tarbell, and many another who helped set those standards, for the overriding imperative, which is getting the story straight. When that side of it can be depended on, as it certainly can in our best muckraking, a considerable share of our moral energy is kept free for constructive uses, assuming that is where we want to channel it. This is because it is understood that claims are being made on our reason as well as our sympathies.

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