Commentary Magazine

The Tradition of McClure

The mass magazine has a bad name in this country, as a vulgarizing and corrupting influence on American letters. It goes against all our current prejudices to admire any medium dedicated to reaching a large, undistinguished (read: poor and uneducated) public. Thus, our literary historians have done little to make us remember McClure’s Magazine, pioneer among low-priced monthlies at the turn of the century. In Van Wyck Brooks’s The Confident Years, 1885-1915, there is the typical cursory mention of McClure’s and the typical paragraph stigmatizing “the new cheap magazines” of the 1890’s as “a species of literary mass-production,” catering to “a new public with unexacting tastes that was rapidly calling into existence a new class of writers whose work was more or less comparable to the product of machines.” Yet for anyone concerned with the actual relationship between “mass” culture and “high” culture in America, the history of the publishing revolution of the 1890’s is an excellent starting place and Peter Lyon’s recent biography of Sam McClure is required reading.1

The serious turn-of-the-century writers took a very different view of McClure and his journalism. Frank Norris’s autobiographical novel, Blix, ends in a burst of happiness under a radiant Western sunset, with the young Californian’s receipt of a letter from a New York publishing firm (McClure’s), hailing his talent and bidding him come east, railroad passes enclosed, for an editorial post on the magazine. What actually happened in Norris’s own case was quite as extraordinary. Having noticed some of Norris’s apprentice sketches in San Francisco periodicals, McClure put Norris on salary specifically to write his own fiction. If McClure’s Magazine actually printed anything Norris wrote while on the staff, no one has ever identified it. But Doubleday McClure, the firm McClure had founded and owned in partnership with Frank Doubleday, brought out Norris’s first four novels. Though none of these, not even McTeague, sold well, McClure still sent Norris west on salary to work on The Octopus.

The Norris story was the pattern for McClure’s relations with writers. Where others gave encouragement, he would give a subsidy. Because he owned a newspaper syndicate and a publishing firm as well as a magazine, he could offer to “handle” a young writer’s entire production—and pay him an income all the while. “I wish you would look upon us as your literary sponsors hereafter,” McClure wrote the unknown Jack London, after noticing some of his first stories in a California periodical. “If you send us everything you write we will use what we can, and what we cannot we will endeavor to dispose of to the best possible advantage.” And then McClure volunteered to send London one hundred dollars to one-hundred-and-twenty-five dollars a month (a living wage in those days), so that London would attempt the novel he claimed he couldn’t afford to write. The payments continued for a year. London would later describe McClure and his staff as “the best publishers, or magazine editors, in their personal dealings, that I have run across.”

There was not much method to McClure’s madness as a patron of letters. When he found a young writer of talent in whose future he believed, he simply gambled on that future. He impetuously hired Ida Tarbell and Willa Cather as editors, because the first made clear, lively prose out of dry subjects, and the second wrote superb short fiction. (“Paul’s Case,” one of Cather’s finest early stories, had been published in McClure’s the year before he swept her to New York from provincial obscurity in Pittsburgh. He had seen an article by Tarbell on street-paving before paying her fare to New York from Paris.) McClure hired Ray Stannard Baker as staff writer, watched him develop into one of the finest reporters in America, of great value to McClure’s Magazine, and then sent him off on half-salaried leave to write a novel, which never came to anything. He made a vague arrangement with Stephen Crane putting him on some sort of salary to write some sort of unspecified material, as the spirit moved him. “I think the agreement with you is a good thing,” Crane wrote McClure. “I am perfectly satisfied with my end but your end somewhat worries me as I am often inexpressibly dull and uncreative . . .” He also financed Crane’s tour of Civil War battlefields with the idea that Crane would write historical studies of actual battles, but when it turned out that Crane was no historian, and wanted to do short stories about imaginary battles, McClure was perfectly satisfied to publish those (the Little Regiment stories) instead.



When we look suspiciously for evidence of undue influence on the writers in McClure’s pay, for signs of that “literary mass-production” of which Brooks wrote, we find that McClure did indeed force two things on all his writers: travel and time. He put the promising young reporter Lincoln Steffens at a desk labeled “managing editor,” then suddenly pried him loose from his desk and sent him off on a random tour of the United States with the words: “Meet people, find out what’s on, and write yourself.” “My business,” as Steffens wrote his father at this period, is “to educate myself in the way the world is wagging . . . . It has indeed been an education.” McClure tried to interest Crane, early in his career, in a subsidized trip abroad. He was always urging Willa Cather to travel; one of these McClure trips made it possible for her to discover London and its literati, several of whom (William Archer, Yeats, Lady Gregory, Katherine Tynan) contributed to the magazine during the Cather era.

As for McClure’s lavishness with time, the capital example is the slow, careful research that went, at McClure’s insistence and expense, into Ida Tarbell’s history of Standard Oil. Though McClure and Tarbell seem both to have exaggerated the time spent on this history-making magazine series, the important point is that McClure himself set no deadlines. In fact, the reason why McClure’s Magazine has gone down in history, somewhat inaccurately, as the first of the muckraking periodicals, is that three articles—Tarbell’s third installment on the Standard Oil trust, Baker’s first piece on labor unions, and Steffens’s second on city corruption—ran in a single issue of the magazine, concentrated there simply because of McClure’s editorial indifference to time.



While this January 1903 issue of McClure’s has a place in American political history, McClure himself has received little personal credit, because his own editorial made much of the “coincidence” of the three articles. “We did not plan it so,” he wrote, giving rise to the persistent misconception that McClure’s only interest in muckraking was its effect on circulation. What McClure meant, in his talk of coincidence, was that three writers to whom he had given assignments—for whom he had provided time, money, travel, research assistance, encouragement, and advice, as well as an unusually high standard of accuracy, seriousness, style—that these three writers had produced publishable articles at the same time.

In the 1920’s, when McClure was a broken and forgotten man, long since deprived by financial ineptitude of his publishing empire, he noted the shabby place to which he was being relegated in the new histories of muckraking, and wrote a strikingly modest defense of his contribution in a letter to C.C. Regier, one of the historians. McClure gave credit to men of courage who had fought corruption locally in the major American cities; then to the progressive movement in national politics, as personified by Theodore Roosevelt; and last to McClure’s, for having spread information about the work of other men. Almost none of the articles, he pointed out, had been based on what he rigorously defined as original (that is, unpublished) materials: Tarbell and Steffens, for example, had derived their most devastating “exposures” from the printed records of legislative and judicial proceedings. (Some of these, however, as Ida Tarbell points out in her memoirs, were extremely difficult to unearth, having been virtually suppressed by interested parties.) “The success of McClure’s,” he said finally—and the claim, for all its simplicity, is a proud one—“depended upon the policy of the employment of magazine staff writers on substantial salaries irrespective of the amount of work they produced.” So much for machine-made literature for the masses.

Still, the fact remains that McClure began publication of his magazine, in 1893, with the avowed aim of reaching a larger public than had ever before consistently read an ambitious, illustrated monthly. What he did was to break the established quality price of thirty-five cents (the price of Harper’s, the Century, the Atlantic; Scribner’s cost twenty-five cents) by selling McClure’s for fifteen cents (later ten cents), a price within the means of the lower middle class. But did he also debase quality? H. L. Mencken thought so, and his view has often been quoted of “the yellow magazine of the McClure’s type,” which surpassed the quality monthly “in the race for circulation by exaggerating and vulgarizing all its merits.”

Well, let us have out a typical early McClure’s. Here are the contents of the October 1897 number: a creditable eye-witness account of elephant hunting in Siam; an effective short story, by Shan Bullock, about Irish peasant folk; the featured article, by an Oxford archaeologist, about the recent discovery of a Greek papyrus reputedly the oldest document to mention Christ; an interestingly personal Civil War memoir, about the seasoning of a raw regiment; Stephen Crane’s “Flanagan,” the short story that tells what happened before the launching of “The Open Boat”; a short, statistical account of the wonders of “greater New York,” soon to incorporate Brooklyn; Walt Whitman’s “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer”; a chapter from the current serial, R. L. Stevenson’s St. Ives; a dull article, with excellent photographs, announcing the recent discovery of life-masks of American founding fathers; an Octave Thanet story about ward politics; a short puff, signed by Ida Tarbell, for Charles A. Dana as the most influential of Civil War reporters—for Dana’s memoirs were about to start serial publication in McClure’s. The issue concluded with McClure’s own editorial announcing coming features (Lord Kelvin on scientific problems, Tarbell on Lincoln, a Mark Twain travel diary, a Kipling story, an Anthony Hope serial, and more “Good Stories by New Writers,” such as William Allen White). “The purpose of the founders of this magazine,” McClure added, “has been and is to bring within reach of a greater mass of readers . . . the fresh product of the best writers of fiction . . . [and] from month to month a moving, living transcript of the intelligent, interesting human endeavor of the time. We, like other men, wish to gain material success, but we want to gain it by those means which appeal to our intellectual as well as to our moral self-respect.” The italics are mine; but the order of those two final phrases is McClure’s.

There is nothing in this particular McClure’s except for the Whitman poem,2 that might not have appeared in any of the higher-priced monthlies—nothing radically original for the 1890’s either. By the time McClure’s got around to intensive coverage of American business, labor, and politics, there were many predecessors in the field. What did distinguish McClure’s, in muckraking as in other areas, was the intensity and quality of its articles. No other periodical assembled so many first-class writers, notable for their intellectual sophistication as well as for their stylistic gifts; or gave them such ambitious assignments, or so much time to work them up with care. Besides Steffens, Tarbell, and Baker, writers on the staff or on assignment included Josiah Flynt, George Kennan (the elder), George Kibbe Turner, Will Irwin, William Allen White, Samuel Hopkins Adams. The distinctive “McClure’s article” that this group turned out was remarkable for its blend of journalism with scholarship, of readability with thoroughness, of news with literature. The tradition of scholarly journalism, peculiarly American and with us still, was born on McClure’s Magazine.



For a considered judgment of Sam McClure’s personal rule in this venture we should turn not to Mencken or historians in the wake of his prejudices, but to Ellery Sedgwick, who after a year on McClure’s Magazine became editor of the Atlantic for almost thirty years. “In journalism the standard is everything,” as Sedgwick remarked, “and the standard was set by McClure himself.”

Slipshod work, even in tiny details, he would not tolerate . . . In McClure’s accuracy was a moral force.

Mr. McClure had a standard for writing quite as high as his standard for facts . . . Tradition, so living to the rest of us, meant nothing to him, but . . . he demanded . . . expression in clear, logical, intelligible, hard-hitting form. He had also the artist’s instinct against exaggeration. He reverenced the power of understatement.

But Sedgwick had certain reservations about the man, McClure, whose greatness as an editor he, like so many others, could not finally explain. And even his present biographer, who sets out to establish McClure’s place in history, plays down his intellect and sensibility in favor of a view of the man as some kind of instinctive “genius” (that horrid word, endemic in all histories of American publishing), who rarely knew what he was doing. As Sedgwick stiffly noted, McClure had come to this country from some “Irish bog” as a boy. Brought up in Indiana on a regimen of endless chores, and little physical or spiritual nourishment, he had a hired boy’s knowledge of the bleak world set forth by Hamlin Garland, who was among the first writers enlisted by McClure. But young McClure also had one obsession which is not so commonplace in the American saga as is often believed: he wanted an education. Against incredible odds, against all reason, he completed an essentially classical college degree, with high honors, at Knox College in Illinois. He had to earn his way there for eight years because three years of rigorous pre-college preparation, mainly in Greek and Latin, were made necessary by the sketchy schooling of his early days.

The significance of Sam McClure’s educational saga lies in its relative oddity among publishing magnates of the 1890’s. Frank Munsey never went to college, as he would lugubriously bewail when receiving an honorary degree. (Forty Years, Forty Millions is the title of the biography of the one indubitably mercenary villain of American journalism.) Neither did “Colonel” George Harvey, who took control of Harper’s and the distinguished old North American Review at the turn of the century, and would finally be rewarded, for his extraordinary political influence, by his appointment as our ambassador to England. Neither did Pulitzer, another immigrant, or Ochs, who took over the New York Times, to its lasting glory, in the 1890’s (and saved it as a quality paper by lowering its price to a penny). Hearst, of course, was a Harvard man of ill repute. Cyrus Curtis did not go to college; neither did Edward Bok, who edited Curtis’s Ladies Home Journal; and Lorimer of Curtis’s Post left Yale after a year to start a business career. Neither did Frank Double-day, who broke away from the firm McClure had founded to establish one of the most lucrative book-publishing ventures in American history.

All that McClure stood for, in the turn-of-the-century literary scene, could be summarized in today’s literary slang as the breakup of the Establishment. It is perhaps for this reason that the striking educational background of McClure—and of the writers he liked to hire—has been forgotten or minimized. For McClure shattered the time-honored New England and genteel New York monopoly of publishing media. His writers, almost to a man, grew up in the small towns of Midwestern or Far-Western America, turned their backs on Boston, descended on New York in the 1890’s, got their starts as newspapermen. Temperamentally they were anti-academic, anti-genteel, suspicious of pretension and hypocrisy. Some had been brought up rich, some very poor, but almost all were the first in their families to attempt higher education, and they came out of institutions in the back-beyond.

From Knox College McClure drew two of his classmates, John Phillips and Albert Brady, as his superbly capable editor and business manager, respectively; he would also, much later, bring to New York Knox’s distinguished president, John Finley, to take over some editorial responsibilities. McClure’s writers came from Allegheny College (Tarbell) and the Presbyterian College of Emporia (William Allen White); from Michigan State (Ray Stannard Baker) and Syracuse (Crane, briefly); from the University of Nebraska (Cather), of Kansas (White), of California (Norris, Steffens, and London, the latter very briefly). A surprising number had picked up intellectual and artistic sophistication in Europe before beginning their journalistic careers: Steffens at the Universities of Heidelberg, Berlin, Paris, and Leipzig (he was working on philosophy and experimental psychology, under Wundt); Tarbell in Paris, where she moved in scholarly French circles; Norris in Paris, an art student; Phillips in Leipzig; Josiah Flynt at the University of Berlin. McClure himself treasured close ties with the English literary world. He was inordinately proud of his role as the American publisher of Stevenson and Kipling, and his English representative, who named McClure’s Magazine, was Edmund Gosse. The spirit of these young disestablishmentarians was an original blend of cosmopolitan sophistication and backwoods American realism.

Scholarly journalism grew up in the 1890’s with literary realism; McClure deserves the credit for the one, as Howells does for the other. And the two achievements were closely related. If Crane and Norris and Dreiser began as reporters, Steffens and Baker and White and Turner and even Tarbell flirted with fiction before committing themselves to the journalistic careers which made them famous. McClure himself encouraged his writers to move back and forth from imaginative writing to on-the-spot reporting. And the cross-fertilization raised the quality of “muckraking” in McClure’s at the same time that it contributed to the vitality of turn-of-the-century literature.

But what of McClure’s own literary sensibility? What of Sedgwick’s insinuation that he knew nothing of style, had no respect for (literary) tradition? The criticism, often repeated, was probably first made directly to McClure by Melville Anderson, a young professor of Anglo-Saxon at Knox. What had happened, Anderson wrote to ask McClure, then establishing his newspaper syndicate, to “the ardent young philologist and Platonist” who had been his student? McClure’s reply is interesting: “I appreciate your position,” he wrote Anderson, “that an author must be coffined before he becomes an author to you, but for me an author in that position is nothing at all. It seems to me that the scientific spirit of the times, when applied to literature, means a study of current product. By studying the present you see the animal growing, you see it developing; . . . you have the fun and excitement of watching the gradual growth and the tendencies of the times.” With all its naturalistic and commercial jargon, this statement can be set beside the critical manifestoes of Hamlin Garland, Howells’s leading propagandist in the 1890’s. It belongs, also, with the credo of a magazine editor of our own time, F.R. Leavis, which has lately been given prominence in connection with the republication of Scrutiny: “A serious interest in literature starts from the present and assumes that literature matters as the consciousness of the age.”



In 1903, supposedly the annus mirabilis of Sam McClure and muckraking, McClure’s Magazine was actually beginning to look outdated, with its long, thorough articles over the byline of opinionated, intellectual writers. The magazine of the future, to all appearances, was World’s Work, published by Doubleday Page and edited by Walter Hines Page, whom McClure had hired away from the Atlantic and then lost to a separate partnership with Doubleday. The most prominent feature of World’s Work was its magnificent photographs. Technical improvements in photographic reproduction were eliminating the older pattern of journalistic apprenticeship, both for the artists (who, like the “Ashcan School” painters, had trained in the 80’s and 90’s as newspaper and magazine illustrators), and for the Howells-McClure school of literary realists. Subtitled, A History of Our Time, World’s Work ran neither poetry nor fiction; its subjects were big business and big unionism, both presented as aspects of big America. Its emphasis was on American power and progress versus all the rest of the world, not on the internal class conflicts that had obsessed the 1890’s. Its tone was masculine, vigorous, smug; its voice, that of enlightened conservatism. A single brisk, anonymous style dominated each issue, beginning with a long editorial section summarizing “The March of Events.” Photographs lavish with detail, and long captions and sub-titles, made it unnecessary to read the text of the articles—which were inclined to be short and unsigned. The future of magazine publishing (and perhaps the “mass-produced” literature Brooks incorrectly blamed on the cheap monthlies of the 1890’s) was established by the formula of World’s Work, which has dominated picture journalism ever since: the illusion of total information issuing from a super-wise, super-right, super-human non-writer.

The other voice of the future, in 1903, belonged to Frank Munsey. Delivering the Bromley Lecture on Journalism to Yale students in January, the month of McClure’s famous muckraking issue, Munsey hopefully predicted a future of publishing by trust, when two or three giant organizations would control all newspapers and magazines published in America. Then only would quantity capital be able to buy quality writing; his own papers, as Munsey lugubriously admitted, were “not well written.” “But with competition reduced to a minimum,” Munsey said, it would no longer be necessary to print the “vulgar, sickening” advertisements his periodicals ran; or to cater to the mass public’s “feverish appetite for sensation.” Munsey chided Andrew Carnegie for wasting his philanthropy on libraries when he could be financing a publishing chain. And he urged the young men of Yale to consider a career in trust journalism, for “the golden age of the salaried man” was upon them, and “hundred thousand dollar men” would, in modern publishing, “fill the places of the two and three thousand dollar men of today.”


1 Success Story: The Life and Times of S. S. McClure, Scribner’s, 433 pp., $7.50.

2 In addition to many selections from Leaves of Grass, McClure’s poetry in the 1890’s included good Kipling, Henley, Clough, Browning, and Verlaine; later Yeats and Housman were well represented.

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