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3.Lincoln Steffens


Lincoln Steffens is often referred to as the leading muckraker, as well as the first one. This status was ascribed to him by his colleagues and contemporaries as well as his admirers in the decades after his death. While his fame fluctuated according to the current political sentiment, he has retained his place in textbooks of American history until these days. Well-known chiefly for his articles in which he muckraked corruption, he held strongly distinctive notions of the political and business systems, the roots of corruption, and the future of the American nation. Apart from a brief outline of his life, this chapter will introduce Steffens’s most remarkable characteristics in regard to his two key roles in the muckraking era – journalist and commentator on the politics and society in the United States.

As Jensen writes, Lincoln Steffens was born in California in 1866 (39). Jensen further outlines that Steffens studied at the University of California at Berkeley and then went to Europe to advance his academic knowledge. He started his career in journalism on the Evening Post in New York (40), and later worked for the Commercial Advertiser, McClure’s (41), and the American Magazine (43). Jensen observes that Steffens was interested in political corruption at the city level, which was also the theme of a series of articles he wrote for McClure’s (41). Jensen notes that Steffens then continued his muckraking of corruption at the state and federal levels (42). As Jensen describes, after Steffens had left the job of a full-time journalist, he took part in the negotiations between the West and Russia after WWI. He came to be known as a promoter of communism who believed in revolution as a possible solution to the contemporary political and social state of affairs. This sentiment detracted from Steffens’s popularity (43). Jensen states that it was the publication of Steffens’s autobiography in 1931 that returned fame to Steffens before his death in 1936 (44). Shapiro claims that Steffens’s autobiography, presenting an array of the author’s opinions on politics and political movements of the early twentieth century, affected the public to a larger extent than any autobiography by any other muckraker, and has been ranked as a classic (Lincoln Steffens: Light and Shadow on His Historical Image 323).

Despite his later tendency to get involved in politics, journalism seems to have been Lincoln Steffens’s vocation. He is considered to have been one “of the most distinguished journalists of his time” (Sampson 58). While, as Kaplan says, he did not intend to become a journalist when he finished his studies and came to stay in New York (44), he was probably predisposed to make a living as one. It seems that he developed some distinct personality traits that made him a successful journalist. In addition, he had several specific opinions on journalism which he sustained and which possibly distinguished him from other journalists.

Steffens was a “painstaking craftsman” (Shapiro, Lincoln Steffens: The Muckraker Reconsidered 432). As Stein suggests, Steffens was showing great ambition since the very beginning of his work on the Evening Post, the first newspaper that employed him. He took his job very seriously. He was aware that if he was to achieve a higher position than a “cub” on the newspaper and not to be replaced, he had to take advantage of every chance to get an assignment. If he was not assigned a task, he used to search for his own topics and ideas in books and magazines, and his stories were then printed if they conformed to the periodical’s literary standards (Apprenticing, pars. 8; 26-29). Steffens later recalled that he “hustled to beat the band” (qtd. in Stein, Apprenticing, par. 8) in order to establish a secure position in the field. He managed this in a relatively short time and climbed up the journalistic ladder. Kaplan remarks that Steffens gained some influence in New York after having been on the Evening Post for two years (64). He was regarded as “the ablest reporter on the staff, one of the best general reporters in the city, a man who could write, on the spot, a professional story on almost anything” (Kaplan 48).

One of Steffens’s characteristic features was his willingness to meet new people in order to learn new skills and broaden his knowledge. Stein describes that at the time when Steffens started his job on the Evening Post, employers were not concerned with educating journalistic apprentices and developing their professional skills. Therefore, Steffens understood that he had to persist and try to get versed in journalism by other means (Apprenticing, par. 11). Kaplan mentions that Jacob Riis, a reporter who covered the New York police department, was Steffens’s tutor at the beginning of Steffens’s career (59). Kaplan adds that Riis influenced Steffens in the way he treated the news. Steffens said about Riis that he “not only got the news . . . , [but] he cared about the news” (qtd. in Kaplan 60). Steffens learnt from Riis that a reporter was obliged “to make things happen” (Kaplan 60). Another source of education and material for Steffens were New York’s leading businessmen and politicians. Stein observes that Steffens, unlike other young reporters, made their acquaintance very early. The top officials respected him and he was proud of this fact (Apprenticing, pars. 30-32). Steffens once boasted: “The President of the Board of Education said of me the other day, ‘There’s the gentleman reporter,’ and he invariably gives me all the news he can. I ‘scooped’ his message yesterday” (qtd. in Stein, Apprenticing, par. 32). Steffens further commented that other prominent personalities such as J. Pierpont Morgan “[taught him] something worth knowing” (qtd. in Stein, Apprenticing, par. 32). Stein states that Steffens also cultivated personal relations with people from Wall Street about whom Steffens noted: “[T]hey confide in me, saying they know I will report them accurately and without exaggeration” (qtd. in Stein, Apprenticing, par. 32). Thanks to all these people, Steffens penetrated the rules of big business and absorbed the immediate atmosphere of the city. They gave him valuable material and introduced him to the world about which he would create his own theories.

What might have helped Steffens gain the confidence of the top-ranking people was his appearance and manners. Kaplan suggests that Steffens’s upper-class manners that he acquired during his stay in Europe, together with his English garments, supported his progress as a journalist (49). Steffens “was invariably polite and discreet, freely admitted his ignorance, his eagerness to learn, his gratitude for being taught” (Kaplan 49). In addition, as Kaplan goes on, he advanced a skill that he sustained all his life – he was able to suppress his self and his moral judgment (49), which allowed him to turn into “one of the country’s most celebrated twentieth-century interviewers” (Stein, Apprenticing, par. 26). Shapiro explains that Steffens was perfect at interviewing people and gifted with the skill of making even the tight-lipped talk (Lincoln Steffens: The Muckraker Reconsidered 431). Mabel Dodge1 described him “as that ‘gentle, little, steel man’ who liked to play with human souls” (Shapiro, Lincoln Steffens: The Muckraker Reconsidered 432). Ida Tarbell referred to him as courageous, self-confident and “incredibly outspoken,” being “the most brilliant addition to the McClure’s staff in my time” (qtd. in Kaplan 90). All these characteristics, documented by his friends, probably won him acquaintances and his distinguished status among the reporters.

Kaplan asserts that at the beginning of his journalistic work, Steffens only took the job of a journalist as the starting point for a literary career, as many of the contemporary young journalists did (49). Despite this view, as Aucoin writes, Steffens devoted himself to journalism (128). He said: “I act as if journalism were my sole aim, and to their questions about why I ‘rustle’ so much, I say merely that so long as I am at it, I am here for all there is in it” (qtd. in Kaplan 49). Steffens held firm opinions on how journalists should do their job, which sometimes led to clashes with his superiors, who did not always share his views. As Kaplan explains, when Steffens was on the Evening Post staff, he disputed his editor’s demand for complete factuality of the reports. The editor insisted that there was no space in journalism for humor, artistic means of expression, and personality (46). Steffens later recalled: “What I did not like and still resent somewhat . . . is that he objected to individuality in reporting” (qtd. in Kaplan 46). Steffens was tempted to give way to his artistic side.

Indeed, a part of his personality was an artist. This aspect could not be ignored in his writing style, and also in his appearance. Shapiro points out that the artist in him could be seen at first sight, which was remembered by some of his friends (Lincoln Steffens: The Muckraker Reconsidered 432). Frederic Howe2 said that “something unusual in the cut of his clothes, a pointed beard and a flowing tie suggested an artist” (qtd. in Shapiro, Lincoln Steffens: The Muckraker Reconsidered 432). Certainly, it was not only his style of clothing that stressed his artistic nature. Most of all, it was his attitude towards news reporting. He strove to add artistic literary style to the job of conveying facts to the readership. Steffens once said: “I am an artist, not a believer in issues and I am writing as an artist” (qtd. in Shapiro, Lincoln Steffens: The Muckraker Reconsidered 432). I assume that this set Steffens apart, because not all of his colleagues might have pondered to such a degree about the precision of their style. As Shapiro argues, Steffens was capable of joining science, politics and art. He observed the environment with an eye of a scientist but could transform his findings into an aesthetically valuable piece of writing (Lincoln Steffens: The Muckraker Reconsidered 431). He was never keen on dry reporting of events without any hint of vitality or color. What he strived for was journalism which was “personal, literary and immediate” (Kaplan 72). And as Kaplan adds, he was given the chance to apply his ideas when he took up the job of city editor on the Commercial Advertiser. His aim was then to create a newspaper that “shall have literary charm as well as daily information, mood as well as sense, gayety as well as seriousness” (Kaplan 73).

Journalism enriched Steffens in other aspects, too. It allowed him to immerse himself in observing the realities of the present and searching for natural rules within the society. As Kaplan suggests, Steffens was attracted by what was the theme of many writers of his day – the unrest and the future of the cities (48). Steffens expressed that the city showed him “human nature posing nude” (qtd. in Kaplan 48). According to Kaplan, Steffens dealt with strikes, violence, slums and labor (48), and he noted about his efforts: “I hope to get facts of scientific values and I may get conclusions” (qtd. in Kaplan 48). Stein claims that Steffens regarded his job to be beneficial for both himself and his audience. Steffens believed that the press played a vital role in creating the right public opinion (Apprenticing, par. 16). At the same time, Steffens appreciated reporting for widening his own horizons: “[T]he experience I am getting and the knowledge of the world is invaluable to me” (qtd. in Stein, Apprenticing, par. 14). Thus, it seems that Steffens was absorbed by his occupation and was not a mere observer who brought the news to the public, but also a keen amateur sociologist who examined the society for his own pleasure.

As I have already implied, Steffens was concerned with the society as a mechanism governed by specific rules. He was searching all his life for a provable set of relationships which define it. In Brown’s view, muckrakers in general did not use to propose any solutions to the conditions which they unveiled (52). On the other hand, as Chalmers observes, each muckraker gradually created their own philosophy that was presented in their articles (299). Accordingly, Lincoln Steffens formulated many theories regarding the interconnections between politics, business and society. They obviously kept changing with his advancing age, but I will mention only those which interested him most in his muckraking years. Sampson refers to Steffens as an observer who watched the current events from a distance (58). No one can tell whether Steffens really considered himself to be a detached observer. Nonetheless, if he did, he could be confident that his theories were correct and based on objective facts.

One of Steffens’s main concerns was corruption. Jensen states that Steffens was made aware of its existence when he went to school (39). Since then, he met it repeatedly at various places and gained further insight into its structure. As Filler puts it, Americans finally started to link his name to “corruption” thanks to his articles devoted to municipal corruption (xv). At the beginning of his muckraking of the cities, Steffens was surprised by the extent and reach of corruption which was a great deal more far-reaching than he had expected. He expressed this revelation in The Shame of the Cities:

When I set out to describe the corrupt systems of certain typical cities, I meant to show simply how the people were deceived and betrayed. But in the very first study—St. Louis—the startling truth lay bare that corruption was not merely political; it was financial, commercial, social; the ramifications of boodle3 were so complex, various and far-reaching, that one mind could hardly grasp them, and not even Joseph W. Folk, the tireless prosecutor, could follow them all. (14)

Kaplan explains that it was in New York that Steffens had gained his early experience of how political machines work (59). Steffens later said that grounded on the New York example, he could grasp political methods in any strange city because everywhere the methods were based on the same principles (qtd. in Kaplan 59). He crystallized some general definitions of corruption which he presented in his articles. First, Steffens asserted that political corruption does not depend on one’s affiliation to a particular social class, education, social status, or personal characteristics. Rather, society and government yield to corruption when they are exposed to pressure, because they are not able to withstand it (qtd. in Sampson 62). Second, he formed the opinion that political corruption caused that “a representative democracy [was] transformed into an oligarchy representative of special interests” by means of the party (qtd. in Schultz 541). However, Steffens did not blame corruption solely on politicians and businessmen. He did not exclude that ordinary people, too, spread corruption within the society. As he wrote, there was not much difference between the way politicians and businessmen pushed through their interests and the way citizens followed their own. It did not matter whether the aim of corrupted conduct was to elect your candidate into office or to gain a better position within the social circles. The underlying scheme was the same (10). Thus, Steffens implied that all levels of social structure and all spheres of interest were interwoven with corruption, which was a gloomy outlook on the conditions in the USA.

Concluding from Steffens’s observations mentioned above, it can be argued that Steffens doomed the whole society once and for all, without taking into consideration any factors involved in corruption. However, as Kaplan clarifies, Steffens pondered whether all forms of corruption necessarily had to be wrong. He reflected on the idea that a corrupt government might work more effectively than a reform government. The reform government might pursue honest goals but might not be able to carry them out, whereas the corrupt government might be. Therefore, the morality of corruption could be classified as relative because some acts of corruption could produce positive values (61).

In my opinion, Steffens looked at corruption and other issues, as I will imply later, from different perspectives in an effort to produce a theory which reflected the reality as truly as possible. Still, the underlying fact for Steffens was that “[b]usiness, the mere machinery of living, has become in America the purpose of life, the end to which all other goods—honour, religion, politics, men, women, and children, the very nation itself—are sacrificed” (qtd. in Chalmers 301). This is why it seems that the dominant outcome of his thoughts was that corruption ruled the USA and business was an incentive for it. As was already mentioned, Steffens devoted most of his muckraking articles to disclosing corruption at all levels. Since corruption embraces selling various privileges for money or services, his objective obviously was to explore the interconnections between politics and business. He reached the conclusion that there was no interconnection, in fact, because these two notions were identical and business was the driving force of the whole society:

[P]olitics is business. That’s what’s the matter with it. That’s what’s the matter with everything,—art, literature, religion, journalism, law, medicine, —they’re all business, and all—as you see them. Make politics a sport, as they do in England, or a profession, as they do in Germany, and we’ll have—well, something else than we have now, —if we want it, which is another question. But don’t try to reform politics with the banker, the lawyer, and the dry-goods merchant, for these are business men and there are two great hindrances to their achievement of reform: one is that they are different from, but no better than, the politicians; the other is that politics is not “their line.” (Steffens 6-7)

Steffens further elaborated on the involvement of big businessmen in politics. They played an active role in politics and worked efficiently in order to make profit from it (5). The big businessman was “a self-righteous fraud” (5) and “the chief source of corruption” (5). Steffens added that when a businessman became a politician, he learned the ways of politics and was not keen on reform. Furthermore, an inherent sentiment in the businessman was to do whatever it took to succeed in his enterprise. Although it seemed wrong to him to accept a bribe, it was excusable to give one if it was in the interest of his business (7). In Steffens’s view, American politicians accepted the motto “business is business” (8).

According to Shapiro, Steffens realized that the need for the connection of business and politics was rooted in a “system.” The “system” was a term for the political and financial structure of the American society which demanded that businessmen paid to the government for obtaining certain privileges. Steffens concluded that if the corruption was to be eradicated, the society first had to be restructured by defeating the “system” (429). In consequence of the “system” and the established order of the politics in the USA, the country was governed by bosses or people who were influenced by them. According to Kaplan, the organization of politics by the political machine was as follows. The boss provided patronage and could get people jobs, food and housing in exchange for votes and loyalty (55). As we can see, Steffens’s opinion on the rule of the boss and the boss himself was two-pronged. Again, he took various points of view of the issue. As Shapiro observes, on the one hand, Steffens was aware that political machines offered huge privileges to big businesses while the common people – a majority of the electorate – were greatly disadvantaged. He believed that bosses committed treason and betrayed the voters, which was a hindrance to democracy (The Muckraker Reconsidered 431). On the other hand, as Kaplan writes, Steffens was ready to acknowledge that the exchange of services for votes was fair, at least if the machine helped people in need (55). Steffens sometimes even “heroized and sentimentalized” bosses (Kaplan 55). Accordingly, Steffens distinguished between the general role of the boss and the machine within the whole political system, and their role in individual cases when they helped people. In the first case, the boss’s function was harmful to the common good whereas in the second one, it could be understood and justified.

Steffens did not only evaluate politicians’ and businessmen’s functions within the society or political structure, but also their personal qualities. Interestingly enough, the distinction between the good and the bad was of no significance to him. According to Sampson, he made a distinction between the weak and the strong, “heelers” and “principals” as he called them (61). Shapiro states that Steffens favored bad people who were not afraid to admit their real intentions rather than good people who were prone to conceal the truth from themselves (The Muckraker Reconsidered 431). Steffens preferred people’s openness and capability of acting straight to a seemingly “good nature” behind which dishonest intentions could be hidden. To sum up, Steffens was pondering about the state of the administration as a whole and he was convinced that it was based on fully wrong principles. At the same time, his approach to individuals involved in the system was independent and Steffens was able to measure their qualities regardless of their function in the political world.

In response to his study of the society, Steffens kept asking what could be done – and how – in order to heal the social and political environment. Although muckraking is not generally considered to have been able to bring any actual remedy to the ills of the society, it is beyond doubt that Steffens made people think about what was happening around them. As a result, he might have contributed to social change because people started to care and demand some remedy. He asked and answered himself, which is, in my opinion, a way to point to a certain direction the society should follow. As Schultz implies, one of the principles Steffens stressed was that democracy was based on representative government. The administration at all levels then promoted the interests of all people and took care for the common good (537). Shapiro notes that Steffens was convinced that it was the people who possessed the power to achieve democracy. He held the opinion that it was not conferred to the citizens and they should not take it for granted. On the contrary, they should actively participate in the development of a democratic society by demanding a good government (The Muckraker Reconsidered 430). At the same time, he expressed his doubts whether people really struggled for a better government and whether they were not satisfied with the actual scheme of things: “But do the people want good government? . . . Are they better than the merchant and the politician?” (Steffens 9-10). As Shapiro describes, he sustained this view of the US citizens a few years later when he said that they might be and were corrupt and neglected what was happening around them (The Muckraker Reconsidered 430) while acknowledging that “not many educated individuals [were] as wise as the mass of men” (qtd. in Shapiro, The Muckraker Reconsidered 430).

Provided that the society was capable of any kind of change, Steffens approved of reform, not radical change like revolt (qtd. in Kaplan 47). Steffens wrote that politicians should propose suggestions about how the policies should be improved and then citizens should either re-elect or replace them, based on what they had done in office (qtd. in Kaplan 155). Interestingly, Steffens did not support replacing “bad men” with “good men” in their offices. He would keep the “crooks” in office because people with high moral standards would proceed more responsibly and would change the current situation only in a longer period of time (qtd. in Schultz 534). Another factor in bringing change was the environment in which people lived. According to Schultz, Steffens believed that people acted in an illegal or dishonest way when exposed to conditions which made them succumb to corruption. Grounded on this assumption, he proposed to change the conditions first in order to defeat corruption (534). Steffens wrote to President Roosevelt:

Of course you are right in your demand for a “fundamental fight for morality”. . . . My contention is that along with that, however, we must improve conditions, reduce or lessen the temptations, and I think that the underlying principle of both fights should be to level all privileges and, thus, equalize opportunities. (qtd. in Schultz 534)

Steffens offered his opinions to the public in the hope that he would be listened to and would contribute to improvement in the political conditions. At the age of forty-two, Steffens was referred to as a “public moralist, messiah-at-large . . . , or simply ‘expert on politics’” (Kaplan 154). As Kaplan adds, Steffens trusted his own ability to spur some change when he said in 1908: “Before I die . . . , I believe I can help to bring about an essential change in the American mind.” In my opinion, if someone expresses his ideas publicly and is listened to, as Lincoln Steffens was, they necessarily influence the public opinion and may even affect the politicians. The impact can be huge if the suggestions are accepted, or at least recognizable if the ideas make people think. Lincoln Steffens did affect the public life. He presented a range of theories which made many people think. Even if this was all that he did, it was not a little.

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