Muckrakers Of The 20th Century
In 1906, an investigative reporter named David Graham Philips published a series of exposÃ©s that accused powerful and influential senators of drafting legislation that benefited corporations in which they had personal financial stake. President Theodore Roosevelt felt it necessary to undercut the efforts of journalists such as Philips, mainly because many of his supporters were subjects whom Philips was attacking. During his dedication of a cornerstone of the House of Representative’s building, Roosevelt first brought about the term “muckraker”, using it to describe investigative reporters who exposed corruption. The term itself stems from a character in John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, a character who was “offered a celestial crown for his muckrake, but would neither look up nor regard the crown he was offered, but continue to rake to himself the filth of the floor”. (1: Jensen, inside cover)The character in Bunyan’s book was consigned to rake muck endlessly and never lifted his eyes from his drudgery. (2) Many regard the muckrakers as “the greatest and most skillful practitioners of the art of exposÃ©” that the nation has ever known. (4: Cook, inside cover)
I agree with this assessment of the crusading journalists: I think their writings were extremely influential and significant in the course of American History. The motives of the journalists were to develop explanations for the crises in American social, political, and economic life, and to suggest things that might be done about them. They wanted to expose the unfair and shocking realities of the American Dream, and were successful in doing so. Significant muckrakers were Upton Sinclair, Ida Tarbell, Lincoln Steffens, Charles Edward Russell, Ray Stannard Baker, and David Graham Phillips. (3)
The muckrakers brought America to the awareness that its society was not the perfect place it seemed. They sought out corruption everywhere possible, and when they found it they proclaimed it in headlines across the country. Among the muckrakers are some of the most brilliant writers of the 20th century, one being a man named Upton Sinclair. Upton Sinclair was one of the more radical muckrakers. Unlike Lincoln Steffens and Ida Mae Tarbell, his works were ones of fiction. Though this is true, his fiction was thoroughly researched and based on facts. (4: Cook, p.97)
Sinclair gained particular fame for his 1906 novel The Jungle, which dealt with conditions in the U.S. meat packing industry. Upton Sinclair had a propensity to focus on the grittier, grimey aspects of contemporary American socioeconomics. The Jungle was very influential, and caused a public uproar that partly contributed to the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act in 1906. Though the book was a success in this way, Sinclair was ultimately disappointed in it because he failed in his purpose of winning people to socialism. He intended to draw attention to the plight of the immigrant and workingman, but instead brought notice to impure food. “I aimed at the public’s heart,” he once wrote, “and by accident I hit it in the stomach.” (5: Chalmers, p.93)
Charles Edward Russell was another influential socialist muckraker during this time. His works addressing the corrupt practices and terrible conditions at Chicago Stock Yards are said to have been inspiration to Sinclair’s The Jungle. Russell himself was a prolific writer, and it has been of him ‘pioneering nature: beef trusts…railroads…tenements…and the farm problem…. [H]is real topic was injustice, wherever it was to be found.” (6) The Greatest Trust in the World, published in 1905, was an expose of the beef trust, and Lawless Wealth, published in 1908, exposed the tobacco trust.
Ida Tarbell was a journalist who is most famous for publishing a devastating but factual expose of the standard oil company. She was published in a magazine called McClure’s, a leading periodical of the time. Other popilar magazines amongst the muckrakers were Cosmopolitan, Collier’s, and Everybody’s.(7) Tarbell wrote the expose of the Standard Oil Company in the 1904 book The History of the Standard Oil Company. In it she exposed their ruthless tactics on other businesses. Tarbell’s exposÃ© fueled very negative public sentiment against the company. It was a contributing factor in the U.S. government’s antitrust legal actions against the Standard Oil Trust. The legal actions taken against the company eventually led to the breakup of the petroleum conglomerate in 1911. Many of her books were based upon the role of women, including The Business of Being a Woman (1912) and The Wakrs of Women (1915). They were intended to help women and give them hope during their time of despair. (4: Cook, p.85)
Another muckraker who had a great impact on American society is Lincoln Steffens. Steffens is generally credited with being the first muckraker. He was a New York reporter who launched a series of articles in McClure’s titled “The Shame of the Cities”. In these articles, Steffens unmasked the corrupt alliance between big business and municipal government.(7, p.658) He sought to expose public corruption in many major cities in America, and his ultimite goal was to provoke public outcry and thus promote reform. The Shame of the Cities, written in 1904, was followed by an investigation into state politicians, entitled The Struggle for Self-Government (1906). In 1906 Steffens joined with fellow muckrakers Ida Tarbell and Ray Stannard Baker to establish the radical American Magazine. Tarbell continued to write about corruption until 1910, when he reported on the Mexican Revolution. (8)
Ray Baker first gained a national reputation as one of the leading “muckrakers,” by creating the before-mentioned magazine with Steffens and Tarbell. In that same year of 1906, Baker published the first of a series of “adventures in contentment” under the pseudonym David Grayson. The series was popular, but Baker was not comfortable with the “muckraker” label he had gained. In later years, he abandoned the “hard-hitting journalism” of the McClure’s years, but nevertheless continued to chronicle the political and social life of America. In Following the Color Line (1908) and numerous articles during the early 1900s, he was the first prominent journalist to focus on America’s racial divide. He was extremely successful and brought attention to many prominent issues. (9)
1. Stories That Changed America: Muckrakers of the 20th Century. New York: Seven Stories Press, 2002.
2. “Muckrakers.” U-S-History.com. 25 Feb. 2008
3. Weinbert, Arthur (Lila Weinberg) Edited With Notes. The Muckrakers The Era In Journalism That moved America to Reform- The Most Significant magazine Articles of 1902-1912. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1961.
4. Cook, Fred J. The muckrakers: crusading journalists who changed America. New York: Doubleday, 1972.
5. Chalmers, David Mark. The Social and Political Ideas of the Muckrakers (Essay Index Reprint Series). New York: Beaufort Books, 1970.
6. “Charles Edward Russell – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.” Main Page – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. 25 Feb. 2008
7. Bailey, Thomas A., Lizabeth Cohen, and David M. Kennedy. The American Pageant: A History of the Republic. Boston: Mcdougal Littell/Houghton Mifflin, 2005.
8. “Lincoln Steffens.” Spartacus Educational – Home Page. 25 Feb. 2008
9. “Ray Stannard Baker (1870-1946).” Swarthmore College :: Home. 25 Feb. 2008