Journalists for a New Era:
Jacob Riis, Ida Tarbell, etc.

By Page Smith, 1984

This is Part Three of a Four-Part Excerpt

Part One

Part Two

Part Three

Part Four

If Jacob Riis, a penniless Danish immigrant, laid the foundations of expose’ journalism, another immigrant, an equally impecunious Irishman, would make it the nation’s most powerful engine of reform.

S.S. McClure was born in Northern Ireland in a two-room cottage, the son of a farmer-carpenter. The teachings of the common school were supplemented by “Pilgrim’s Progress,” Foxe’s “The Book of Martyrs,” and the Bible. When McClure was eight, his father, working in the shipyards at Greenock, Scotland, was killed in an accident. His mother, left with three small children, was unable to manage the farm and decided to come to the United States, where two brothers and two sisters lived in Indiana. At Valparaiso, Indiana, young Sam McClure heard his first Fourth of July oration from a Democratic candidate for Congress. “He talked about the land of freedom,” McClure recalled, “of popular institutions, and unbounded opportunities. I had never heard such a speech before. All these sentiments were new to me and moved me very deeply….I felt that, as he said, here was something big and free – that a boy might make his mark on those prairies. Here was a young country for Youth.” The children were farmed out to relatives. McClure’s mother worked as a maid and then, determined to keep her family together, as a washwoman, washing and ironing for $1.75 a day. In the hard times that followed the war, the McClure family felt actual want. The only work his mother could get paid $2. a week. “I remember the hardship,” he wrote years later, “of having to eat frozen potatoes boiled to a kind of grey mush. I did not thrive on this nourishment,” he added. “Before the winter was over I had become so weak that my hands were very unsteady, and I could not carry a glass of water without spilling it.” Sam’s principal intellectual nurture as well as his entertainment came from reading newspapers and magazines, among the latter the Century Magazine and St. Nicholas Magazine.

When Mrs. McClure remarried, she began a modest business making butter. “Besides milking and making butter for market,” McClure recalled, “my mother did all the housework, the cooking and washing and ironing and caring for the children.” She bore four more children, three of whom died in infancy. At the age of fourteen Sam McClure set out to fend for himself. With $1 in his pocket he decided to work his way through high school in a nearby town. He found an employer who gave him room and board in return for chores – making the fire in four stoves every morning at five-thirty, milking the cow and feeding the horses before he left for school. After school there was another round of chores until suppertime. On Monday morning he rose at one o’clock to help with the family wash. Without money, McClure was unable to replace his worn clothing or even buy an overcoat against the bitter winter chill. When it was cold, he ran. “Speed was my overcoat.” At the age of sixteen Sam and a friend opened a butcher shop, trusting their customers to pay at the end of the month. Few did, and the boys soon found themselves bankrupt. They tried getting a job grading for the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, and then, unable to save enough to return to school, Sam McClure got a job in Valparaiso in the Kellogg iron foundry at $4 a week. When the Depression of 1873 closed the factory and left McClure without a job, he became so discouraged that he “began to think of throwing up everything and taking to the road as a tramp.” Indeed, he escaped being a tramp, he was convinced, “so narrowly that I have always felt that I know exactly what kind of one I should have been,” he wrote years later.

Graduated from the Valparaiso High School after frequent interruptions to sustain body and soul, McClure decided to go to Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois. Arriving at Galesburg penniless, he lived for the first month on bread, soda crackers, and grapes. Once more he began the slow and laborious process of working to pay for his food and tuition, enrolling until his funds were exhausted and then dropping out to find another job and accumulate a little cash. So it went, month after month and year after year, enlivened for McClure by the fact that he fell in love with Harriet Hurd, the beautiful and accomplished daughter of his classics professor, who used every resource at his command to discourage the romance. After a visit with his mother to the old country, McClure returned to Knox, visited Harriet, and asked her “whether, if I turned out to be a good man, she would marry me in seven years.” Harriet, who was a senior at Knox with a brilliant academic record (McClure was a sophomore), said she would, and McClure went away “feeling that the most important thing in my life was settled.”

The constant expedients, the hard work, the long hours took their toll on young McClure. By the time he was twenty years old he had developed a strong aversion to manual labor of any kind. “I had always hated chores, and I had been a chore boy since I was eleven years old,” he wrote, “Now my patience was exhausted.” He redoubled his efforts at Knox, convinced that the only path out of a life of unremitting physical labor lay through its portals. Half-starved and more than half-frozen, he studied every moment he could spare. Harriet Hurd’s father gave her $5 for a birthday present; she gave it to McClure and he bought a half a ton of coal with it. Surviving the school year, he got a job peddling an improved coffeepot. Next came a restaurant and then a stint as a grocery clerk. Finally, he got a job as a traveling salesman selling microscopes. To McClure it was one of the happiest summers of his life. He and a young companion “lived in the open, in the woods and groves, near the little towns in which we peddled and traded and bought our food. When we tired of one neighborhood, we would board a convenient freight-car and go on.” At Knox, McClure helped run the school newspaper, the Knox Student. It was the beginning of one of the notable careers in American journalism. Before the year was out, McClure had written and printed a pamphlet entitled The History of Western College Journalism. The only cloud in his sky was the fact that he had not seen Harriet Hurd for five years. During the course of his senior year Harriet returned from a teaching post at the University of Nebraska, and their friendship resumed as though it had never been interrupted.

McClure’s commencement oration was on “Enthusiasm.” It lasted five minutes. In it the young orator declared “that the men who start the great new movements in the world are enthusiasts whose eyes are fixed upon the end they wish to bring about – that to them the future becomes present. It was when they believed in what seemed impossible,” McClure added, “that the Abolitionists did most good, that they created the sentiment which finally did accomplish the impossible….It is not the critical, judicial type of mind….that generates the great popular ideas by which humanity rights itself.” McClure, reprinting his oration, added a poignant aside: “I had looked forward for eight years to graduating, and I had always thought that when I graduated I would be tall, that I would know a great deal, and that I would have all the plans made for my life. Here I was no taller, no wiser and with no plans at all. The future was an absolute blank ahead of me.”

Sam McClure, no taller or wiser, decided to go East to find out why he had no heard from Harriet and to seek his fortune. Rebuffed by Harriet in an “interview almost too painful to describe,” he found a temporary refuge with his former elocution teacher from Knox College, who lived near Boston. There he went to the Pope Manufacturing Company, which turned out bicycles. It was run by Colonel Albert Pope, a genius in advertising, whose maxim was “Some advertising is better than others, but all advertising is good.” When McClure applied for a job, Pope, only thirty-nine himself, instantly recognized in the handsome, enthusiastic young man a kindred spirit. The only job open in the company was the temporary one of teaching prospective riders to ride at a nearby bicycle rink. McClure had never ridden a bicycle or “even been very close to one; but,” he recalled, “I was in the predicament of the dog that had to climb a tree.” In a few hours he learned to ride and was soon teaching others. The next day he was paid $1 and although he was not told to return, he did so, and while he was not exactly “engaged,” he was not exactly fired either. At the end of the week Pope put him in charge of one of his rinks. A few months later he called him into his office and asked him if he would be interested in editing a magazine on bicycling, the Wheelman, that he planned to start primarily to promote his bicycles.

The first issue of the Wheelman came out two months after McClure had graduated from Knox. Up to this point, McClure noted later, he had lived in the future. Now he had “attached himself to something vital, where there was every possibility of development. I was in the big game, in the real business of the world; and I began to live in the present.” Many times in the future, when he passed the recessed door of the Pope Manufacturing Company, McClure reflected that it was there that he had said good-bye to his youth. “When I have passed that place,” he wrote, “….I have fairly seen him standing there – a thin boy, with a face somewhat worn from loneliness and wanting things he couldn’t get….When I went up the steps, he stopped outside; and now it seems to me that I stopped on the steps and looked at him, and that when he looked at me I turned and never spoke to him and went into the building. I came out with a job, but I never saw him again, and now I have no sense of identity with that boy; he was simply one boy whom I knew better than other boys. He had lived intensely in the future and had wanted a great many things. It tires me, even now, to remember how many things he had wanted. He had always lived in the country, and was an idealist to such an extent that he thought the world was peopled exclusively by idealists. But I went into business and he went back to the woods.”

In S. S. McClure’s disarmingly simple memoir of his early life, his reflection on the boy he left behind is the only portion that rises to true eloquence. It could stand as the archetypal expression of innumerable ambitious, idealistic young Americans who, in every generation, put aside the dreams of youth and entered into the serious business of the world, few, to be sure, as brilliantly as Sam McClure.

Bicycling was the first outdoor sport to seize the imaginations of Americans. Suddenly bicycling was all the rage. American men, it was pointed out, led sedentary lives and suffered from lack of clean air and wholesome exercise. Young Sam McClure, editing the Wheelman for Colonel Pope, found himself inundated by articles from bicycling enthusiasts, who, he wrote, “sent us articles on everything that had to do with bicycling.” Many were accounts of extended “tours” made through the countryside and illustrated with photographs taken by travelers. The magazine soon had a department devoted to clubs, meets, and races. The well-known poetess Harriet Spofford was engaged by McClure to write for the Wheelman. The magazine flourished, and he resumed his siege of Harrriet Hurd’s affections. She succumbed at last, and they were married in Galesburg, “seven years lacking three days from the date of our first boy-and-girl engagement,” McClure wrote.

From the Wheelman McClure went on to the Century Magazine. While he was working for the Century Magazine in a comparatively humble capacity, the notion of syndicating articles for magazines and newspapers hit him with the force of revelation. He already prided himself on an instinct about what sorts of articles and stories would have the widest appeal to prospective readers. It seemed eminently logical to commission well-known writers to write such pieces, which could be sold to numerous journals rather than to one and sold for sums small enough to be afforded by newspapers of modest size. If enough such papers could be prevailed upon to sign up with the “syndicate,” authors could make as much money as (or indeed, more money than) they could make a writing for the best-paying journals like the Century and the Atlantic Monthly. Logical as it seemed, the notion was not an immediate success. It took McClure vast labors and considerable money, much of it borrowed, and several anxious years before his syndicate was on firm financial ground. Authors as well known as the short story writer Frank Stockton were joined by Robert Louis Stevenson, Rider Haggard, Conan Doyle, James Barrie, and Rudyard Kipling.

The idea of syndication was as brilliant as it was obvious. The existing conservative and old-fashioned journals took the line that there was a strictly limited supply of good writers and, in consequence, of good stories and articles. These they competed for discreetly. Sam McClure’s notion that there was, in fact, a virtually unlimited supply seemed to them as bizarre as the suggestion that money grew on trees. McClure’s genius was to apply to literary production the classic principles of supply and demand. Demand produced supply. The development of modern industrial capitalism had depended on new methods of distribution; the railroads solved that problem, enabling industrial capitalism to burgeon. Syndication was to the literary world what the railroad and the assembly line were to the world of industrial capitalism. With a vast new market, literary production (or at least journalism) doubled and then tripled and quadrupled. “Literature,” it turned out, was not much different from sewing machines or bicycles; it, too, could be mass-produced. Alexis de Tocqueville, in the 1830s, had predicted a democratic literature. What Sam McClure stumbled upon or intuited was that every red-blooded middle-class American youth – women, it turned out, as well as men – wished above all else to be a writer and thus avoid “work” and all its attendant stresses and strains.

But McClure’s ambition was to be an editor. Syndication was simply a stepping-stone. With borrowed capital McClure and two college friends, John S. Phillips and Edgar Brady, launched McClure’s Magazine in the fall of 1893. Not long after the magazine had published its first issue (it went through the period of chronic crisis that seems to have marked virtually every successful publishing enterprise in its infancy), McClure received an article on “the paving of the streets of Paris,” an unpromising topic by an unknown writer named Ida Tarbell. When McClure read it, he said to John Phillips, “This girl can write. I want to get her to do some work for the magazine.” McClure tracked Tarbell down in Paris, where a twenty-minute appointment turned into a three-hour intellectual feast. As soon as McClure could scrape together the money, he offered Ida Tarbell an editorial position on his magazine. Thus began the most fruitful alliance in the history of American journalism.

Born in Hatch Hollow, Pennsylvania, in 1857, Ida Tarbell had graduated from nearby Allegheny College, taught school in Ohio, and then gone to work for the Chautauquan, a journal of the reform-minded Chautauquans. After some years on that journal, at the age of thirty-four Tarbell left for Paris. There she attended the Sorbonne and did research on the role of women in the French Revolution.

Ida Tarbell’s serialized “Life of Napoleon” raised McClure’s circulation from 40,000 to 80,000 within a few months. She followed it with “Life of Lincoln.” Again circulation had a meteoric rise – 120,000, 175,000, and then, five months after the series had started, 250,000, by far the largest circulation of any magazine in the country, greater than the combined circulation of its principal rivals – the Century, Harper’s and Scribner’s. The enormous increase in circulation threatened to ruin the magazine. Its advertising rates had been based on a circulation of 60,000, but with increased printing and distribution costs far exceeding the returns from the new subscriptions, McClure’s found itself $285,000 in debt at the end of the year. “I was thirty-nine years old,” McClure wrote, “had been out of college fourteen years, and I had never been out of debt.”

But he weathered the crisis. Soon the magazine was making handsome profits. In addition to Ida Tarbell, McClure hired Ray Stannard Baker, who had already made a name for himself as a reporter for the Chicago News-Record. The staff of McClure’s was young when Baker joined the magazine. McClure himself was forty-one. Baker was twenty-eight. Benjamin Franklin Norris, called Frank by his friends, was the same age. Most of the authors published by McClure’s were also young. Stephen Crane was twenty-seven. A promising Kansas journalist and editor named William Allen White was under thirty. Jack London, a West Coast writer, was twenty-three. Booth Tarkington, whose novel “The Gentleman from Indiana” was published serially in McClure’s (Baker called it “a fresh breath of life: a book full of the America of the Middle West”), was twenty-nine. Kipling, one of McClure’s “regulars,” told him, “It takes the young man to find the young man,” as sound an editorial principle, one suspects, as any ever enunciated. Certainly it was true in McClure’s case.

The daily luncheons at the Ashland House were full of excited and exuberant talk and often supplemented by distinguished visitors whose stories or articles had been published in McClure’s. Kipling, querulous and solemn, was a decided disappointment, but Admiral Peary, Bliss Perry and Hamlin Garland were interesting additions to the company of young journalists.

S.S., as he was called by his associates, was “all intuition and impulse, bursting with nervous energy,” in Baker’s words. He was also bursting with ideas for new magazines and new publishing ventures. His alter ego was John S. Phillips, his college-mate. If McClure was “all intuition and impulse,” Phillips was all system and order. “I got into this precarious world of the printed word,” Baker wrote years later, “largely as a result of his perfected art of editorial midwifery.”

McClure may have been chronically short of funds, but he was never lacking ideas. He threw them off as a pinwheel throws off sparks. McClure’s initiated a series of interviews “with noted men about their life and work” that proved enormously popular. They were called the “Human Document” series, a name suggested by the French author Alphonse Daudet, who exclaimed when the idea was described to him (and he was asked to grant an interview illustrated with photographs), “Veritables documents humaines!” With the “Human Document” series, McClure penetrated a kind of psychological frontier. He invented, as it were, a new way of perceiving public figures. They had been known hitherto by their works. To try to penetrate their personal lives, their human foibles and eccentricities would have seemed to an earlier generation an impertinence bordering on indecency. The very notion that a famous public figure had a private life raised, by extension, troubling questions about the relation of a write or artist to other individuals and to the larger society. An individual had been conceived of as a person responding to certain clearly stated moral imperatives or mores. The “Human Document” series revealed a new notion of human personality far more richly colored, even on occasion eccentric.

The magazine also pioneered in a “new method of dealing with the latest discoveries of science….It gave the reader himself the sense of exploration in an undiscovered country which the editors called ‘The Edge of the Future.’” Professor Marie Curie discovered radium, and McClure’s hastened to inform its readers of the new miracle. It had been preceded by Professor Wilhelm Roentgen’s discovery of X rays. “In some ways,” Ray Stannard Baker wrote, “this seemed the most astonishing of all recent discoveries….” McClure’s “made much of photographic illustrations taken through animals and even human beings.”