Ray Stannard Baker

The American author Ray Stannard Baker (1870-1946) was a noted muckraking journalist before he became the official biographer of Woodrow Wilson.

Ray Stannard Baker was born in Lansing, Mich., on April 17, 1870. An 1889 graduate of Michigan Agricultural College (now Michigan State University), he later studied law and literature at the University of Michigan.

In 1892 Baker went to work for the Chicago Record, remaining for 6 years as reporter and editor. This introduced him to the misery of Chicago's poor, soup kitchens, charity wards, and thousands of homeless, starving men in the streets. "My attitude was that of the frontier where I had grown up. Bums, tramps! Why didn't they get out and hustle? Why didn't they quit Chicago?" he said. But his attitude began to change after he tried fruitlessly to help a youth find a job. He was haunted for the rest of his life by this "Potato-Car Boy," whom he wanted to make the central figure in a novel.

Baker's experiences as a reporter in Chicago reversed, or at least challenged, his early attitudes. In 1894 he was assigned to go with Coxey's Army on their march on Washington to demand relief from unemployment. When Coxey's "petition in boots" left Massilon, Ohio, Baker thought it was a "dishonest way for freemen to redress wrongs." But 12 days later he wrote sympathetically that the army was a "manifestation of unrest in the laboring classes" and should be looked upon as "more than a huge joke." He returned to Illinois in time to cover the Pullman strike that began in May 1894 and broke into violence in July. Baker gave a full, sympathetic account of the strikers' complaints and of the violence on the company's part. He was critical of George Pullman's "model city," with its high rents, and he handled the Chicago Record relief fund for the strikers.

In 1896 Baker married Jessie Beal, and they had two children. Baker went east in 1898 to work for McClure's Magazine. Other staff members were muckrakers (exposé journalists) Ida Tarbell, Lincoln Steffens, and Frank Norris. Baker wrote about conditions in industry and moved politically toward independent "progressivism." But in Native American (1941) he said he had never belonged to a political party and had "never been a Socialist, nor a Communist, nor a Single Taxer"; and he looked back on his actions in the McClure's days as "sheer bumptiousness."

By 1906 he and the other muckrakers had become disenchanted. They broke away from McClure's and gained control of American Magazine. Although American Magazine was also a muckraking publication, Baker was about to enter a new phase of life. He had long wanted to write the "great American novel," but instead he shifted to two new areas—writing essays under the pen name of David Grayson and producing the official biography of President Wilson. Baker wrote Adventures in Contentmentand eight other books on the same theme under the Grayson name for 35 years. Baker spent 14 years on the Wilson project, going through 5 tons of the President's personal papers and becoming his intimate. The last two books of Baker's eight-volume Woodrow Wilson: Life and Letters won the Pulitzer Prize for biography in 1940. Baker died of a heart attack in Amherst, Mass., on July 12, 1946.

Further Reading on Ray Stannard Baker

Baker's own writings include Native American: The Book of My Youth (1941) and American Chronicle: The Autobiography of Ray Stannard Baker (David Grayson) (1945). The best study of Baker is Robert C. Bannister, Jr., Ray Stannard Baker: The Mind and Thought of a Progressive (1966).

For background, works sympathetic to Baker are C. C. Regier, Era of the Muckrakers (1932), and Louis Filler, Crusaders for American Liberalism (1939; new ed. 1961). Studies critical of him are John Chamberlain, Farewell to Reform: The Rise, Life and Decay of the Progressive Mind in America (1932; 2d ed. 1933), and Granville Hicks, The Great Tradition: An Interpretation of American Literature since the Civil War (1933; rev. ed. 1935). See also Arthur S. Link, Woodrow Wilson and the Progressive Era, 1910-1917 (1954), and David Noble, The Paradox of Progressive Thought (1958).

Additional Biography Sources

Bannister, Robert C., Ray Stannard Baker: the mind and thought of a progressive, New York: Garland Pub., 1979, 1966.