Lincoln Steffens

Lincoln Steffens (1866-1936) was the most famous of the American muckraker journalists of the period 1903-1910. His exposés of corruption in government and business helped build support for reform.

Lincoln Steffens was born on April 6, 1866, in Sacramento, Calif. The son of a wealthy businessman, he went to an expensive military academy where he began showing signs of the rebelliousness that would eventually lead him to political radicalism. After barely graduating from the academy, he went to the University of California at Berkeley, where he became convinced that the answers to the great questions of life and politics lay in the study of philosophy. Upon graduating in 1889, he continued his pursuit of "culture" in Europe, studying at universities in Germany and France.

When Steffens returned to New York in 1892, secretly married to an American girl he had met in Germany, he found a $100 check from his father and a note saying that this was the last subsidy. Steffens got a job as police reporter for the New York Evening Post. He soon became fascinated with the tangled web of corruption that ensnared the police department and municipal government in general. He wrote of this for the Evening Post in the 1890s, as did other journalists. But he became famous for this only in 1903, when, as an editor of McClure's Magazine, he began a series of articles on corruption in various American cities entitled "The Shame of St. Louis," "The Shame of Minneapolis," and so on, which portrayed a pattern of shocking corruption in municipal government throughout the country.

The publication of Steffen's articles, in conjunction with the first chapters of Ida Tarbell's exposé of the Standard Oil Company, led to a sharp climb in McClure's circulation, and soon many other magazines were competing to boost their circulations by exposing the ills of American government. This type of writing was derided by President Theodore Roosevelt as "muckrake" journalism, and the term stuck.

Steffen's series, published as The Shame of the Cities (1940), became a best seller. Its popularity was well deserved, for Steffens's work stood far above most of the other muckraking exposés of municipal corruption in terms of both literary style and intellectual perception. He was not interested in merely exposing corrupt bosses. Indeed, his affection for many of those colorful characters shows through in his work. He wanted to expose the pattern of corruption and the real villains, the supposedly respectable, honest businessmen whose bribes and greed fueled the whole system.

The decline of muckraking journalism about 1910 coincided with Steffens's growing doubts as to its effectiveness. He increasingly doubted the effectiveness of reform politics, which seemed to seek to eradicate the symptoms of corruption rather than its causes. With the outbreak of the Mexican Revolution in 1910, he became fascinated by the idea of revolution and wrote many articles in the succeeding decade supporting the more radical revolutionaries. He saw the revolution as an attempt to uplift Mexico by eliminating the two most corrupting factors: American domination and capitalism.

Steffens was coming to associate the economic system of capitalism with the cause of social corruption; the apparent success of the Bolshevik Revolution seemed to bear him out. In 1921, returning from a trip to the Soviet Union, he uttered his famous words, "I have seen the future, and it works."

Like many liberals and radicals, Steffens found the United States of the 1920s a very uncongenial place. He moved to Europe and settled in a villa in Italy, where he became mildly enamored with Mussolini's revolution and began working on his autobiography. The Autobiography of Lincoln Steffens hit the United States at just the right time. Published in 1931, after 2 years of the Great Depression, it chronicled Steffens's mental journey from oversophisticated intellectual to reformer to revolutionary in a way that struck a deep chord among many people who felt that they should travel the same route. Although he never joined the Communist party, Steffens clearly indicated his thought that only something like a Communist revolution could save the United States. However, it was not just what he said but how he said it that made the book an instant success, for he wrote with wit, charm, and compassion. His autobiography is certainly one of the most interesting, literate, and thought-provoking autobiographies of the 20th century. He died in Carmel, Calif., on Aug. 9, 1936.

Further Reading on Lincoln Steffens

The best book on Steffens is his Autobiography (1931). His The Shame of the Cities (1904; repr. 1957) reveals that he was not as naive a muckraker as his Autobiography would indicate. Interesting insights can be gleaned from The Letters of Lincoln Steffens, edited by Ella Winter and Granville Hicks (2 vols., 1938). A useful collection of many of his articles is The World of Lincoln Steffens, edited by Ella Winter and Herbert Shapiro (1962). Louis Filler, Crusaders for American Liberalism (1950), is a standard work on the muckrakers. Also useful is David M. Chalmers, The Social and Political Ideas of the Muckrakers (1964). A provocative chapter on Steffens is in Christopher Lasch, The New Radicalism in America, 1889-1963 (1965), and a lively sketch of him is in Arthur and Lila Weinberg, Some Dissenting Voices (1969), a discussion of the American spokesmen for human dignity from 1833 to 1938.

Additional Biography Sources

Horton, Russell M., Lincoln Steffen, New York, Twayne Publishers 1974.

Kaplan, Justin, Lincoln Steffens; a biography, New York, Simon and Schuster 1974.

Palermo, Patrick F., Lincoln Steffens, Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1978.

Stinson, Robert, Lincoln Steffens, New York: F. Ungar Pub. Co., 1979.