Journalists for a New Era:
Jacob Riis, Ida Tarbell, etc.
By Page Smith, 1984
An Excerpt From
“The Rise of Industrial America:
A People’s History of the Post-Reconstruction Era,”
Volume Six of “A People’s History of the
United States” (Published 1976-1987)
The most serious rival to Sam McClure as a journalistic innovator was young Edward Bok. Bok had come to the United States from Holland in 1870 at the age of seven. The Boks belonged to a prosperous middle-class Dutch family, but business failure had forced the elder Bok to come to the United States to try to re-establish himself. Young Edward was acutely aware, especially after his father’s early death, of his mother’s decline in worldly fortune, and he set himself, at a tender age, the task of restoring her to the standard of living to which she had once been accustomed. He divided his time rigorously among helping his mother with the household chores, doing odd jobs to augment her very modest income from taking in boarders, and applying himself conscientiously to his studies. As he put it in his third-person autobiography “The Americanization of Edward Bok,” “the American spirit of initiative had entered deep into the soul of Edward Bok.”
At the age of thirteen Bok left school and became an office boy of the Western Union Telegraph Company, then owned by Jay Gould, at $6.25 a week. He read in Appleton’s Cyclopedia about all the great merchant princes of the United States who had started life as poor as he and by thrift and industry had in time become millionaires. He walked five miles to work to save bus fare and put away his lunch money to buy improving books. He began writing to prominent public figures, Emerson among them, to solicit their advice and collect their signatures. His goal in life soon took shape. He would be a journalist, despite discouragement from his mother and from the great Gould himself. Finding a job as stenographer with the publishing house of Henry Holt (with a helping hand from Henry Ward Beecher), Bok started the Bok Syndicate Press. In this role he turned his attention “for the first time, to women and their reading habits. He became interested in the fact that the American woman was not a newspaper reader. He tried to find out the psychology of this” and, after considerable research and cogitation, concluded that “the absence of any distinctive material for women was a factor.” His inspiration was a syndicated column called “Bab’s Babble.” Unable to locate a suitable “Bab,” Bok at first wrote the column himself. “It was,” he noted later, “an instantaneous success, and a syndicate of ninety newspapers was quickly organized.” Ella Wheeler Wilcox, one of the popular novelists of the day, was next enlisted to do a column under her own name, and this led in turn “to the idea of supplying an entire page of matter of interest to women….The young syndicator now laid under contribution all the famous women writers to write on women’s topics,” and so one of the most spectacular journalistic careers of the age was launched. Bok was eighteen. He was soon summoned by Cyrus Curtis, head of the Curtis Publishing Company and publisher of the Saturday Evening Post, to assume the editorship of a magazine entitled the Ladies’ Home Journal, started by Curtis’s wife and with a solid subscribership of 400,000 in 1890. “He had found every avenue leading to success wide open and certainly not overpeopled,” Bok wrote. “He looked at the top, and instead of finding it overcrowded, he was surprised at the few who had reached there; the top fairly begged for more to climb its heights.” At every advance in his career and salary young Bok’s first thought was to provide more amply for his mother. “She was the only woman he really knew or who really knew him. His boyhood days had been too full of poverty and struggle to permit him to mingle with the opposite sex….He did not dislike women, but it could not be said he liked them,” he wrote. “They had never interested him. Of women, therefore, he knew little; of their needs, less. Nor had he the slightest desire, even as an editor, to know them better or to seek to understand them.” As editor of the Ladies’ Home Journal, however, he overcame his natural repugnance for women, his mother excepted, sufficiently to employ “an expert in each line of feminine endeavor,” with the single condition that she answer every letter addressed to her in her character as a writer for the Journal. To advise those women whose problems were too delicate to discuss in the pages of the Journal, Bok hired Mrs. Lyman Abbott, wife of the famous preacher, to respond personally and authorized her to create a network of qualified women in every part of the country to give assistance to those women in need of it. In addition, Bok offered college scholarships to young men and women who sold the largest number of subscriptions to the LHJ, “the complete offer being a year’s free tuition, with free room, free board, free piano in their own room, and all traveling expenses paid.” By 1919, 1,453 such scholarships had been awarded.
It was soon apparent to Bok that young American women were, through the prudishness of their mothers, woefully unprepared for motherhood – “in desperate ignorance.” He hired qualified doctors and nurses to write for a regular department of the magazine with practical information. One of his most successful innovations was the series devoted to “the daughters of famous men.” Finally, Bok was the first editor of a major magazine to devote large sums of money – $400,000 in one year – to advertising feature articles in upcoming editions of the LHJ. Soon the Ladies’ Home Journal became a kind of Bible to millions of American women.
In 1901 McClure hired Lincoln Steffens away from the Commercial Advertiser. Steffens’s major preoccupation was the relationship between corrupt politicians and private business that was painfully evident in very large American cities.
If McClure was the untidy genius of the magazine and Phillips the method and system, Ida Tarbell was the reigning queen, a brilliant editor as well as writer. “It was Miss Tarbell,” Steffens wrote, “a devoted friend of S.S., a devoted friend of all of us, who with her tact….found a way to compromise and peace….Sensible, capable, and very affectionate, she knew each of us and all our idiosyncrasies and troubles. She had none of her own so far as I ever heard. When we were deadlocked we might each of us send for her, and down she would come to the office, smiling, like a tall, good-looking young mother, to say, “’Hush, children.’” McClure’s dependence on her was abundantly evident. “If you enjoy a story,” he told Steffens, “I am confident that 10,000 readers will like it. If Miss Tarbell likes a thing, it means that fifty thousand will like it. That’s something to go by. But I go most by myself. For if I like a thing, then I know that millions will like it. My mind and taste are so common that I’m the best editor.”
Tall, handsome (one thought at once of the word “regal” to describe her bearing), Tarbell was discreetly seductive and at the same time reassuringly motherly. “It is difficult for me to express the growing admiration and affection I have felt for her down through all the years,” Ray Stannard Baker wrote in his old age. “….She is beautiful with virtue – so generous, so modest, so full of kindness, so able, so gallant – and yet with such good sense and humor….So fearless a writer, so honest, so interesting, with such ability to infect her pages with her own shining love of truth.”
Ida Tarbell suggested to Lincoln Steffens that an interesting article might be written about “certain admirable aspects of the city government of Cleveland.” So Steffens departed for the Ohio city “with no definite idea in his mind.” On the way he got diverted to St. Louis. What he found there astonished him and the country, not to say the world: a network of municipal graft and corruption on such a scale as to boggle the mind. The “shame” of St. Louis would, in time, become the initial episode in “The Shame of the Cities.”
Americans had lived, since the early days of the Republic, a kind of schizophrenia existence, as we have had occasion to point out. On one level they constantly proclaimed the glory, the untarnished splendor of the United States of America, exemplar of justice, equality, liberty, freedom, the Chosen of the Lord, the saving Remnant of Humanity in general. On another level, they experienced an often quite different reality: slavery; injustice; crudity; violence; the debauching of the Indians; intolerance of Catholics, of the Irish, of the Germans, of immigrants in general: chronic depressions and devastating failures; defeated hopes; lives warped by unending toil. Since the nightmare of the Civil War industrial capitalism had added another dark chapter, a new slavery of exploitation and corruption that seemed beyond comprehension and control. McClure’s young editors set out to explore the no-man’s-land between the illusion and the reality. It was to become the great intellectual exploration of modern times.
What most Americans who lived in large cities “knew,” at least on one level of their consciousness, and took for granted or otherwise suppressed, was now out in the open. Stories of skullduggery in high places have an irresistible appeal under almost any circumstances, but the reaction of Americans to the revelations that now followed those of St. Louis, one upon another, may also have been received with a sense that at last the façade of rectitude had been stripped away and the ideal had been forced to confront the real. McClure wrote in his memoir: “When I came to this country, an immigrant boy, in 1866, I believed that government of the United States was the flower of all the ages – that nothing could possibly corrupt it. It seemed the one of all human institutions that could not come to harm.” Most Americans shared his feelings to a greater or lesser degree. McClure was inclined to take the line that municipal corruption was, to a large degree, a consequence of the general demoralization produced by the war, but, as we are well aware, municipal (and state and even Federal) corruption has a long history extending back to the early years of the century. What is interesting about McClure’s observations is that they reveal the disposition of Americans to assume that the corruption that they saw about them in every generation was a recent phenomenon, that there had been an earlier, incorruptible age before morals had declined. Periodically episodes such as Boss Tweed’s pillage of New York forced themselves on the attention of the public by their sheer magnitude; but the clamor soon died away, and such occurrences were, in any event, treated as aberrations, exceptions to the rule in a generally honest and pious society. Now the expose’ journalists were piling up irrefutable evidence that wholesale corruption was as American as apple pie. It was both a rude shock and titillating. In addition, it provided radical critics of American capitalism and more cautious civic reformers with fresh ammunition. Soon it was all the style; new magazines sprang up with new revelations. Respectable old journals got into the business in self-defense.
It became evident, in Baker’s words, “that a large number of thoughtful Americans were growing increasingly anxious or indignant about the lawless conditions existing in so many walks of our life.” In his autobiography Baker headed the chapter in which he told of joining McClure’s with the title, “I Discover the Great American Renaissance.” He wrote years later: “Looking back, I have thought of the period in America, including the last few years of the nineteenth and the early years of the twentieth, as the American Renaissance, even the Great American Renaissance.” What came to Baker with the force of revelation was that American and Americans “were not absolutely perfect.” As a member of the staff of McClure’s Baker found himself “suddenly and joyously, in this new world, full of strange and wonderful new things, and I at the heart of it.”
Another young reform-minded journalist was George Creel, who came from a small town in Missouri. Creel’s first job was with the Kansas City World. Then he set off for New York to “take up where Edgar Allan Poe had left off.” He arrived in that city, half-starved and looking more like a hobo than an ambitious young journalist from the skeptical state. After weeks of increasingly desperate searching he found he could sell humorous sketches to a number of papers at $2 per joke and so kept body and soul together. William Randolph Hearst’s American offered Creel a job on the staff of the paper’s comic supplement. He thus found himself deep in the “Katzenjammer Kids,” “Foxy Grandpa,” and “Buster Brown.” He saw Hearst, “very Western in his black, broad-brimmed Stetson.” Creel also came to know the genius of yellow journalism. Morrill Goddard, “a gaunt, nerve-wracked man with a pair of mad eyes.” Goddard confessed that his ideal was to have “the reader reel back after one look at the first page” of a typical edition, screaming, “My God! Oh, my God!”
Arthur Brisbane was the son of Albert Brisbane, the promoter of the Fourier Communes in the 1830s and 1840s. Brisbane had been the brilliant and unscrupulous editor of Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World and had engaged in a circulation battle with Hearst’s Journal. He had just joined Hearst, “zooming the circulation of the Evening Journal up to dizzy heights.” Creel noted that Brisbane hammered on an old typewriter and talked into a recording machine at the same time.
It has been observed that the first generation of young expose’ journalists and editors was, almost without exception, from the Midwest or Far West, although the meaning of this has been less generally commented on. Their appearance in the East (some remained identified with Chicago and the Middle West) signified the displacement (or replacement) of the New England literary establishment by a wholly new and fundamentally more “American” type. There had been earlier arrivals like William Dean Howells and, in somewhat different mode, John Hay. But they had been domesticated by the reigning lords of literature.They took their intellectual clues from such men as Thomas Wentworth Higginson and James Russell Lowell. Now there was an invasion of young men with very different views and perspectives. They had no piety toward class or caste. They did not depend on dividends from giant industries or privately owned municipal utilities. They stood outside what we would call today the old-boy network. They had not grown accustomed to looking away from unpleasant sights or pressing misgivings. As outsiders they saw everything freshly. Their native intelligence and imagination, coinciding with the rapid development of “media technology,” enabled them to capture the attention of the country in a wholly unprecedented manner and in time to help alter the consciousness of their fellow Americans and change the way they perceived the nation.
In traditional societies the information that its members need is conveyed by a complex network of cultural artifacts – by institutions, ceremonies, myths, folktales, and religious forms. American society was too diverse, unformed, chaotic, and, above all, new to have developed such agencies – other than the Constitution itself (a document, estimable as it was, that left untouched large areas of American life). The nation had, therefore, to develop or adapt and vastly alter agencies and methods for disseminating essential information at all levels of the society. Newspapers had performed this function from colonial days to a degree unprecedented in other societies. They had, to be sure, performed it on the whole badly, commonly in the spirit of partisan rancor that so disgusted Charles Dickens and other foreign visitors. But in a remarkable demonstration of the adaptation of popular institutions to democratic needs, they performed it superbly in the last decades of the old century and the first decade of the new. Indeed, they did it so well that they created what was, in effect, a new form of expression (and protest). The newspapers or, more accurately, the magazines and the journalists that wrote for them first described the facts and then led the way in proposing remedies for them. So one feels that the nation, ready at any instance to fly apart or simply to disintegrate into its disparate and warring elements, was held together, not by politics but by words, torrents and rivers and oceans of words, describing, explaining, and, in the last analysis, reconciling Americans to each other and to the United States of America. ●