Lincoln Steffens By Steve Barthelme Austin Justin Kaplan’s new biography of Lincoln Steffens is the sort of book that can’t miss. Steffens, most famous of the turn of the century muckrakers, knew so many of the people, and touched so much history in the 40 years between 1890 and 1930, that his biography could hardly be dull. The current vogue of investigative reporting and “radicalism” doesn’t hurt. Steffens started as a rich boy in California, spent four all-expense paid years at Berkeley and three at a half dozen universities in Europe, returned to New York in 1892 and shortly became a journalist. Quickly he meets, among others, Theodore Roosevelt, who is in New York as a reform police commissioner. Steffens becomes involved in reform of the city government, which is distastefully corrupt. Tammany. And initially Steffens’ feeling is just that, distaste. Bosses. No class. Gradually Steffens becomes more sophisticated. He sees bossism as a pattern, and as a system not without its advantages. A reform administration comes and goes without accomplishing much. Steffens runs into S. S. McClure, editor and publisher of what became the major muckraking magazine, McClure’s, with Steffens, Ida Tarbell and Ray Stannard Baker as regular writers. Sells him an article about another friend, Teddy Roosevelt. Steffens quits his city editor job on a New York paper to join McClure’s. Running into a crusading St. Louis circuit attorney named Folk who had exposed and prosecuted some of the local graft \(“Recently St. Louis had been kept in darkness for weeks pending payment of Steffens writes it up. Then in succession, Minneapolis, Philadelphia and Pittsburg, Chicago, New York. He also is evolving his theory: popular indifference and business evil make possible shadow governments of bosses in which corruption flourishes. Steffens becomes a hero by means of his exposs. Early in this period, McKinley is shot and Steffens’ friend Roosevelt becomes President. Results fail to come up to Steffens’ expectations. The reform administration failures he had seen in New York are repeated in the other cities. Steffens expects too much and does not get it. His LINCOLN STEFFENS Justin Kaplan Simon & Schuster, 380 pp. $10.00 political leanings slide further left. Luckily, around this time the Tsar is overthrown and before too long Lenin and Trotsky take power. Steffens is on the boat on which Trotsky sails from New York, returning from exile. Trotsky in second class. \(To facilitate the narrative, I have omitted some people Steffens knew: Bernard Baruch, Sylvia Beach, James Cagney, Mexican revolutionary President Venustiano Carranza, French Freud professor J. M. Charcot, Tammany Boss Richard Croker, Clarence Darrow, charter Socialist Eugene V. Debs, Henry Ford, Felix Frankfurter, William Randolph Hearst, Ernest Hemingway, Colonel House, James Joyce, Ezra Pound, newspaper magnate E. W. Scripps, Gertrude Stein, Upton Sinclair, Sinclair Lewis, Woodrow Does all this seem to be happening with remarkable ease? It seems that way in the book. With a few exceptions, Steffens’ life until 1918 is an almost effortless process of arranging good fortune and high rolling in a line. Once he is depressed for three paragraphs. An attempt to intercede in an L.A. labor bombing trial goes badly. As for the rest a piece of cake. In 1911 two labor organizers, the McNamara brothers, are on trial for murder in the bombing of the L.A. Times building. Steffens helps negotiate a guilty plea from the brothers for a promise of leniency. Steffens expects to create the beginnings of harmony between capital and labor: it was, he said, ” ‘an experiment in good will’.” Also an incredible act of arrogance and naivete. One brother gets life imprisonment and the other 15 years as the judge doublecrosses. Over the following 25 years, Steffens makes several unsuccessful attempts to gain their release by government officials. Disappointed by what he considered the failure of reform and progressivism and impressed by a 1917 visit to revolutionary Russia, he comes back \(after eight years in Here he runs into a lot of trouble. The Americans, oversold on World War I, turn to Red-hating as an outlet for their enthusiasm after the war ends. George Creel’s work in WW I and Mitchell Palmer’s 1919-20 “Red Scare” are ad campaigns for which we are still paying. Public enthusiasm for Red-hating doesn’t do Steffens any good in his last years. But it gives him an element of seriousness both harvested and reenforced by publication of his Autobiography in 1931. The book becomes a bestseller and critical success. Steffens lectures, travels and lives his last five years in Carmel with his wife and son. Kaplan’s book provides a fascinating picture of the people and the time. Chicherin, a Bolshevik commissar, interrupts dinner at the Moscow lodgings of an American mission to score some canned goods. Mabel Dodge, rich and neurasthenic, holds “evenings” at her apartment in New York where the leading bohemians are introduced to the leading revolutionaries. Later she moves to New Mexico. Still later she arrives in Carmel in pursuit of the poet Robinson Jeffers: She planned for him to fill the vacancy left in her life by D. H. Lawrence, who, Steffens remarked, had “unfeelingly died.” Teddy Roosevelt is described as having “essentially a boy’s mind”: “You must always remember,” said one of the Roosevelt’s closest friends, “that the President is about six.” But it is an intellectual biography of an intellectual. You get the feeling Steffens never needed to bathe, or take a Rolaid. Kaplan does not avoid the problems. \(such as Steffens’ exaggerated expectations for muckraking, or his justification of they seem inadequately dealt with. Conflicts are handled thoroughly in a historical and intellectual sense, but Kaplan them in a personal sense. So that, after reading the book, one is left with a lot of questions. Why, for instance, did Steffens choose his very curious position as an apologist for revolution who refuses to become a revolutionary? The book’s answer, which amounts to Once a liberal, always a liberal, is not satisfactory. Why does Steffens repeatedly whip himself for his “un-Soviet values of freedom, ease, patience, skepticism?” How could he witness a year or so of the Mexican Revolution and write that it was not a revolution “according to Marx,” as if he had expected to find it in a textbook? Why, finally, did he live in and for ideas and ideology to the point of justifying Stalinist slaughter? Lincoln Steffens leaves such questions unanswered. July 26, 1974 13
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