David Graham Phillips

The interests of David Graham Phillips (1867-1911), American journalist and novelist, ranged from the plight of women to corruption in Congress.

David Graham Phillips was born on Oct. 31, 1867, in Madison, Ind. During his happy and comfortable childhood he developed especially close ties to his older sister Carolyn. After high school Phillips entered Asbury (DePauw) University, where he roomed with the future U.S. senator Albert J. Beveridge, a man whom Phillips considered a symbol of the success that can come from hard work. When Beveridge graduated, Phillips went to Princeton, where he received a degree in 1887.

After college Phillips began working on the staff of the Cincinnati Times-Star. He wrote for a succession of newspapers, culminating his newspaper career as editorial writer for the New York World. His first novel, The Great God Success (1901), published under the pseudonym John Graham, won acclaim from popular critics and encouraged him to leave the World in 1902 to devote himself to "serious" writing. From then on he worked long hours on a regular daily schedule, writing 22 more novels, a play, and a series of essays.

Many of Phillips's novels employ journalistic techniques to examine the "hidden" story behind a dramatic situation, but this often results in pasteboard characterizations. He was interested in a variety of social problems. In The Second Generation (1907) he contrasts the evils of inherited wealth with the virtues of the working class. The Plum Tree (1905), Light Fingered Gentry (1907), and The Conflict (1911) consider the corruption of power and money that accompanied the rise of American democracy. He dealt with the social and economic situation of women in Old Wives for New (1908), The Hungry Heart (1909), The Price She Paid (1912), and his best-known novel, Susan Lenox (1917), the story of the rise to success of an illegitimate country girl turned prostitute.

Phillips's essays exposing corruption and greed in Congress, "The Treason of the Senate" (1906), appeared in Cosmopolitan and immediately brought reactions from men in power. His work was called sensational and distorted, and he acquired the title of muckraker. But he had little taste for bucking public opinion and so returned to fiction.

On Jan. 23, 1911, Phillips was shot by a mentally ill violinist who believed that Phillips's novel The Fashionable Adventures of Joshua Craig (1909) had libelously portrayed his family. Phillips died the next day. His sister Carolyn, with whom he had lived for years, prepared his last works for posthumous publication.

Further Reading on David Graham Phillips

Abe C. Ravitz, David Graham Phillips (1966), is biographical and evaluative. Kenneth S. Lynn's excellent The Dream of Success: A Study of the Modern American Imagination (1955) contains a chapter on Phillips. Isaac F. Marcosson, David Graham Phillips and His Times (1932), remains useful for its account of Phillips's journalistic work. Louis Filler, Crusaders for American Liberalism (1939), describes the whole muckraking movement.

Additional Biography Sources

Filler, Louis, Voice of the democracy: a critical biography of David Graham Phillips, journalist, novelist, progressive, University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1978.