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.
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
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
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).