- Mar 29, 2015
- Ida Tarbell
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“The Explosions of Our Fine Idealistic Undertakings”
By Greg Gross, Allegheny College class of 1983
This thesis analyzes the staff breakup of McClure’s Magazine and demonstrates its historical significance by placing it in the context of the progressive era.
The McClure’s schism occurred in late March and early April, 1906, and triggered the gradual decline of one of the era’s most popular mass-circulation periodicals. To present this study in a logical manner, I have divided this thesis into three segments, which can best be visualized by imagining three concentric spheres. The “outer sphere,” Chapter I, analyzes the rise of the progressive mentality, which had a strong influence on American culture at the dawn of the twentieth century, from approximately 1900-1912. I introduce the reader to the outer layer of my area of study, presenting an analysis of the origins of progressivism and its Protestant-oriented, middle-class character.
Chapter II, the “middle sphere,” chronicles the rise of McClure’s Magazine to national prominence as the forerunner of the muckraking movement. I introduce the central figures responsible for the expose journalism that “arraigned,” on a nationwide scale, the lawlessness and immorality of the American people, while analyzing the staff’s ideological ties to progressivism.
In Chapter III, the core of this thesis, I explore the ideological tensions that wrenched apart the McClure’s staff. Samuel Sidney McClure, the majority stockholder and chief editor of the magazine which bore his name, committed the “sin” of adultery, which affronted the moral standards of the progressive mentality. His staff reacted by sternly disapproving of his actions. Their disdain caused McClure to suffer from feelings of guilt, which aggravated his already unstable mental condition. In the face of his colleagues’ disapproval, he sought to regain their esteem by establishing a business empire which would serve society. McClure undertook to establish a new magazine,McClure’s Universal Journal, and subsidiary enterprises, including a bank, life insurance company and correspondence school, all geared to serve the “common man.” McClure’s “grandiose scheme” backfired, however, and only succeeded in convincing his staff that he was attempting to found a trust-like business conglomerate.
Convinced of their editor’s mental instability, and affronted by love affairs and unrealistic schemes they considered economically dangerous and morally untenable, theMcClure’s staff left the magazine. Ida Tarbell, one of the “insurgents,” aptly summarized the breakup as “the explosions of our fine idealistic undertakings.” (1) I ultimately seek to demonstrate the relationship between these exploded ideals and the movement which nurtured them.
My thesis is intentionally limited to an analysis of how the McClure’s staff members perceived themselves and their mission; this paper is not, nor was it intended to be, a comprehensive history of muckraking or progressivism. Wherever possible, I have used the primary resource materials of the Ida M. Tarbell Collection at Pelletier Library, Allegheny College. The Tarbell Papers proved invaluable in assessing the tensions which led to the breakup of a prominent progressive magazine and the staff that created it.
The forty years between the end of Reconstruction and the finish of World War I were a period of significant transformation in the United States. The American way of life, which many would have formerly believed inalterable, yielded to the cultural change prompted by westward settlement. With the rise of industrialism, the populace began to move from the farm to the city. This migration fostered a concurrent shift in political and economic power from agrarian to urban America. The United States, in short, was undergoing a redefinition of its basic goals and values, and such a change — the growing pains of a nation — inevitably ignited discontent. Populism was the first significant expression of protest in this period and formulated much of the progressive ideology which later followed.
The farmers who composed the populist movement were angered because they witnessed the economic power they once held slipping out of their hands and into the grip of prosperous city dwellers. In the face of crop failures, declining prices, and diminished sources of credit, the farmers demanded reforms that would place them in parity with the burgeoning economic power of industry. They demanded the unlimited circulation of silver currency, direct election of United States senators, and revenue tariffs only. Above all, the populists called for governmental ownership of the railroads, for they realized that control of this mode of transportation was essential to their well-being. The westward expansion of the railroad enabled the ways of the industrial East to invade and disrupt the division of labor in the rural United States:
The farmer suddenly discovered that he was implicated, to an extent undreamed of in the days of true isolation, with banks, with railroads, and with the manufacturers who went into politics in the interest of controlling prices through discriminatory tariffs and favorable monopolies. (2)
The farmer, in the midst of the transportation revolution, felt betrayed. When the tracks were first laid, he envisioned the railroad as the path to prosperity. The train would propel his goods to a larger market and feed the ever-increasing post-war populace, thereby causing crop prices to skyrocket. Under the limitations imposed by federal tariff barriers, however, the market for the increasing amount of agricultural products sharply narrowed, and food prices subsequently declined. Yet the industries of the East “had only to compete in a local market behind high tariff walls,” (3) and the agrarian man bought his clothing, farmimplements, and other manufactured necessities at steadily rising prices while his own financial resources continued to shrink.
To the farmer, the railroad was a blessing turned into a curse. It was the link with the growing industries of the East, and symbolized an increasing tension among the “heirs of the self-reliant tradition of agrarian America, [who] were suddenly finding themselves at the mercy of distant corporation executives.” (4) Put simply, this tension resulted largely from the seemingly incompatible nature of democracy and centralized industry. The Jeffersonian vision of an agrarian republic influenced the farmer, consciously or unconsciously, to believe that democracy had its roots in the rich soil of the farm; the concept of individual rights, as guaranteed in the Constitution, seemed tailored to an agrarian lifestyle. The large corporation, in the farmer’s mind, became wealthy at the expense of the individual, and the populist movement looked to the government and demanded justice. They sought, in short, to protect the common man from the abuses they labeled undemocratic.
The Populists espoused the agrarian myth in the face of burgeoning urbanization and industrial consolidation. This myth can be defined as the popular notion Americans have of the “innocence of their origins,” exemplified by the image of the farmer as an uncorrupted champion of democracy. (5) In eighteenth century America the agrarian myth enjoyed a wide following among the intellectual elite, and by the dawn of the nineteenth century, it evolved into an almost “sacred” belief among the masses. (6)There existed, in the collective American mentality,
the general idea that the fate of democracy [was] somehow or other bound up with the fate of the agricultural community whence it emerged and that both [were] sinking in an industrialized, collectivistic wave…. (7)
The source of this “wave” was, of course, the city. From 1860 until 1910, the population of rural America doubled, but the urban population increased sevenfold. (8) The rise in the number of city dwellers helped satisfy the demand for labor needed to place America in the forefront of world industry. In 1880, Great Britain, once the world’s industrial capital, lagged behind the United States in the production of steel and iron products, and by 1899, American coal production exceeded that of England. (9) In the decade following 1890, American manufacturing increased at least 75 per cent, while the aggregate national wealth doubled. (10)
One of the catalysts of America’s industrial growth was the creation of the limited liability corporation, a body legally authorized to act as an individual although composed of one or more persons united for the purpose of carrying on business activity. In the era from 1880 until 1910 the number of business partnerships steadily declined as these corporations merged, soon followed by the trust, which enabled corporations to unite for the purposes of increasing efficiency. The populist believed these new concepts in business organization helped greedy individuals develop industries that reduced competition and exploited the abundant natural resources of a growing world power. (11) This corporate evolution, aided by the rise of large-scale bank financing, had a significant effect upon the regions beyond the boundaries of the city. The populist was convinced the large corporation sought to suppress competition in an attempt to boost profits; this, he believed, enabled a few wealthy industrialists, like Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller, to use trusts to create monopolies and firmly grip the reins of national economic power. (12)
The Populists witnessed this rapid industrial growth, denounced it, and asked the government to seize the economic reins which, they felt, unfairly rested in the hands of a privileged few. The farmers who clamored for reform did not wish to abolish democracy or large-scale industry; they merely wanted a more equitable distribution of the wealth and benefits such enterprises consistently reaped. Historian David Mark Chalmers notes the farmer believed
the fault was not in the corporate form itself but rather the use to which it was being put. The moral development of the nation failed to keep pace with an enormous material expansion. The profit motive…had been enthroned in America. (13)
While this throne belonged to the city, the populists, influenced by the agrarian myth, came to believe they were “the innocent victims of a conspiracy hatched in the distance. The notion of an innocent and victimized populace colors…the whole history of the populistic mind.” (14) These strong antiurban feelings caused the farmer to recall longingly the innocent, pastoral days before the industrial giants hatched their “plots” against the “common man.” The agrarian myth became an avenue of psychological escape for the rural American, and as the power of big business swelled, he clung tenaciously to his idealized past and struggled to regain it by demanding that his government institute economic reform.
The passage of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act in 1890 was viewed by many populists as an answer to their dilemma, but in the following decade this legislation proved ineffective because it generally was not enforced. The middle-class city dweller, meanwhile, believed populist protests were a threat to national stability, and viewed these clamorings for reform with disdain. By the turn of the century, however, rapid industrial consolidation began to draw the attention of the formerly complacent middle class. The growth of big business served to warn the professional and small merchant that he, “like the farmer before him, no longer had the power to expand, or even to retain, his economic interest.” (15) The middle class responded to this perceived economic threat by espousing “progressivism,” which owes much of its ideology to the populist movement.
For purposes of this thesis, progressivism is defined as the “vague and not altogether cohesive” movement emanating from the middle class; it called for the reform of American culture by demanding governmental protection of societal interests from the abusive power of consolidated wealth. (16) Progressives held the common belief that society was corrupted by the political machine and the large corporation, and that they, as true citizens and champions of democracy, must actively induce its reform. Americans, the progressive knew, had always believed society was constantly improving and progressing, but now they sought to accelerate the momentum. They battled poverty, graft, and unfair inhibition of business competition, “evils hat an earlier generation had accepted as the results of an overpopulated, capitalistic, or immoral society from which there seemed no appeal until a distant judgment day.” (17)
Before a detailed analysis of progressivism is undertaken, it is useful to compare it with populism to uncover vital similarities and differences between each movement. Both the populists and progressives were angered enough to incite significant reform movements, and both, to a certain extent, looked back to America’s infancy for inspiration and solace. Beyond these common characteristics, however, populism and progressivism diverge.
Populists were essentially an “overwhelmingly rural and provincial” group, and tended to embrace monolithically the same political and reformative leanings; they easily named a common enemy and attacked it accordingly. (18) Progressives were predominantly members of the urban middle class, who sparked a national movement often less unified but ideologically more complex. Because they were middle-class reformers in a more prosperous era than that of the populists, they were “less rancorous,” and more divided among themselves concerning what course of action to seek. (19) Because the progressives were generally city dwellers, their intimacy with the urban problems of labor, municipal reform and welfare made them more sympathetic to the dilemmas of their fellow urbanites. While the progressive disliked the aggregate wealth and power of the large corporation, he believed the corporate form of business organization, if properly administered, was a beneficent economic force. The progressive disliked corrupt urban political machinery. He knew, however, he had allowed it to form, and sought to assuage his resultant guilt by restoring an unsullied, equitable government. Unlike the populists, the progressive ranks were occupied by many educated professionals, whose skills better enabled them to organize and administer attempts at reform — when they could agree to battle a specific enemy. (20)
The progressive movement was colored by moral optimism, Protestant in orientation. It was therefore heavily influenced by the Social Gospel, a concurrent, primarily Protestant, non-denominational religious movement advocating an application of Christian principles to society. Though the person who believed in the Social Gospel did not espouse the orthodox version of Protestantism, he maintained strong ties with the religious mores of his middle-class fore-fathers. This older, moralistic influence was given a new twist by those who preached the Social Gospel; these reformers “felt that most of the churches had lost their social message and were seeking to make the people content with the world as it was,” rather than encouraging them to help create a better one. (21) The preacher of the Social Gospel believed the Protestant church was too often a puppet of wealth and power, an apologist for laissez-faire gone awry. He viewed excessive wealth as a hindrance to morality, as an evil which only increased the “un-Christian disparities” between the industrialist and the working class. (22) In the place of “rampant materialism” he called for economic reforms to permit equitable competition in the marketplace, and sought “‘Christian capitalism’ dominated by moral considerations instead of laissez-faire, in which prices would be ‘just,’ wages ‘fair,’ and competition ‘ethical.’” (23)
From 1895 through the 1920’s the middle class gradually co-opted the goals of the Social Gospel. These goals “increasingly dominated the most articulate sections of American protestantism” (24) and enabled the preacher to become the “honorary chairman” of the progressive movement. (25) Because most progressives were Protestants, they welcomed the ministers of the Social Gospel not as strategic leaders, but as bestowers of moral sanction, capable of spreading “the distinctive aura of righteousness about the cause.” (26) Henry F. May, in his study Protestant Churches and Industrial America, explains the crucial link between the Social Gospel and progressivism:
Undoubtedly the ability to justify social change in terms of Christian doctrine [had] given American progressivism authority, power and a link with tradition. These gifts were particularly valuable during the difficult first adjustment of the American liberal tradition to the age of giant industry. (27)
Yet, while the Social Gospel gave progressivism a sense of “righteousness” and “power,” it also contributed significant weaknesses in the form of facile optimism and simplistic ideology. As a movement, the Social Gospel imbued the progressive mentality with an unquestioning confidence in the American future and a simplistic attitude toward the problems facing society. While these traits initially enabled the progressive movement to appeal to a wide following among middle-class Protestants, their very shallowness failed to “provide the great mass of Christians with the spiritual sustenance they demanded.” (28) In brief, the optimism and simplistic ideology of the Social Gospel imbued the progressive with “the faults of a social dreamer” whose perception of reality was distorted by the rosy tint of his spectacles. (29)
The simplistic outlook of progressivism is exemplified by the vague terminology and unrealistic goals of the movement. A prominent Midwestern preacher called for the cultivation of more “large-hearted men” to offset the growing power of labor and industry. (30) “Solidarity,” political philosopher Herbert Croly claimed, “must be restored.” (31) The problem lay in the vagueness of these word; while they appealed to a wide audience because they were inherently simplistic, they also provided no lucid advice to those who wanted to aid the progressive cause. These exhortations demonstrate how seldom “any major political tendency dealing with the problem of big business in modern society ever [tried] to go beyond the level of high generalization.” (32) Richard Hofstadter confirmed this trait when he stated that “the limitation of the reform tradition was that it wandered over the border between reality and impossibility.” (33) Thus, the progressive wanted to reinstate “absolute popular democracy” and “completely honest” business competition. He wanted to abolish prostitution and instituted prohibition, and throw a monkey wrench in the gears of the political machine, thereby restoring flawless governmental honesty. Though “the people who attach[ed] themselves to these several absolutisms [were] not always the same people,” they nevertheless created an atmosphere of incurable optimism in which these simplistic conceptions of societal evils seemed easily conquerable. (34)
Other significant aspects of progressivism merit study, including the moralistic, middle-class consciousness which imbued the movement. The progressive’s perceived mission “was first that most basic urge of all nature, to preserve himself, and secondly to refashion the world after his own image.” (35) Influenced by the Social Gospel, the progressive believed he was morally superior to those above and below him on the ladder of economic and social prosperity. (36) Indeed, the word “moral” consistently emerges in progressive literature and must be clarified to understand the middle-class perspective. “Moral” is a term not invested with any one set of behavioral standards; what is “moral” depends on the beliefs of the person defining the term, usually expressed within the context of what actions he or she considers “right” or “wrong.” The progressive used phrases having a judgmental tone, and felt he did not created class consciousness, but was socially differentiated because he was more upright than those who surrounded him. He spoke of belonging to a class of “good men” who made up the “better element” and the “moral crowd.” He looked to the Bible to find his interpretation of what was moral and immoral. He read the Good Book and paraphrased: “Thou shalt not respect the person of the poor, nor honor the person of the great; in righteousness shalt thou judge thy neighbor.” Put simply, the progressive viewed himself as a “kind-hearted” man crusading for biblical conception of justice. (37)
Labeling the consolidation of economic wealth “unjust,” the progressive felt threatened by the rise of the trusts. The period between January, 1898 and January, 1904 marked the birth of 75 per cent of American trusts, whose capital increased seven-fold. The McKinley and Roosevelt administrations witnessed the organization of industrial giants such as the Standard Oil Company and Consolidated Tobacco. (38) The trusts, in the words of Alfred Kazin, were “dragon’s teeth sowed in American individualism, that now came up to haunt the national imagination and that provoked a national effort toward reform.” (39) The urban middle class, in face of the growing number of trusts, began to feel threatened as large consolidations put many small merchants and manufacturers out of business. The Standard Oil Company, for instance, was rapidly destroying oil producers who insisted on remaining independent of business aggregation in the fledgling petroleum industry. The middle class slowly realized the growth of the trusts was subverting economic individualism. They, as a class, saw big businessmen viewing industry as
America’s god in the 1890’s….Efficiency was good…but efficiency demanded that competition be controlled or, if possible, eliminated….Business efficiency was replacing public responsibility. (40)
While the middle class warily kept watch on the plutocracy hovering above, they also felt threatened by the masses gathering below. From 1900 until 1917, thirteen million immigrants entered the United States, the majority arriving from eastern Europe. (41) Since the immigrants of this era typically came “from a peasant environment with strong feudal survivals,” they were not accustomed to having a voice in government. (42) Thus, they were easily exploited by the boss politician, who took advantage of the immigrants’ condition and won their loyalty as well as their votes by giving them jobs and granting them small favors. (43)
The middle class, however, was not the only group feeling threatened by immigration. The influx of eastern Europeans greatly increased the size of the work force, and the newcomers’ willingness to work for low wages was viewed as a danger to the financial position of “Yankee” laborers and the established immigrant workers from western and northern Europe. Many joined fledgling labor unions in response to this perceived economic threat. Organizations like the American Federation of Labor appeared and began to demand better wages and working conditions from the industrial giants who employed them. (44) As tension between big business and labor unions increased,
the average middle-class citizen felt the pinch in his pocketbook. On one side he saw the trusts mushrooming almost every day and assumed that they had something to do with it. On the other he saw an important segment of the working class organizing to protect itself, and in so doing also contributing, presumably, a bit more to higher prices. He saw himself as a member of a vast but unorganized and therefore helpless consuming public. (45)
While the clash between the industrial giants and organized labor continued, the middle-class American perceived the well-bribed machine politician bowing to the interests of the trusts, and feared the union laborer would induce anarchy if his demands were not met. Disenchanted with a government allowing such tensions to exist, the middle-class citizen recalled, like his populist predecessor, rested in the hands of the individual. (46) He, too, began to call for social, economic, and political reform, and progressivism was born.
This urban, middle-class fervor, created largely from a melding of the strengths and weaknesses of populism and the Social Gospel, needed a mode of expression which could help to alleviate the tension generated during the struggle between middle-class values and burgeoning industrial consolidation. The mass-circulation magazine emerged as the medium to suit these needs. It was an avenue by which the beliefs of the progressive mentality could be expressed on a nationwide scale. Journalist William Allen White ably voiced the progressive attitude soon reflected in many national magazines:
Slowly as the new century came into its first decade, I saw the Great Light. Around me in that day scores of young leaders in American politics and public affairs were seeing what I saw, feeling what I felt. Probably they too were converted Pharisees with the zeal of the new faith upon them. All over the land in a score of states and more, young men in both parties were taking leadership by attacking things as they were in that day–notably… plutocracy and the political machinery that kept it moving. And literature was rising…. Magazines were…uncovering cesspools in cities and the states, denouncing the centralization of power in the United States Senate which assembled through the dominance in the states of the great commodity industries– railroads, copper, oil, textiles and the like. (47)
Imbued with progressive spirit, reform journalism began.
The Rise of McClure’s
Ida Tarbell Sitting“Although McClure’s Magazine is no longer on the newsstands, it does occupy a permanent place in the history of the period that it served, because it worked itself into the literary and economic life of the country.”
—Ida M. Tarbell (1)
When Theodore Roosevelt pejoratively defined reform journalism as “muckraking” in a speech given April 14, 1906, he christened a movement begun three years earlier. Though Roosevelt denounced all expose literature at this time, historians since have used “muckraking” as a largely non-pejorative term for the era of reform journalism inaugurated by McClure’s Magazine in January, 1903. (2) Muckraking was a journalistic expression of the progressive mentality. Using the medium of the mass-circulation magazine, investigative reporters successfully exposed the rapid industrial growth and consolidation popularly believed to be undermining the social, political, and economic security of the American middle class.
While many newspapers had disclosed local wrongdoings for some time, the wide readership of the monthly periodicals brought many hometown scandals to the attention of a national audience. When Richard Hofstadter wrote that it was “hardly an exaggeration to say…the progressive mind was characteristically a journalistic mind,” he was well aware of the tremendous influence the muckrakers had on the collective American mentality. (3) The progressive middle class, bent upon reforming the evils of industry and its political counterpart, machine government, needed a medium through which it could voice its concerns. Before corruption could be squelched, it had to be thrust into the harsh light of public scrutiny. The muckrakers ably performed this function.
Historians generally agree that one magazine best exemplifies the muckraking periodical. McClure’s Magazine was “completely representative of the average thought and sensibility of the muckraking movement.” (4) By viewing this periodical in the context of its era, one recognizes its importance as a powerful medium for political and social sentiment. A study of its development chronicles the magazine’s pioneering efforts in the art of bringing the “diffuse malaise” of the nation into focus. (5)
During the Golden Age of Magazines, from 1890 until 1915, a number of developments converged to enable McClure’s , like its chief competitors, Munsey’s andCosmopolitan, to spread its message across the nation. Postal rates decreased while Rural Free Delivery rapidly expanded. (6) High-speed presses were becoming commonplace, and Frederic Ives’ perfection of halftone photoengraving enabled magazines to print high quality illustrations at a fraction of their original cost. The “middle-class market” for inexpensive periodical literature expanded, causing advertising revenues to soar as manufacturers scrambled for a share of the profits; (7) the nations between 1880 and 1900 benefited from a fifty per cent increase in population and a one hundred per cent increase in national wealth. By 1903 the yearly flow of customer goods exceeded twenty-five billion dollars, and magazines soon accommodated this tremendous growth by becoming the central medium for commercial advertisement. Economic and technological factors enabled the magazine business to thrive. Inexpensive periodicals flooded newsstands, and had an “unprecedented…influence on the social scene.” (8)
In the midst of this favorable economic climate, Samuel Sidney McClure and his business partner, John S. Phillips, decided to establish a magazine. Born and reared in the Midwest, McClure and Phillips had been classmates at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois, and were associates in the newspaper syndication business for eight years when they sought to expand their enterprise. (9) Under McClure’s leadership, they intended to utilize unpublished stories originally purchased for syndicate use, while paying the proposed magazine’s staff with syndicate revenues. Intent on capturing a share of the magazine market, the S.S. McClure Company was founded in 1893 with $7300 in capital and a wealth of enthusiasm. Their new enterprise, McClure’s Magazine, was to be different from the thirty-five cent “highbrow journals” like Harper’s,Scribner’s, and the Atlantic Monthly. (10) McClure’s would cost twenty cents less, and would “hire writers who could seize hold of new, complex, but interesting scientific ideas, study them down to the bottom and put them in readable prose.” (11) Strangely, no national magazine had ever undertaken such a task with any regularity. Fiction by promising young writers would complement the scientific articles and the result, McClure and Phillips hoped, would be excitement and knowledge encapsulated in slick packaging, well-suited for profitable mass consumption. (12)
“I am simply crushed with work,” McClure wrote his wife as he scoured the United States in search of writers,
Oh! the magazine, the magazine! it means seven years of travail, study, thought, and energy. I must read the current newspapers to find out who can best write for me. Then I must read all current magazines and reviews and weeklies and study their pictures. I must invent the men and organize a staff for syndicate and magazine that will surpass anything attempted heretofore and in seven years I want to control a great daily and found the London Times of America. So as you see I am busy. I study and read all evening. I think and plan and invent….How I like to invent! (13)
As plans solidified and writers were hired, the economic climate turned bleak: for McClure and Phillips, the Golden Age of Magazines seemed to be rapidly tarnishing. The first issues of McClure’s emerged during the panic of 1893, and it appeared the depression would squelch the fledgling magazine. Though the initial “number” was relatively inexpensive, at fifteen cents per copy — a year’s subscription for one and a half dollars — it was a dismal failure. (14) Of the 20,000 copies first printed, 12,000 were returned unsold from the newsstands, and McClure’s first sixteen months were marred by monthly losses of $5,000. (15) With characteristic persistence, McClure marshaled the necessary capital to push the magazine out of the red and into the black.
McClure’s survived and eventually flourished because it appealed to an expanding middle-class market drenched in progressivism; it voiced the common feelings of an “optimistic, slightly naive, and wide-eyed” nation, (16) for its aim was
to deal with important social, economic, and political questions; to present the new and great inventions and discoveries; to interpret the conquests of science; to advance great moral enthusiasms; to remove the barriers of the intellectual life; to promote the well-being of childhood and youth; to give the best in literature; and, above all, to achieve an unforgettable charm and vitality in all its undertakings. (17)
Like Munsey’s and Cosmopolitan, McClure’s featured articles on art and history. At least one lengthy biographical portrait was found in each issue, the majority featuring living Americans. Each biographical sketch was profusely illustrated and written in a sprightly style which set it apart from the more staid “highbrow” periodicals. Middle-class readers in this era were mesmerized by the notion of individual success, and eagerly studied the lives of prosperous Americans within the covers of McClure’s. By June, 1898, the magazine’s circulation surpassed 400,000 and boasted more advertising than any of its competitors. (19)
Though McClure’s was a risky enterprise at its inception, its subsequent success only served to convince its editor that speculative ventures could lead to profitable gains. Indeed, the magazine’s meteoric rise dangerously reinforced McClure’s confidence in his abilities, instincts, and goals. (20) McClure’s creativity was irrepressible, and to utilize his talents to their utmost he felt he could not remain shackled to his rolltop desk. “you can’t learn to edit a magazine in the office,” he once told staff writer Lincoln Steffens, for the true editor must “get out, go anywhere, everywhere, see what is going on…[and] find out who are the men and movements [they] ought to be reporting.”(21) McClure viewed himself as a vital creative force who need not preoccupy himself with the responsibilities of magazine management and finance; those duties were for his staff to handle while he roamed the world in search of talent, ideas, and articles. (22) McClure was an unbridled creature of instinct and enthusiasm, driven by his nerves and his unending curiosity in hopes of creating the finest of magazines. (23) Lincoln Steffens called him “the wild editor”, (24) and historian Russell Horton writes how McClure, like his magazine, “exemplified his own times — chaotic and excited.” (25)
This energy needed to be shaped, refined, edited. And John S. Phillips provided the restraint necessary to bring his associate’s ideas to fruition in the form of concrete magazine copy. Phillips was the “editor’s editor.” He sorted through the myriad of story ideas which McClure churned out, and picked the ones that looked promising.McClure’s writers often recalled this fact: William Allen White, in his autobiography, commented with tongue-in-cheek that “Sam had three hundred ideas a minute, but J.S.P. [Phillips] was the only man around the shop who knew which one was not crazy.” (26) Lincoln Steffens, in an interview with historian Ada McCormick, recalled how “McClure would have ten ideas, one good….” (27) The exact number of impractical inspirations is unimportant; it is sufficient to note the majority of McClure’s schemes were, at best, castles in the air.
Ida Tarbell, a staff writer, editor, and minority stockholder in the magazine, also played an important role in S.S. McClure’s hectic world. Together with Phillips, she exercised a great deal of control over her editor-in-chief. McClure considered Tarbell a “moral bastion” and regarded here with great affection; he later would remind her he had always “given [her] a great loyalty” (28) and also would remark that he cared for her “as much as a man can care for a woman without loving her….” (29)
Tarbell and Phillips also enjoyed the loyalties of many of the McClure’s staff, who often served in both editorial and authorial capacities for the magazine. Lincoln Steffens, Ray Stannard Baker, and William Allen White provided many of the stories which soon fueled McClure’s popularity, while Albert Boyden organized the piles of copy in his capacity as desk editor. John Siddall, placed on the payroll at Tarbell’s request, acted as research assistant. All served under Phillips and Tarbell who, as minority stockholders in the S.S. McClure Company, acted as intermediaries between the staff and their editor-in-chief. (30) Thus, the correspondence of Phillips and Tarbell accurately reflects the feelings of their subordinates, who looked to them for leadership. As McClure traveled the world in search of ideas and inspiration, Tarbell and Phillips unofficially ran the magazine in New York. Together, they offered the staff a sense of stability McClure could not provide. Though McClure was officially the figurehead of his burgeoning periodical, he never won the unshakable staff loyalty Phillips and Tarbell enjoyed. This proved crucial when McClure’s later faced crisis.
As McClure’s popularity continued to escalate at the turn of the century, the staff faced the hectic struggle to generate suitable ideas for magazine articles. McClure recognized the growth of trusts as a subject worthy of study. A man with an instinct for the tastes of the reading public, McClure discerned “the coincidence of market andmission;” (31) a story about burgeoning industrial consolidation would perform a public service by lessening widespread ignorance about how trusts operated — even better, it would sell magazines. (32) Thus, he set out to convince the McClure’s staff that trusts were “the only side of present day interests that [they] did not seem to be grappling with properly in the magazine.” (33) When McClure told his writers to dig for suitable stories, staff reporter Ray Stannard Baker provided the crucial spark which ignited the muckraking movement at McClure’s.
While working on a piece of fiction in California, Baker wrote Tarbell to suggest that a story chronicling oil discoveries in that state might prove interesting. Tarbell shied away from the idea because she thought it would not appeal sufficiently to the McClure’s readership. The articles they were seeking, she replied, “ought to do something on the great industrial developments of the country,” and “make clear the great principles by which industrial leaders are combining and controlling these resources.” (34)Eventually, however, Tarbell saw in Baker’s idea the seed of a useful article. In September, 1901, she presented the idea to McClure, Phillips, and her other colleagues.(35) If she undertook an investigative article on the greatest of the trusts — the Standard Oil Company — would it prove popular and informative? The staff replied affirmatively, and “there was much talk in the office about it.” (36) Indeed, they thought, “the idea of using the story of a typical trust to illustrate how and why the clan grew” seemed sound. (37)
Tarbell was the ideal candidate to commence this investigative study. She grew up in the Pennsylvania Oil Region, her home “not being over thirty miles away from that first well.” (38) Her father had been involved in the early days of the oil industry — and was bankrupted by Standard Oil. Tarbell’s family experience provided her with a victim’s understanding of the trust. “Monopolies are fearful evils — and growing in their devilish power all over the country,” wrote Esther Tarbell to her daughter in 1893,
no wonder that such a terrible problem stands before the country to be solved; peacibly if possible — by force if it must be — but to be solved and answered, by this generation before God and the world…. God grant it be righteousness. (39)
Tarbell undoubtedly was influenced by such sentiments. Though she later claimed her History of the Standard Oil Company was “an historical study of the effect of a privilege and…that without primary privilege you could not, under our institutions, produce a trust,” (40) her outlook was unmistakably biased in favor of the independent oil producer. Tarbell collected her facts diligently, and then presented them in a tone of disgust. While it must be stressed that other members of the McClure’s staff never expected this study to indict trusts, Tarbell’s documentation convinced McClure, Phillips, Baker and Steffens that industrial consolidation was an evil to be exposed to public scrutiny. (41)
The Standard Oil series first appeared in McClure’s in November, 1902, and ran in each consecutive issue until July, 1903. A second group of articles on this subject began the following December and appeared sporadically until October, 1904. A book composed of these articles soon followed. (42) Tarbell’s study traced the growth of the oil industry from its earliest days, when petroleum was used solely for medicinal purposes, through the discovery of its usefulness in internal combustion engines. Her articles recounted the growth of Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Company from its establishment and followed its rise to the zenith of its economic power at the turn of the century. Tarbell’s narrative betrayed a mixture of “disdain and white-hot moral indignation controlled by excellent documentation and a facade of objectivity….” (43)
For Ida Tarbell and her colleagues on the staff of McClure’s, morality was a measure of right and wrong action gauged to their middle-class, progressive beliefs. In the words of historian David Mark Chalmers, “‘Public morality’ [was] their morality, and the ‘public interest’…their interest.” (44) Trusts were morally offensive to progressives because it was believed they were business consolidations acquired through unfair privilege; they were perceived as harmful to the economic power of the middle class, and were therefore considered a menace to all society.
While Tarbell busily polished her first three Standard Oil installments for publication in McClure’s, Lincoln Steffens was on the trail of another scandal which demonstrated the intimate relationship between urban machine politics and the interests of consolidated business. Advised by William Boyden, a staff member’s brother, Steffens set out to chronicle St. Louis attorney Joseph Folk’s attack against municipal corruption. (45) When he returned to the McClure’s offices he monitored the extraordinary progress of Tarbell’s Standard Oil series and, in hopes of becoming equally successful, submitted his article in June, 1902. The story created a flurry of excitement in the office. McClure was especially jubilant; he saw in the Folk article the seed of another great series: while Tarbell’s articles exposed corporate corruption, Steffens’ pieces would expose the wrongdoings of its partner in crime, machine government. The editor-in-chief carefully supervised the rewriting of the Folk article and titled it “Tweed Days inSt. Louis.” (46)
Upon completion, the article was “a lucid and sprightly demonstration of how venality had overwhelmed St. Louis.” (47) Steffens listed the bribed as well as the bribers, the buyers and sellers of privilege, and the leaders of St. Louis’ corrupt political machine. (48) He succinctly epitomized that city’s tainted municipal government when he noted that
man of the legislators were saloon-keepers — it was in St. Louis that a practical joker nearly emptied the House of Delegates by tipping a boy to rush into a session and call out, ‘Mister, your saloon is on fire….’ (49)
As “Tweed Days in St. Louis” went to press in October, 1902, McClure sent Steffens to investigate municipal corruption in Minneapolis. by November this article was in rough draft form and undergoing revision for publication as “The Shame of Minneapolis.” Another series was successfully launched.
Steffens’ “Shame of the Cities,” as the collected articles were later titled, demonstrates the author’s progressive, middle-class attitude; he was “endowed with that moral indignation which inspired the Age of Reform.” (50) This viewpoint is echoed by historian Patrick Palermo, who notes “Steffens was a reformer and a progressive. There was not mistaking this. His affection for bosses was tempered by his hatred of their machines.” (51) At this period in his life Steffens believed, with a naivete characteristic of his fellow progressive journalists, that mere exposure of governmental corruption was sufficient to spur the people to embrace reform. Thus, when Steffens documented how businessmen bribed St. Louis officials, abetted Minneapolis grafters, and sponsored other forms of corruption in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Chicago and New York, he waited patiently for widespread reform. He expected business — trusts included — to slide from its post at the pinnacle of political corruption. Peter Lyon, a McClure biographer, writes that Steffens “was convinced that what ailed American politics…was the American businessman, grasping for profits, corrupt and corrupting; and he spread this conviction as this as peanut butter on everything he wrote.” (52) ”The business man,” Steffens wrote,
has failed in politics as he has in citizenship. Why? Because politics is business. That’s what’s the matter with it. That’s what’s the matter with everything, — art, literature, religion, journalism, law, medicine, — they’re all business, and all — as you see them. Make politics a sport, as they do in England, or a profession, as they do in Germany, and we’ll have — well, something else than we have now, — if we want it, which is another question. But don’t try to reform politics with…. business men…. (53)
While Steffens penned his vitriolic attack against the illicit flirtation of business and politics, McClure urged Ray Stannard Baker to undertake a story “on big industrial articles that [would] touch in a vital way the principles, and give graphically the essential situations in this tremendous drama.” (54) In October, 1902, the editor-in-chief dispatched Baker to the coal fields of Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, to cover the United Mine Workers strike which had begun in May of that year. McClure soon followed to supervise the investigation, but the strike ended shortly after his arrival. (55) While Baker assumed there was no need to do a story on the strike since a settlement had been reached, McClure disagreed. Why not cover the plight of the seven thousand non-union miners who had worked in the midst of the strike? Local newspapers carried articles chronicling their sufferings; there were rumors that non-strikers’ homes had been burned by union members, and that “scabs” and “finks” had been beaten brutally.(56) Could Baker, McClure wondered, expose their dilemma to the nation via a McClure’s article? Baker caught some of his editor’s contagious enthusiasm and undertook an article examining the issue. (57)
In Novemer, 1902, after a month of investigative reporting, Baker returned to New York and submitted “The Right to Work” to McClure. Containing a series of journalistic portraits of non-striking miners, the article explored their sufferings in great detail. Baker viewed these men as individuals who merely wished to live and work as they pleased, and his article portrayed brave miners being abused by union agitators. (58)
S.S. McClure was elated. In his possession, for publication in the January, 1903, McClure’s, were three articles with a common theme: lawlessness. All met McClure’s strict standards for thorough, well-dominated research, and all contained facts explosive in their implications. The third installment of Tarbell’s Standard Oil series was ready for publication. So, too, were Steffens’ “The Shame of Minneapolis” and Baker’s “The Right to Work.” These articles were, in short, indictments against businessmen, politicians, and organized labor.
Though McClure later denied it, the January, 1903 McClure’s was intentionally controversial. When these articles were still in outline form, McClure insisted each place communicate a sense of affronted morality. In the words of biographer Peter Lyon, McClure had a “positive, puritanical” desire to arouse the public to a frenzy of righteous indignation, and the editor eagerly awaited the day when the January issue hit the newsstands. (59)
John S. Phillips also played a crucial role in the genesis of thes investigative articles in the January, 1903 issue. While McClure enthusiastically spurred his writers onward, Phillips calmly insured the pieces were “constructed in a way that would lead the reader through a thought process similar to that of the writer.” (60) Phillips remained behind the scenes, editing pencil in hand, until an extensively rewritten article emerged, incisive, ripe for publication. (61)
The McClure’s staff did their work well. The January, 1903 issue was indeed incisive, its content summarized by an editorial penned by McClure himself. He titled it “Concerning Three Articles in this Number of McClure’s, and a Coincidence that May Set Us Thinking:”
How many of those who have read through this number of the magazined noticed it contains three articles on one subject? We did not plan it so; it is a coincidence that the January McClure’s is such an arraignment of American character as should make every one of us stop and think. How many noticed that?
The leading article, ‘The Shame of Minneapolis,’ might have been called ‘The American contempt of Law.’ That title could well have served for the current chapter of Miss Tarbell’s History of Standard Oil. And it would have fitted perfectly Mr. Baker’s The Right to Work.’ All together, these articles came pretty near showing how universal is this dangerous trait of ours. Miss Tarbell has our capitalists conspiring among themselves, deliberately, shrewdly, upon legal advice, to break the law so far as it restrained them, and to misuse it to restrain others who were in their way. Mr. Baker shows labor, the ancient enemy of capital, and the chief complaint of the trusts’ unlawful acts, itself committing and excusing crimes. And in ‘The Shame of Minneapolis’ we see the administration of a city employing criminals to commit crimes for the profit of elected officials, while the citizens…stood by complacent and not alarmed.
Capitalists, workingmen, politicians, citizens–all breaking the law, or letting it be broken. Who is left to uphold it?…
There is no one left; none but all of us….We are all doing our worst and making the public pay. The public is the people. We forget that we are all the people; that while each of us in his group can shove off on the rest of the bill of to-day, the debt is only postponed; the rest are passing it on back to us. We have to pay in the end, every one of us. And in the end the sum total of the debt will be our liberty. (62)
These words heralded the emergence of reform journalism as the voice of the progressive mentality. (63) A careful examination of the articles summarized in this editorial provides a clearer understanding of McClure’s inauguration of the genre of magazine literature later dubbed “muckraking” by Theodore Roosevelt. the investigations featured in McClure’s were carefully researched, well-documented, and published with the two-fold intention of selling magazines while inspiring reform. The McClure’sreporters were the first “true” muckrakers to expound progressive ideals to a nationwide readership. They were by no means “yellow journalists,” whose work often “bordered on pure fiction [and] pandered to the most sensational sentiments.” (64) Ida Tarbell, in a May, 1922 letter to historian C.C. Regier, was careful to make such a distinction:
I should think it would be wise, if you contemplate writing a serious piece of work, to define muck-raking. There is a great difference between a sensational presentation of a public scandal for the sake of making a good story, and a serious study of situations which are making the public uneasy. (65)
The investigations undertaken in McClure’s, though responsibly researched and well-written, nevertheless were imbued with a weakness inherent in their authors’ progressive attitudes. As “reformers who came from…general progressive backgrounds,” (66) Tarbell, Steffens, Baker, and the majority of the staff “all shared the same ethical outlook.” (67) At this time in their careers, the McClure’s staff viewed their mission in simplistic and optimistic terms: they assumed, for instance, the mere exposure of industrial evils would cause “the people,” whom they perceived as having middle-class values, to rise up and restore “absolute popular democracy.” (68)
The McClure’s muckrakers espoused this belief because they had a common heritage. All “were Midwesterners who grew up in similar circumstances….” (69) McClure spent his childhood in Valparaiso, Indiana, and supported himself as a farmhand and domestic servant. Tarbell spent her youth in Titusville, Pennsylvania, a town remote from influence of the cities further East. (70) Baker was born in Michigan and grew up in St. Croix Falls, Wisconsin. (71) Steffens was raised in San Francisco, where his father first settled in 1862 after traveling by wagon-train from Illinois. (72) All were Protestant, middle-class, and raised to believe the roots of morality and democracy were imbedded in agrarian America. The ways of the city ran counter to their ideological backgrounds, and the McClure’s staff felt it their duty to dish up “heavy heapings of moral law” with which to indict the “commercial spirit.” (73) In their view, industrialism was “the source of corruption in American institutions,” and their articles in the January, 1903 issue demonstrated this belief. (74) Tarbell, Steffens, and Baker each attacked entities intimately tied to business and the growth of trusts: Tarbell exposed the monopolistic practices of the Standard Oil Company; Steffens uncovered the political machinery of Minneapolis, which was fueled by bribes from the business sector; Baker chronicled the sufferings of non-union miners allegedly abused by agitators from the United Mine Workers–an organization which sprang into existence largely to counterbalance the burgeoning power of industrial management. (75)
Though the public reaction to these articles was favorable, there were indications [that] some prominent progressives looked unfavorably upon McClure’s muckraking exposes. Theodore Roosevelt, long a supporter of progressive reform journalism, voiced his growing displeasure with the magazine’s righteous crusades. (76) In response to Steffens’ “Shame of the Cities” series, Roosevelt wrote McClure, lamenting that “Steffens ought to put more sky in his landscape….It is an unfortunate thing to encourage people to believe that all crimes are connected with business.” (77)
Despite this presidential slap on the wrist, the McClure’s staff continued its mission of exposing corporate evils to the public’s view, and their readership showed its appreciation by eagerly purchasing the magazine. The “muckraking” in the January, 1903 McClure’s was a national periodical’s first self-conscious attempt to arraign America for its lawless behavior. After this issue hit the newsstands,
the public response to these exposures was so great that other magazines entered the field, and by 1904 the major magazines were all making ringing attacks upon the abuses and evils of American life. The most sensational development of the progressive movement had been launched. (78)
Collier’s, Cosmopolitan, Everybody’s, Munsey’s and others, having witnessed McClure’s success with “the new journalism of exposure,” raced to imitate the muckrakingformula, (79) prompting one magazine editor to comment that “McClure’s was the greatest stud-horse of the bunch.” (80) In some cases, the imitations were well-researched and presented in the McClure’s fashion; in others, sensationalism reigned supreme. Eventually, muckrakers exposed the dilemmas of Orientals, blacks, immigrants, and tenement dwellers, but there always seemed to lie, at the heart of the problems facing society, the evils of the greedy businessman. (81)
The McClure’s staff spawned a journalistic movement which articulated progressive ideals and presented them on a nationwide scale. In one well-researched, well-written, and well-timed issue, the January 1903 McClure’s succeeded in capturing the spirit of the era. Basking in the glow of public adulation, the staff never anticipated S.S. McClure’s actions would soon cause a storm of indignation fierce enough to wrench the magazine apart.
The McClure’s Schism
Was there ever a group like it? Was there ever so much fun in work? Or ever so much anguish when the thing exploded? Somebody should go to work analyzing the reasons for the explosions of our fine idealisticundertakings. (1)
—Ida Tarbell reminiscing about McClure’s.
S.S. McClure was a man whose vision became a magazine. His magazine, in turn, reflected the visions of American society. Like any inspired creation, however,McClure’s was subject to the mercurial emotions of its founder, who unwittingly undermined the magazine’s progressive crusades when he affronted the high moral standards of his colleagues.
Two factors stood at the center of the conflict inciting the migration of McClure’s best journalistic talent to The American Magazine: McClure’s “shameful” affair with poet Florence Wilkinson was viewed as an immoral indiscretion which endangered McClure’s upstanding reputation. Matters were further complicated when McClure’s subsequent feelings of guilt over his infidelity aggravated his already unstable temperament, resulting in a condition of nervous exhaustion. His desire to assuage feelings of guilt, combined with this exhaustion, drove him to seek an unrealistic goal: expansion of his publishing enterprise into a business empire designed to alleviate many “social ills” of the day.
By initiating this expansion, McClure believed he could regain the esteem of his friends and loved ones. Heedless of the need to consult his business partners, McClure reorganized “his” company with a new charter outlining plans for the establishment of a McClure’s Universal Journal and subsidiary enterprises, including a McClure’s Bank, life insurance company, correspondence school, and a settlement “in which people could have cheap homes on their own terms.” (2) These “harebrained” proposals, coupled with the ideological tension already existing over S.S. McClure’s apparent disregard for the Seventh Commandment, offended the staff’s progressive ideals and endangered their economic security. Fearing their editor’s actions were undermining their attempts to reform a lawless, immoral society, they left the magazine in the spring of 1906. The McClure’s schism is especially significant if the events leading to its occurrence are clearly understood, for in order to comprehend the “explosions” one must first examine the making of the bomb.
In December, 1903, eleven months after the famous January issue sold out at the newsstands, S.S. McClure returned to America following an unsuccessful attempt to study lawlessness in Europe. (3) He scoured London, Paris, Geneva and Berlin in hopes of gathering background material for a McClure’s article on crime and its effects on society, but lamented that his efforts had been “most discouraging.” (4) John Phillips was bothered; he found it odd McClure’s trip bore no fruit. But as the year approached its end, Phillips began to wonder if McClure, instead of researching, had visited a young writer currently traveling in Europe. (5) McClure’s amorous tendencies were well-known to Phillips, and there was reason for suspicion. Earlier in the year, before she sailed abroad, Florence Wilkinson had been seen with McClure in a New York restaurant. Phillips knew that Wilkinson’s good looks made her horrid verse seem palatable to McClure, who had published “A Boy’s Point of View” in the January, 1903 edition of his magazine:
Sometimes the road to Sunday school
Drags out so hot and dreary,
But that same road to go trout fishing,
It springs along so cheery.
I get so tired of running errands
I’d almost like to drop;
But when I’m playing hare-and-hounds
I never want to stop. (6)
Phillips wondered why McClure accepted such a wretched rhyme for publication. Hattie McClure wondered why her husband chose to read selections of Wilkinson’s verse to his entire family during the holiday season. (7) While they questioned themselves they dared not ask McClure. There was nothing to prove the editor was philandering with a suspicious character, but Mrs. McClure, Tarbell and Phillips certainly wondered. For months their suspicions were idle, until Witter Bynner unwittingly provided the shameful link between editor and poet in the form of a box of flowers. (8)
Bynner, McClure’s poetry editor, had good taste in verse. He had accepted for publication the work of many quality poets, including William Butler Yeats and A.E. Housman. In May, 1904, McClure ordered Bynner to purchase more of Wilkinson’s verse. He penned a brief acceptance note and handed it to Bynner, instructing him to send it along with flowers. (9) Suspicions were heightened when the new poetry was examined. “The House to His First Mistress” caused many on the staff to believe Wilkinson was writing verse in fond remembrance of McClure: (10)
I took you in my lonely arms,
You were the soul of me;
There was no speech between us twain,
There needed not be;
Your watchful nights were mine, were mine,
And mine you minstrelsy.
Your seal upon my forehead is
Forever still to be. (11)
Ida Tarbell, in her office, received word of the flowers and suspicious poetry. She instantly set the wheels of moral judgment in motion: when Bynner returned, she and Phillips harangued him about his “treacherous behavior toward Mrs. McClure.” (12) Even McClure himself was not spared a scathing lecture on the gravity of his actions.
Why were Phillips and Tarbell so concerned? Certainly, they cared for Mrs. McClure’s well-being, but at the same time, they feared the magazine would suffer greatly in the face of scandal. McClure’s, as “the most articulate of the middle-class monthlies,” had a readership imbued with progressive fervor. (13) The magazine voiced the sentiments of a readership bent upon making society conform to its predominantly Protestant, middle-class conception of morality. The McClure’s reader had little tolerance for marital infidelity, and S.S. McClure, as editor-in-chief, could ruin the magazine’s reputation if he were deemed morally reprehensible.
Yet McClure’s alleged affair, if proven and expose, would morally offend more than the magazine’s readership; the staff itself would be ideologically shaken. At this point in their careers, Phillips, Tarbell, Steffens, Baker and the others espoused the strict personal ethics inherent in their progressive outlook. Their “effectiveness depended on a high moral standard of honesty and integrity.” (14) A love affair would imply the reforms they sought were unrealistic because even McClure, a prominent progressive, could not maintain an unblemished reputation.
The chronology of “L’Affaire,” as Tarbell later dubbed it, is sketchy at its origins. Peter Lyon, in his McClure biography entitled Success Story: The Life and Times of S.S. McClure, provides the essential details of these philanderings, but letters from the Ida M. Tarbell Collection add a tone of moral despair Lyon’s book does not achieve. By reading through the voluminous correspondence in the Tarbell papers, one discovers that McClure’s associates considered his actions those of an unstable man. As details of the affair materialized, Tarbell and other staff members marveled at the seemingly-insane imprudence of their editor-in-chief. Their paranoia increased as they realized what was at stake: if McClure’s extramarital activities were discovered by a fierce competitor or someone wanting to slow the muckraking movement, the magazine’s reputation would crumble, and with it, sales figures and the value of McClure’s stock. Tarbell and Phillips owned sixteen per cent of S.S. McClure Company. Phillips’ 146 shares were currently worth $146,000 and Tarbell’s 15 shares, $15,000. They also owned stock in the McClure’s Book Company, collectively valued at $16,000. Together, Phillips and Tarbell had $177,000 at stake. (15) The rest of the staff had jobs and reputations that could be soiled easily; since they believed McClure was toying with their livelihoods, they rallied behind Phillips’ and Tarbell’s leadership.
At first, no damning evidence emerged to confirm McClure and Wilkinson’s relationship extended beyond the boundaries of flirtation. the staff also took comfort in the knowledge that Mrs. McClure, “sad and reproachful” at her husband’s suspected disloyalty, was again accompanying him to Europe in 1904. (16)
On May 28, when the McClure’s were safely across the Atlantic, Tarbell hoped to tidy the mess S.S. had created. She wrote Florence Wilkinson to express how she and Phillips had “refused” to judge the situation:
My Dear Miss Wilkinson
I trust you will not consider this note an intrusion. I am only writing it because I feel that you are unhappy and that an element in that unhappiness is your feeling that Mr. Phillips and I are judging you harshly. I want to ask you to put that idea entirely out of your mind. Neither Mr. Phillips nor I have the… inclination to judge the hearts of other men and women. Both of us deplored from the first the intimacy between you and Mr. McClure because we believed that in the nature of things nothing but pain and moral disintegration could come from it–but we have not judged….
Ida M. Tarbell (17)
While Tarbell penned her moralistic note to Wilkinson, S.S. McClure decided to inform his wife of some far more scandalous writings. He asked her to “write Miss W[ilkinson] in order to enclose a letter from him.” Mrs. McClure promptly refused–until her husband told her his note would request the return of love letters he had written Wilkinson. “I was horrified to know that she had his letters,” Mrs. McClure wrote Tarbell, “[h]ow terrible are all the possibilities implied in that circumstance!” While in Paris on May 27, McClure wrote his message to Wilkinson. He “asked for all his letters, saying…that he was now happier with [Mrs. McClure] than he had been for years.” Mrs. McClure mailed it, hoping she was not doing a “wrong and weak thing.” Relations with her husband were still strained, and she had to be “very indulgent and careful to keep any real advantage at all….” (18)
When Tarbell received Hattie McClure’s letter describing the above occurrence, her worst fear became reality–if the love letters fell into the wrong hands, blackmail or scandal would result. Sam McClure’s imprudence was dangerous, and in her view, insane. The magazine they lovingly had built up was in no position to deal with scandal; it was at the pinnacle of its social, political, and economic influence. Their readership was huge, the largest of its day; the muckraking articles moralistically had swayed public opinion and fueled progressive desires for reform. McClure’s even had the largest advertising clientele of any periodical–and yet the magazine faced possible ruin at the hands of “an uncivilized, immoral, untutored natural man with enough canniness to keep himself out of jails and asylums.” (19) The love letters had to be retrieved and John Phillips had the unhappy chore of discussing the matter with Wilkinson. (20) He traveled to the Finger Lakes region of New York, where Wilkinson lived, and instructed her to stop writing McClure and return all his letters to him. She agreed. (21)
Clearly, John Phillips resented the entire situation. Acting as romantic referees, he and Tarbell tried to bring the affair to a discreet conclusion. On June 21, Florence Wilkinson sent Phillips a message to let him know she still cared for McClure, although the affair was “officially” over. She told him the love letters had been sent to Divonne, France, where McClure was currently undergoing a rest cure. (22) In her note, Wilkinson expressed her concern for McClure’s mental health:
…Perhaps you would advise that I should not answer at all, but I think his health is suffering unnecessarily [sic] under the strain of absolute silence. I think, too, he is in an agony of doubt as to my feelings toward him. I wish he could know that I love him as well as ever–though I never am to see him. A letter which under convoy of a letter from his wife and which I opened was heart-rending. Surely it can do us no harm for him to be comforted–and the love by itself is not wrong….” (23)
Phillips dashed off a note to Tarbell asking for advice; he was shocked that Wilkinson’s passion had not cooled. “So as you surmised it’s not off yet and the lady is still playing her romantic part….” (24) he wrote Tarbell, “what to think of it all I don’t know! Is this an epidemic of lunacy? or moon blight? My small nephew used the word ‘bughouse’ this morning. It expresses my feelings.” (25)
Phillips and Tarbell were angry and confused; Hattie McClure and Florence Wilkinson were feeling slighted. In the center of this storm of emotion, however, stood McClure himself, busily trying to save his damaged personal life. Wilkinson was right: he was beginning to bend under the emotional strain. He, too, saw that those whom he needed most were threatening to disown him. He tried to scribble his was back into their esteem. To Tarbell he wrote: “I have so much to do right for. I couldn’t bear to lose you…I would allow no deed to separate me from you…not to speak of John and the others.” (26) First McClure had to regain his health by resting his frazzled nerves. “I am now at the bottom,” he lamented. “I can go no further nor feel any sadder.” (27) By this time, McClure’s mental fatigue began to affect him physically:
I am sorry to say that I have not yet begun to get well. I have lost steadily in weight and vigor and am now only a few pounds heavier than I was years ago….I am about to take the desperate but sure cure–three weeks in bed and milk. This the doctor says is my only hope physically….” (28)
Mrs. McClure took the trouble to keep Tarbell posted, noting how “Sam is in a state of utter nervous exhaustion, and is very sad. He does not always take the true view of things….” (29)
Was Sam McClure mentally unstable in the sense that he had little ability to control his emotions? And, if so, what effect did the affair have on his condition? McClure was indeed unstable; he had long been taking “rest cures” in various parts of Europe, and had continually suffered under the strain of a self-imposed, demanding schedule. (30)Later in life he reflected:
From the time I started the syndicate in 1884 until 1896, I lived under the most crushing financial anxieties and I was always under the necessity of getting good material, I was always pressed for enough time, and always cut off you might say from money or credit. So I never had time to look up, or look around, I was always trying to do more than I could do. When I got through, and the pressure was gone, my health and in a certain sense my judgment were terriblyimpaired. (31)
Tarbell, Phillips, and most of the staff dismissed McClure’s romantic indiscretions as the actions of an unstable man. They believed their editor was involved in an affair because he was already “ill,” and therefore unable to clearly foresee the possible consequences of his actions. (32) However, they did not realize that their disdain over McClure’s infidelity only increased their editor’s feelings of guilt, thereby exacerbating his instability.
As McClure wrote his miserable notes from Europe, Tarbell sought to stop the affair at all costs. “My Dear Mr. Phillips,” she wrote,
The Lord help us! I’m too small for this! There is nothing for us I should say, but to keep a ‘stern and unrelenting’ front Evidently Mrs McC is not to be counted on for that. Letters under her convoy! He can persuade her to anything and if in the end we see a menage a trois, I shall not be greatly surprised….we seem to be the only ones to use the knife and somebody must do it….our inexperience in dealing with lunations makes extra attention necessary! (33)
“Extra attention” was precisely what Tarbell and Phillips gave the whole affair. Hattie McClure’s letter of July 2, 1904 must have comforted them, for it confirmed the only physical evidence of the improprieties now rested in McClure’s hands. The love letters arrived in Europe on June 27, and Mrs. McClure was relieved to report “…the suspense and anxiety are all over now, and Sam has nothing to do but recover….” (34)
However, Mary Bisland, in charge of McClure’s London office, had her doubts. Upon meeting the editor and his wife at London’s Bedford Hotel, she listened to Mrs. McClure recount the “base and squalid details” of the affair. Bisland felt her editor was acting irrationally, and wondered if he could “suffer such a moral sickness at his age and then recover….” Bisland labeled McClure a “hopeless sort of degenerate….He is both wretched and restless away from Miss Wilkinson, he has not the very vaguest idea of giving her up.” Yet Bisland took solace in the belief that if her editor did “misbehave again,” he would face a “pretty stern judge” by the name of Hattie McClure. Like Tarbell, Bisland feared the worst; “this affair,” she lamented, “may yet bring disgrace upon our firm.” (35)
Paranoia was running its course on both sides of the Atlantic, but some of the fears were justified. McClure did “misbehave again,” and his wife was anything but the stern judge Bisland thought she would be. On July 25, Mrs. McClure received a letter from Florence Wilkinson, who had apparently discovered another lover in McClure’s life.(36) In her jealousy, she informed Mrs. McClure of Edith Wherry, an American writer currently in Europe, whom the editor had known intimately. In search of advice, Mrs. McClure wrote to Phillips on July 30, 1904:
This week Sam voluntarily made me some very solemn promises. He spoke more definitely than ever before. It was on the occasion of my learning much about his course of action during the summer, that he had not been loyal as I supposed him. But I know that he was sincere, and I accepted his solemn word offered to me. I find myself tempted to fling back at him his promises, but I have seen how disastrous that would be, and I tenderly accept all his offers….” (37)
In another note to Tarbell, Mrs. McClure explained why she was being so receptive to her husband’s pleas for forgiveness when she wrote that “Dr. Roland [McClure’s physician]…thinks him quite ill in the mind.” (38)
Once again McClure wrote to assure Tarbell and Phillips his philanderings were over. “You have done nobly and Miss Tarbell,” he wrote to Phillips, “[b]ut now the matter is finished and it is absolutely best that nothing further be done in word or action….” (39) As July reached its end, McClure urged his wife to return to America while he remained to pursue studies at the University of Geneva. Mrs. McClure was not certain how to react, and she pathetically wrote Phillips for advice. Throughout these months in 1904, she consistently looked to him and Tarbell for guidance which, of course, only served to draw the staff closer to its editor’s personal problems. Professionalism was mixing with personal conflict, and it soon became difficult to distinguish between business affairs and love affairs. In her letter to Phillips dated July 30, Hattie McClure expressed her concern for her husband’s well-being. It is likely she still harbored doubts about leaving him alone, fearing he would pursue romantic interests, but she was also concerned for his mental health. “He is worn to death with care and struggle,” she wrote. “It will be a long time before he is able to return to normal work I fear….He must do something. He has long lived on excitement.” (40)
This note only added to the distress of the McClure’s staff. Their editor-in-chief was apparently going to remain abroad for an extended period, unable to fulfill what duties he did not already delegate to others. McClure, however, was still in full legal control. His stock in the company was worth $600,000, and he had no intention of relinquishing any of it. (41)
In early September, Hattie McClure arrived home. To everyone’s surprise, her husband followed shortly thereafter, “finding his loneliness intolerable.” (42) Together they summoned Tarbell to the office for a conference. “Mrs. McC. is radiant and full of confidence,” Tarbell later wrote Phillips. “He [S.S. McClure] has persuaded her he never saw Miss Wherry but three times in Geneva and that all the suspicion about her is of Miss W[ilkinson]‘s creation, a work of jealousy and spite.” Tarbell viewed McClure’s return with suspicion–she saw it as an attempt to “put Mrs. McC. and the rest of us off the scent,” or as a poorly-disguised effort to visit Florence Wilkinson. If McClure was indeed paying such a visit, Tarbell would not be duped; in her eyes, McClure was “still the same canny, scheming, unstable soul….He is not changed.” (43)
Peter Lyon, at this point in his McClure biography, contends that Tarbell and Bisland were two old maids with a grudge. He implies they were jealous of Wilkinson’s and Wherry’s ability to gain McClure’s affection. While Tarbell and Bisland were concerned, their correspondence provides no evidence of romantic jealousy. These women had to support themselves, and wished to protect their economic independence; they did not swoon secretly over their employer. the magazine’s reputation was crucial to their livelihoods, and they had good reason for concern. Tarbell and the other staff members repeatedly had watched their suspicions concerning McClure’s indiscretions turn into embarrassing realities. Every time another “squalid” detail surfaced, they had to scramble to suppress it. By September, 1904, they were thoroughly disillusioned by McClure’s amorous tendencies and were convinced he could not control himself. His infidelities were not only economically perilous–they were morally untenable. The progressive standards of the McClure’s staff were affronted by the actions of an editor whose genius initiated the muckraking movement. This situation implied McClure’smoral ideals were unattainable.
Tensions ran high as McClure’s mental condition slowly worsened, his instability heightened by the guilt he felt in the face of the staff’s disdain. The editor’s physical condition also deteriorated; he had lost much weight and was behaving erratically. (44) Peter Lyon calls these actions the work of a “lovesick swain,” (45) but this term is acceptable only if it is a euphemism for a man whose “childish behavior was due to an inordinate emotional strain” (46) exacerbated by feelings of guilt.
Nine months passed before the second serious threat of scandal further alienated the McClure’s staff from its editor-in-chief. Tarbell had written a letter to Phillips in June, 1905, noting she had “a feeling that the whole affair [was] going to take on tragic proportions….” (47) It nearly did. In mid-summer 1905, McClure, searching for a possible story, decided to investigate unfair insurance practices in the Midwest. Two weeks after his departure for Chicago, Hattie McClure once again sought Tarbell’s advice. (48)She had just received a manuscript from Edith Wherry, disdainfully titled “The Shame of S.S. McClure, Illustrated by Letters and Original Documents,” (49) and a recommendation that McClure “publish it in the magazine with other important revelations.” (50)
Tarbell’s papers provide only evidence of her response to this situation. “The Shame of S.S. McClure” indicated her fears of blackmail or scandalous exposure were justified. Tarbell retained a copy of the letter Edith Wherry sent to McClure, which quotes Wherry’s explanation of why she submitted such a manuscript for publication. Ridden with her own feelings of guilt, Wherry declared:
I have decided to live henceforth in truth and honor….But to carry out my intention it is necessary that your wife know the truth and that the wall…behind which we both have hid[den] should be swept away. Especially…[should] you wife know that after your ‘conversion’ you returned to me with the same order as before….” (51)
Tarbell quickly advised Hattie McClure to send an urgent telegram to her husband in Chicago, requesting his immediate return, but McClure was already en route to New York, and arrived the next day. (52) Upon meeting his wife, McClure insisted his philanderings were over. “The Shame of S.S. McClure” was “somehow quietly suppressed,” (53) and an ever-wary Tarbell, in a letter to Albert Boyden, admitted the flames of passion were, with luck, extinguished. (54)
The aftermath of “L’Affaire” was quite significant in the McClure’s breakup. Everyone on the staff, including McClure himself, was affected by the “amorous intrigues” which had stained the past year. No one seemed to trust McClure. He had recklessly endangered the magazine’s reputation, thereby placing his subordinates in economic peril. He had committed an offense that affronted the moral sense of a progressive staff which had paraded justice and morality in its muckraking exposes. Worse yet, McClure’s subordinates now considered him mentally unstable, a hypocrite discrediting the reforms they so diligently sought to accomplish. McClure’s illness was, by this time, legendary among his employees, and his long absences had accustomed the staff to publishing a quality product without him. John Phillips’ authority had increased even further during “L’Affaire.” McClure was “…nominally editor-in-chief [and]…in theory could command as he chose, but in fact to get something done required a nod from Phillips.” (55) A strained system of command suffers from divided loyalties, and McClure’s was no exception. Tarbell was loyal only to Phillips. John Siddall, in turn, followed Tarbell’s command, (56) as did Baker, who was beginning to resent McClure’s “devouring egotism, [which was]…feeding remorselessly upon the gifts and talents of everyone he met, to serve his own ambition.” (57) Steffens was angry at McClure for rejecting his recent writings on life insurance scandals, (58) but he thoroughly respected Tarbell. He later reminisced that “she furnished a lot of the wisdom that ran McClure’s….You can just see Miss Tarbell going into [the] office every day…and fixing this, arranging that…she really was editor of that office….” (59) Albert Boyden was loyal only to Phillips and Tarbell, and often joked with the latter concerning “L’Affaire.” Boyden felt McClure was essentially a “coward,” and told Tarbell he kept envisioning her scolding McClure as he pursued “one…of his beautiful ladies.” (60)There is no evidence McClure’s subordinates harbored any feelings of disdain for one another, and in the face of their editor’s instability they formed a united body determined to protect its interests.
Though the staff was tense, and allegiance to the editor-in-chief was precarious, McClure was oblivious to these divided loyalties. He knew, however, his reputation had been soiled, and it hurt him deeply. S.S. McClure loved his magazine and the people who had made it a great periodical; aware of their disdain, he felt tremendously guilty for his role in “L’Affaire” and sought to regain their esteem. His letters to Tarbell reflect this sense of remorse. “My dear friend,” he wrote,
I have many times a very heavy heart both for my sins and for the change in you toward me….I have always cared for you in a special manner…and it is a heavy, heavy, load on my heart to realize how I caused you to change….I thought… I could stand the years of waiting until I earned your confidence and I knew that my place with you and Mr. Phillips would never be the same but I find it too hard. What a pearl of great price to throw away in losing you! (61)
McClure was an unstable man in search of redemption. Because he felt guilty, he wanted to atone for his indiscretions in a big way. Thus, the editor restlessly set about planning his moral comeback: he would “erase” his immorality by creating a business empire which would be the ultimate manifestation of the “incurable optimism” of his progressive age. Unable to realize that his seemingly beneficent scheme was, in reality, progressivism gone awry, McClure never anticipated the reactions of his staff, who saw in his visionary scheming further proof of his instability and immorality.
When McClure wrote Tarbell during the height of the frenzy surrounding the Wilkinson affair, she never fully realized what lay ahead. “I just feel our coming years,” he wrote. “I have ideas and plans so clear and sound that I know our next ten years will put us far ahead….We have the greatest and most splendid achievements in front of us than any people have.” (62)
Tarbell did not initially understand what her employer was planning. Only when McClure submitted a prospectus did she and the rest of the staff panic. They believed their editor was once again “crazily” trusting his instincts. He wished to found a companion magazine called McClure’s Universal Journal, which would form the heart of a business empire. Five enterprises were to complement the proposed magazine: a People’s University would provide for a curriculum via mail and would print the appropriate textbooks. A Universal Library would publish uncopyrighted material for mass consumption. A People’s Life Insurance Company would “revive the old ideals of honest, fair, economical life insurance.” (63) A People’s Bank would serve the masses, and finally, a McClure’s settlement “in which people could have cheap homes on their own terms,” (64) would be established.
The staff was not pleased with this grandiose scheme. In their view, it was solid proof McClure was unstable. McClure, of course, never anticipated this reaction. Though the staff objected to his earlier attempts to expand the company, (65) McClure believed it would be different when he presented his new plan. He hoped they would approve, and view him once again as their competent and adored leader; (66) then, perhaps, his guilt would diminish and their scorn would not show in their eyes.
The staff, once again led by Phillips and Tarbell, justified its disdain for McClure’s scheme. Their opposition was two-fold: they believed McClure’s plans were financially risky and morally untenable. They were gradually losing their ability to “temper his wilder impulses,” (67) and feared if McClure’s actions remained unbridled, their magazine would fall into ruin. Ida Tarbell, in All in the Day’s Work, stated how McClure’s founding in 1893 was “an undertaking which only the…hopelessly optimistic would ever have dared.” (68) The success of that enterprise enabled McClure to feel “…entirely free to trust his own instincts,” (69) and such confidence was now financially dangerous when combined with a need to seek moral redemption.
The prospectus for the new journal was the product of a man who enthusiastically pursued an unrealistic goal. McClure’s Universal Journal was to compare in quality with magazines like the Saturday Evening Post, the Nation, and Success, (70) but it would be streamlined and would appeal to a larger audience. The journal would be only 64 pages in length; 40 devoted to editorials and other commentary, and 24 to advertising, which would cover publication costs. The text would be printed in small type, allowing its content to equal the amount in The Century’s 160 pages. By using cheap paper and pen and ink illustrations, the manufacturing costs would be a mere three cents per copy, half the cost of McClure’s, and annual subscriptions would be 50 cents. Expenses would be trimmed even further by utilizing the McClure’s staff, presses, and accumulated news copy. (71)
As McClure predicted the proposed journal’s sales figures, his inability to be realistic was evident. McClure’s current circulation was 400,000, but McClure’s Universal Journal, in its creator’s estimate, would reach about 1,000,000. the net income from this gigantic circulation would be $524,000 annually, but since McClure was convinced he was creating an ideal periodical, he believed circulation could run as high as 3,000,000, thereby netting his company $1,950,000 annually. (72) These “realistic” figures would require five per cent of America’s households to purchase the proposed magazine. (73)
McClure was willing to risk his fortune on the new journal, for it was to be the cornerstone of his empire. He planned to finance the enterprise by creating a company with $12,750,000 in stock: $12,000,000 common and $750,000 preferred. For every 100 preferred shares purchased, 400 common would go to the buyer as a bonus. Not a share of common stock was to enter the market. Instead, it would be given in lieu of cash payments for authors’ contributions. Yet McClure and the staff would own only common stock, since he intended it to yield eight per cent in dividends in five years. (74)
It is not surprising the staff panicked. While McClure happily declared that his enterprise had “in it the germ of the greatest periodical ever published in America,” (75) Ida Tarbell was
furious. If anything could prove [McClure’s]… inability to found and carry out a new business it is this. The vital points he does not touch. The use of the name McClure [on the new magazine] is all wrong–out of the question, as I see it. This system of securing the consent of everybody by means of gifts of sweets [shares of stock in the new company] is humbug …I am not fit to write him. Mr. P[hillips] > as usual is an angel and has written him a beautiful letter which ought to show him what an inferior creature [he] is but which probably he will consider as someway a consent to his scheme…. (76)
There were other problems which had the staff simply aghast. McClure’s had lost $8,000 in 1904 due to skyrocketing manufacturing costs, and the magazine was in no position to use its credit to finance a bloated twin. (77) McClure had further endangered the company’s financial position by already hiring Howard Pyle, a well-known illustrator, as the art editor for the new journal. His annual salary was $18,000. (78) to complicate matters the editor-in-chief’s personal expenditures continued to swell beyond the boundaries of his budget, and the deficit was being picked up by McClure’s. From February, 1903, to July, 1904, McClure’s overdrafts totaled $30,000. (79)
While imminent financial disaster endangered the staff’s livelihood, the potential for moral disaster also existed, both the result of the maneuverings of an “insane” man. Tarbell voiced the staff’s collective concerns in her autobiography when she concluded the “Mr. McClure was a sick man.” She blamed his illness on “…the intense pressure he had put on himself in founding his enterprises…,” (80) and hinted at his need to alleviate his feelings of guilt by noting
…his chief interest was not in what his enterprises were accomplishing, but in adding something bigger than they were or could be. Only by doing this could he prove to himself and to his colleagues that he was a stronger and more productive man than ever. (81)
McClure’s desire to construct an empire made him blind to the concerns of his staff, who viewed his scheme as hypocritical. Their chief editor’s intent to build an empire, if successful, would be “…as alike as two peas to certain organizations the magazine had been battering.” (82) Lincoln Steffens echoed the staff’s sentiments in a letter to his father, explaining that McClure’s scheme “was not only fool, it was not quite right, as we saw it….” (83) The staff’s fears were justified; their employer’s scheme would allow for the establishment of six business entities under the same management, and would strongly resemble the trusts McClure’s had criticized in several lengthy exposes.
Another reason McClure’s plan seemed hypocritical lay in the new journal’s questionable financing. McClure told Tarbell he had already raised $255,000 for the venture,(84) and as the identity of the investors became known to the staff, they feared their editor was succumbing to the financial inducements of big business. (85) McClure enthusiastically declared the proposed journal would be
after the absolute truth…inimical to no class, and especially…not inimical to corporations, [also being]…eager to do them absolute justice….This idea properly worked up would be a good thing; I know from what large corporation men are thinking and feeling. (86)
The staff’s paranoia was fueled by Tarbell’s investigative findings set for in a current editorial project for McClure’s; she was preparing an in-depth study of corporate efforts to manipulate public opinion by exercising control over several newspapers. Proof of such activity was plentiful. Charles Evans Hughes, counsel to a congressional committee investigating life insurance firms, had recently proven the Mutual Life Insurance Company had bribed several reputable newspapers to print its “propaganda.” Standard Oil Company was also caught bribing Kansas newspaper publishers to print stories sympathetic to its business practices, and Ray Stannard Baker was currently exposing similar manipulative practices in the railroad industry. (87) This further reaffirmed the staff’s fears, especially when two of McClure’s legal and financial advisors were Edgar Bancroft, a railroad lawyer, and Robert Mather, who “was president of one railroad and a director of thirty others.” (88) Steffens summarized the staff’s concerns when he denounced McClure for taking “counsel from financiers who have been exploiting (which means robbing) [with the] railroads,” for
it looked as if he were willing to do the very things the rest of us had been ‘exposing.’ Now, having built up McClure’s, given it purpose and character, and increased its circulation so that it was a power as well as a dividend-payer, [the staff] did not propose to stand by and see it exploited and used, even by itsowner. (89)
As McClure forged ahead with his plans, Tarbell hastily wrote her brother William, an attorney for Pure Oil Company, seeking his legal advice. He told her if McClure should use the “…name, credit, good-will or any other of [the magazine’s] many valuable assets, or [if she could] show his scheme will injure the same…,” (90) she possibly could convince the courts of her endangered minority rights. He then recalled jokingly how Tarbell’s editor
…has allowed ‘McClure’s Magazine’ to publish almost numberless sermons on business ‘fairness.’ His new proposition, it seems to me, would make another excellent scoop for you to let him go ahead with it and then write it up…. (91)
William Tarbell was not the only person outside the staff circle to know of McClure’s plans. Around New York, “in the bars and clubs frequented by journalists, the story grew of how McClure, megalomaniacal, was planning a vast publishing Trust….” (92) the public reaction only confirmed staff fears that McClure’s would be labeled an organ of journalistic hypocrisy.
In the midst of these rumors S.S. McClure finally took legal action to establish the McClure’s Journal Company, and a schism began which resulted in the staff’s exodus to form The American Magazine. McClure later described march 21, 1906, as a day in which “a malignant wave of hysteria” (93) swept over the staff, causing the breakup to occur. Ida Tarbell kept a brief account of the schism in her diary: on March 21, McClure returned from yet another European excursion, hoping to sooth Phillips’ anger over his decision to hire Howard Pyle as the new journal’s illustrator. When Phillips realized his partner intended to pursue his plans for McClure’s Universal Journal, he promptly quit. Distressed, McClure sought to gain Tarbell’s support for his scheme. She “refused to argue,” and told him she had no intention of supporting his efforts. She also suggested a conference of all concerned parties should be called before she took action. Realizing his two closest “supporters” were deserting him, McClure “…seem[ed] to acknowledge [his] crazyness…,” (94) but there was no turning back. As Steffens, Boyden and Siddall paced outside McClure’s office, Phillips and Tarbell entered, confronted their editor, and explained their grievances: how McClure had spent too much time abroad, how important it was to reapportion editorial control, how McClure had lost the ability to properly manage the magazine by himself. (95) Remembering their editor’s unstable mind, they sensed McClure’s desperation when he attempted to prevent Phillips’ defection by offering him three years paid vacation. Phillips refused and continued to insist he was leaving. McClure then agreed to purchase Phillips’ stock, and asked Tarbell if she intended to remain. She replied she could not stay without Phillips “or someone like him….” (96) McClure’s panic goaded him to offer to buy every article Tarbell wrote for the next three years, if she promised to remain. (97)
Tarbell, like Phillips, promptly refused his “pathetic” offer. When McClure inquired whether the rest of the staff was leaving, Tarbell “said Boyden was the only one who told me so directly.” (98) The staff, however, supportive of its two leaders, rallied behind Phillips’ and Tarbell’s battle flag. Even Baker, preoccupied with his series entitled “The Railroads on Trial,” joined Phillips, Tarbell, Steffens and others in battling an editor who had “become so utterly unbalanced…that he is almost past working with.“(99) As the day wore on, McClure finally realized his colleagues were deserting him. The day proved exhausting for his frazzled nerves, and he panicked further when he became convinced the value of his stock in the S.S. McClure Company would plummet in the face of desertion. Tarbell was in Phillips’ office when McClure marched in and announced he could not purchase his partner’s stock, for “the staff [was] leaving and it [wasn’t] worth $1000″ per share. (100)
Phillips and Tarbell believed McClure’s instability now deluded him into breaking his promise. To bring the editor to his senses, Phillips said McClure must, if he had any moral decency, “buy him out.” It was, after all, “the only fair and manly thing to do.” (101) After Phillips mad his “very good and sensible speech,” McClure changed strategies. Tarbell recounted how “S.S., after silence, said [the] thing for you people to do is buy me out.” Phillips agreed: “I’ll buy your stock,” he said, and “S.S. sprang up as if shot and stretched out his hand to Mr. P[hillips]” to shake on the agreement. McClure then “flew from [the] room without a word.” (102)
In his biography, Peter Lyon portrays the agreement in a tone sympathetic to McClure’s plight. The author claims Phillips and Tarbell “…were trying to euchre him out of control of his own company.” (103) The term “euchre” implies they were trying to cheat McClure, and is deceptive. It is crucial to remember Phillips and Tarbell were dealing with someone who had just attempted to renege on an “honorable” agreement, and they felt justified in seeking to protect their interest by gaining control of the company. This is not to say, however, that Tarbell and Phillips were immune to the painful emotions of the situation. Both had known McClure for many years, and suffered under the tension of the schism currently underway, but their primary interests lay in the financial and moral considerations of the situation. They acted in what they considered an honorable manner.
Shortly after McClure agreed to sell his stock, Tarbell went to his office. The editor was “putting on his coat, his eyes red from weeping.” She gave McClure her hand, and “he said brokenly, It’s all right. I’m at peace for the first time in days. My wife is praying for me….” At this point in Tarbell’s account, she again indicated McClure’s instability, for “he talked a good deal, half to himself and half to me.” She felt “awful” about the experience and could not reply because she was so upset. McClure, despite emotional strain, could elicit tremendous feelings of guilt from Tarbell. She recounted how he “referred to his love for me– said it was all which had saved him in affaireWilkinson.” Apparently, McClure had no idea how much “L’Affaire” had served to alienate Tarbell and the rest of the staff. Though Tarbell did not believe McClure was sincere, she thought he felt he was so; her diary entries indicate she had her doubts about McClure’s ability to fully understand his own thoughts and actions. He spoke in “broken talk for a half hour,” and she “ached dreadfully” at seeing him in this state. She begged him to go home: “I only talk once–to tell him it has ceased to be a question of S.S. and J.S.P. To save his manhood he must get out of this situation.” (104)
During the following week McClure and Phillips drew up plans to facilitate a staff takeover of McClure’s. Tarbell, Steffens, and Boyden were each willing to contribute $50,000 to the buy out, intending to maintain group control of the magazine’s stock. by doing so, the staff hoped not only to preserve their livelihoods, but to continue the progressive crusades their unstable editor had undermined. Boyden, confident a staff takeover would succeed, wrote Baker: “I feel better than in months. It’s a relief to know that the magazine is to be preserved–that’s bigger and more important than any of us.” (105) McClure, however, had difficulty committing himself to any agreement. He wrote his attorney, Robert Mather, and lamented that his “…continual wavering was caused by [his] utter inability to face the separation.” (106) On April 14, McClure finally halted his vacillation and chose to remain. He wrote Tarbell and told her: “I cannot leave the magazine. I simply cannot. I would soon lose my mind with unavailing regret…I am sorry, sorry.” (107) He then formed the McClure Publishing Company to replace the S.S. McClure Company, issuing $1,000,000 in preferred for the new new concern. The issuance of preferred stock was a last-ditch effort to pay for new publishing facilities on Long Island which were threatening the financial well-being of the company. The stock would be sold to the new firm. (108)
Coincidentally, McClure finally chose to remain in control of his company on the same day President Roosevelt delivered his famous “man-with-a-muck-rake” speech in Washington, D.C. Speaking at the placing of the cornerstone of the House of Representatives building, Roosevelt denounced the reform journalists. “In Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress,” the President declared,
you may recall the description of the Man with the Muck-rake, the man who could look now way but downward, with the muck-rake in his hands; who was offered a celestial crown for his muck-rake, but who would neither look up nor regard the crown he was offered, but continued to rake himself the filth of thefloor. (109)
This “muck-raker,” Roosevelt continued, symbolized those magazine journalists who ignored the positive aspects of their times while fixing their eyes on the “vile and debasing.” Because these writers raked only the muck, they were declared “potent forces for evil” in America. (110)
The President’s speech received a favorable response among progressives, which indicated that many, like Roosevelt, were tiring of righteous journalistic crusades. Newspapers, eager to take advantage of this public reaction, were quick to imply a connection between the McClure’s breakup and Roosevelt’s denunciation. (111)McClure, said The New York Times, “resented somewhat emphatically the suggestion that the President’s recent speech about muck-raking and muck-rakers had in any way affected his views of what a magazine ought to be or had had any influence on the incidents that have led to the disagreements in the office of McClure’s.” (112)
Though the muck-rake speech was not a significant factor initiating the breakup, it did summarize Roosevelt’s viewpoint, and reflected the beliefs of many in the nation that progressive reform journalism should be in decline. Though the President distinguished between responsible and sensational exposures, his denunciation was vague enough to indict all reform journalists. Roosevelt, in short, made it “difficult to understand precisely who was the object of his attack; and the point has never been satisfactorily cleaned up.” (113)
The McClure’s “muck-rakers,” in the face of public approval of the President’s speech, felt betrayed. Roosevelt assured Lincoln Steffens his attack was aimed at reformer David Graham Phillips, whose “Treason of the Senate” series, published in the Cosmopolitan, “unfairly” lambasted Senator Chauncy Depew. Steffens remained unconvinced, claiming: “Well, Mr. President, you have put an end to all these journalistic investigations that have made you.’” (114) Baker, equally affronted, “could never again give [Roosevelt]…full confidence nor follow his leadership.” (115)
The muck-rake speech is also significant because many on the staff perceived Roosevelt’s denunciation as the climax of a presidential battle against the McClure’s exposes. This perceived attack was made all the more galling because McClure, in his weakened mental state, appeared to be slowly yielding to Roosevelt’s exhortations. TheMcClure’s journalists were well aware of Roosevelt’s earlier letter to their editor, written in October, 1905, which requested that Steffens “put more sky in his landscape.“(116)
On April 9, 1906, five days before Roosevelt’s muck-rake speech, McClure seemed to be taking the President’s advice. In a letter to his stockholders, the editor stated his belief that “to go on now with the heavy exposure articles would not convert those who disagree with us, and those who agree with us don’t need conversion.” (117)
Though the staff’s concern over McClure’s apparent “softpedaling” was of secondary importance in the McClure’s breakup, (118) it served to increase the tension between the staff and its editor, who was perceived as bowing to the interests of the presidency. In late April the staff, exasperated, mad final preparations to leave the magazine to its unstable editor-in-chief. On April 27, 1906, Tarbell submitted her formal resignation, requesting six months’ salary as severance pay. McClure replied three days later:
I have absolutely decided to buy you and Mr. Phillips out and to give you a six months’ vacation on full salary….I shall be under debts in this office equal to the net earnings of the last nine years when you leave….I shall agree to pay you for your stock on the most favorable terms that I can possibly hope to carryout…. (119)
The terms of the agreement McClure mad with his former associates were influenced by the staff’s intention to purchase American Illustrated Magazine. Ellery Sedgwick, its editor, negotiated a $360,000 purchase price, and upon sale, shifted to a temporary position with McClure’s. Phillips, Tarbell, Steffens, Baker, and Boyden, followed shortly thereafter by William Allen White, incorporated under the name “Phillips Publishing Company” and changed their periodical’s name to The American Magazine.(120)
McClure’s was never the same after the insurgent staff departed to continue their journalistic crusade elsewhere. to satisfy the terms of the purchase agreement negotiated by Phillips, McClure was forced to place his stock under the control of a board of trustees to whom he was held accountable. The cost of the new Long Island publishing facility, originally estimated at $105,000, increased three-fold, while McClure’s Book Company, a subsidiary of the magazine, went heavily into debt. With the arrival of a depression in 1907, McClure’s advertising revenues plummeted as manufacturers tightened their belts. From 1906 onward, the magazine never again declared stock dividends. $800,000 in debt, McClure was continuously at the mercy of a string of creditors, to whom the periodical was finally surrendered in the autumn of 1911. Under the management of financiers unsympathetic to muckraking, the magazine’s journalistic crusades were squelched. (121) In reality, however, McClure’s was the victim of idealistic “explosions” begun more than five years earlier, when the high moral standards of a staff bent upon reforming society were shattered by the man who had created the medium for their expression.
The McClure’s schism demonstrated a fundamental incongruity of the progressive mentality, which believed “perfection [lay] at the end of constant struggles and attainments of men. ” (1) This moralistic struggle toward a perfect society, combined with the “incurable optimism” of the era, did not allow for imperfections inherent in human nature. S.S. McClure, the figurehead of a progressive media machine which bore his name, was stained by the “sin” of marital infidelity. Having affronted the moral standards of his colleagues, McClure suffered from feelings of guilt, which only exacerbated his already unstable temperament. His “utter nervous exhaustion” (2) enabled him to convince himself he could stone for his sin through achievement. by attempting to build a business empire that would help to correct fundamental social wrongs, he hoped to find vindication. Instead, McClure only succeeded in convincing his staff that he was attempting to form a publishing “trust.” Morally outraged and economically imperiled, they left the magazines.
A study of the McClure’s breakup is historically significant because it chronicles “the explosions of…idealistic undertakings.” (3) The McClure’s staff, under its editor’s leadership, inaugurated the muckraking movement. The muckraker’s, in turn, received their moralistic vitality from progressivism, but also inherited its flawed ideology. Progressivism was often simplistic and idealistic. Seeking the “realization of high principles,” (4) the progressives’ “quest for solutions to current problems assumed the nature of a moral crusade…because ultimately their search was a moral endeavor.” (5) Accordingly, the McClure’s muckrakers put their pens to paper and attempted, through their exposures, to point the way to moral perfection. Though they espoused this idealistic hope for mankind, S.S. McClure’s moral offenses implied such a goal was unrealistic. McClure, who had helped to arraign society for its immoral behavior, was himself “immoral,” and this realization forced the McClure’s staff to watch “something in which they deeply believed go to pieces.” (6)
To imply that the McClure’s schism caused the downfall of muckraking would be inaccurate. But the breakup did act as a barometer indicating ideological flaws within the movement. The public’s favorable reaction to Roosevelt’s “man-with-a-muck-rake” speech implied they had begun to view the muckrakers’ quests as unrealistic. Many, like Theodore Roosevelt, wanted less pessimistic journalism which “put more sky in [the] landscape.” (7) Thus, by the time the McClure’s staff breakup occurred, muckraking was already in the throes of decline, (8) and the public, “who had become sickened and satiated by several years of a constant flow of exposes…turned to new diversions.“(9) Since muckraking was tied inextricably to progressivism, its excesses helped bring about a loss of faith in the progressive movement. McClure’s instabilities exemplified the imperfect nature of man, and confirmed his inability to create a perfect world around him. The McClure’s schism was a harbinger indicating the muckrakers–and the progressives who supported them–would soon remove their rose-tinted spectacles. Ray Stannard Baker, reflecting upon earlier times, exemplified this realization: “I think often of the old days,” he wrote Lincoln Steffens in 1930, “and never at any time of more interest than of those days at McClure’s…when we were saving the world–so blithely! We didn’t know at the time quite how hard boiled it was. ”