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Character Sketches

Character Sketches
Chapter 28: Progressivism and the Republican Roosevelt, 1901 - 1912


Lincoln Steffens (1866 - 1936)

Steffens was the muckraking journalist who helped stir the nation to progressive reform and in the 1930s wrote an influential autobiography claiming to show the limits of progressivism.

After growing up in a moderately affluent San Francisco family, Steffens spent some years randomly studying and traveling in Europe. He had difficulty finding a career, but a young German student whom he had met in Europe died and left Steffens his substantial estate, enabling Steffens to live independently and pursue unconventional journalism.

Steffenss The Shame of the Cities was so shocking because he used massive documentation to supposedly demonstrate that practically everyone was not merely corrupt but abusing power for his or her private interests. After a disillusioning fling with Christian reform, Steffens turned toward tougher movements and wrote favorably about revolutionary Mexico, Mussolinis Italy, and Lenins Russia. When he returned from Russia in 1919, he said, I have seen the future, and it works.

Quote: I was not the original muckrakerthe prophets of the Old Testament were ahead of me.I did not intend to be a muckraker; I did not know that I was one till President Roosevelt picked the name out of Bunyans Pilgrims Progress and pinned it on us. (Autobiography, 1931)

REFERENCE: Justin Kaplan, Lincoln Steffens: A Biography (1974).


Ida Tarbell (1857 - 1944)

Tarbell was the muckraking journalist and reformer whose critical articles on Standard Oil helped bring about the breakup of Rockefellers giant petroleum trust.

Tarbells father made wooden kegs for the infant Pennsylvania oil industry. When she was researching the Standard Oil articles, she learned that one of her fathers business partners had committed suicide after being squeezed out by Rockefeller oil interests.

Originally an ardent feminist who traveled to France to write about the role of women in the French Revolution, Tarbell later turned against feminism and suffragism, perhaps because she felt that feminism had deprived her of marriage and motherhood.

She was a very popular biographer and lecturer, and wrote best-selling books about Lincoln, Napoleon, and Madame Roland. Despite her sharp criticism of Rockefeller, she admired much of American business and looked favorably on Henry Ford and scientific management.

Quote: [Rockefeller] has never lowered [the price of oil] a point if it could be avoided, and in times of public stress he has taken advantage of the very misery of the poor to demand higher prices.Does it pay the public to trust the control of a great necessity of life to such a man? (1904)

REFERENCE: Kathleen Brady, Ida Tarbell: Portrait of a Muckraker (1984).


Upton Sinclair (1878 - 1968)

Sinclair was the reform-minded journalist and novelist whose works helped inspire consumer protection and other progressive movements.

Raised in an aristocratic southern family impoverished by the Civil War, Sinclair moved to the Lower East Side of New York and worked his way through the City College of New York by writing hack journalism.

He was an enthusiast who got carried away by almost any cause with which he came in contact. Sinclair spent months in the stockyards researching The Jungle and donated the proceeds to a utopian commune. He founded the Intercollegiate Socialist Society with Jack London and wrote many more muckraking novels attacking financiers (The Moneychangers), coal mines (King Coal), the petroleum industry (Oil!), and so on. By age eighty-four he had written seventy-nine books.

In 1934 he ran for governor of California on a tax and pension program called EPIC (End Poverty In California). The campaign was unsuccessful but attracted much national attention.

Quote: And as for the other men who work in tank rooms full of steam, where there were open vats near the level of the floor, their peculiar trouble was that they fell into the vats; and when they were fished out, there was never enough of them left to be worth exhibitingsometimes they would be overlooked for a day, till all but the bones of them had gone out to the world as Durhams Pure Beef Lard. (The Jungle, 1906)

REFERENCE: Leon Harris, Upton Sinclair: American Rebel (1975).



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