Masarykova univerzita Filozofická fakulta Katedra anglistiky a amerikanistiky Bakalářská diplomová práce

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Masarykova univerzita

Filozofická fakulta

Katedra anglistiky a amerikanistiky

Bakalářská diplomová práce

2011 Dana Kutálová

Masaryk University

Faculty of Arts
Department of English
and American Studies

English Language and Literature

Dana Kutálová

Lincoln Steffens’s Contribution

to the Muckraking Era

Bachelor’s Diploma Thesis

Supervisor: Jeffrey Alan Vanderziel, B.A.


I declare that I have worked on this thesis independently,
using only the primary and secondary sources listed in the bibliography.


Author’s signature


I would like to express my thanks to my supervisor Jeff Vanderziel for his helpful guidance provided to me during my work on this thesis. I also want to express my appreciation for my parents’ unfailing support, and last but not least, I would like to thank my sister for her invaluable help and advice.
Table of Contents

1. Introduction 7

2. Muckraking in the USA at the Turn of the Twentieth Century 9

3. Lincoln Steffens 12

4. Lincoln Steffens’s Works 25

5. Conclusion 42

Works Cited 44

Summary 47

Shrnutí 48


Muckraking journalists are a phenomenon in the history of the United States. They helped to point out the wrongs in the society and politics at the turn of the twentieth century, and are considered to have been agents of reform. Lincoln Steffens holds a particularly important place among them. He is referred to as the leading muckraker and can also be regarded as a commentator on the political scene. This thesis explores the aspects that helped Steffens to achieve the high status in the journalistic trade and society in the years of his active muckraking, and the contribution Steffens made in the muckraking era.

The second chapter introduces the muckraking era in general. It describes the social and economic conditions in the USA at the beginning of the twentieth century and outlines the causes of the emergence of muckraking. The origin of the term “muckraker” is explained. The third chapter is devoted to Lincoln Steffens and his perception of journalism and the contemporary society. At the beginning of the chapter, his life is briefly summarized. The focus then shifts to Steffens’s attitudes towards journalism while some of his typical features are mentioned which helped him to succeed as a journalist. The second part of the chapter presents Steffens as a critic of the political life in the USA by delineating his notions of the current state of affairs and possible change. The fourth chapter is concerned with Steffens’s works. There is an overview of the collections of his articles and the greater part of the chapter deals with Steffens’s most famous collection of muckraking articles about corruption in cities, The Shame of the Cities. This section explains what Steffens intended by writing the book and what the impact of the book was. Further, the literary style of the book is shown with emphasis placed on some features of the text that are not characteristic of a piece of journalism.

What I hope to show is that Lincoln Steffens was a journalist whose vigor, distinctive opinions, and writing style distinguished him from other journalists. Steffens devoted himself to his job. Following current events and responding to them in his articles, he actively participated in the public life. By displaying corruption and other wrongs, he helped to mould public opinion, which he regarded as one of the key functions of journalism. He considered himself an artist and promoted creative journalism employing artistic features. All of this makes Lincoln Steffens an outstanding figure of American journalism.

2.Muckraking in the USA at the Turn of the Twentieth Century

This chapter gives a brief overview of factors which helped create “muckraking,” a type of investigative journalism which has become a phenomenon of the USA’s twentieth-century history. Muckraking emerged at a time when the United States’ population and economy were undergoing massive changes. The country needed to handle the negative effects of these changes and muckraking was an alternative. “Muckrakers,” as the name indicates, were seeking for misdemeanors in all spheres of activity, and exposing them. The contribution attributed to muckrakers consists mainly in their initiating of the legislative process but is not evaluated equally by all scholars.

At the turn of the century, the United States saw significant changes in its demography and social conditions. As Weinberg and Weinberg describe, by the first years of the twentieth century, the United States had taken a high number of immigrants who subsequently lived in poor conditions. At the same time, the number of millionaires had increased and their trusts and monopolies dominated many industries (xvii). The shift in the conditions obviously entailed many negative effects on the society. Gallagher specifies that there was a high degree of social injustice and the business and political spheres were interwoven with corruption (4).

In the first years of the twentieth century, a movement later called “muckraking”, represented by investigative journalists known as “muckrakers”, emerged in response to the social ills mentioned above. As Weinberg and Weinberg explain, a lot of muckrakers wrote detailed articles about injustices and law infringements supported by accurate facts (xv). The period when muckrakers participated in the public life most actively and were most praised by the public lasted from 1902 to 1912 (xx). Filler marks the year 1912 as the climax of this “literature of exposure” which declined sharply in the following years (viii). Stein asserts that muckraking was primarily initiated by the public’s concerns about the state of the American society, felt since the nineteenth century (American 10). According to Weinberg and Weinberg, also other factors assisted the boom of muckraking journalism. Among them were a wider magazine and newspaper readership due to increased high school graduation rates, and lower prices of periodicals due to advanced technology. These factors allowed for mass-circulation of periodicals, and thus for farther reach of muckrakers’ influence (xviii).

The impact of muckrakers’ work has been judged differently by different historians at different times. Stein assumes that the general scholars’ view of muckrakers has been that the journalists published articles in magazines popular with the middle class, addressed public concerns, were influenced by these concerns, and helped mould public opinion at the same time (American 9). Mark Sullivan’s, a muckraking writer’s, impression of the muckraking time was that “[i]t was not the writers who made the muckraking era . . . , it was the public mood of the time” (qtd. in Miraldi 614). This statement suggests that the public strongly supported and motivated muckrakers’ efforts. According to Stein, muckrakers have been characterized as affecting local, state and national policies, defying big enterprises, and supporting reform movements striving for political and social reforms. In the early decades of the twentieth century, muckrakers were praised for their contribution to legislation which regulated working conditions and law enforcement. Since the 1950s, this almost solely positive view has altered in some measure (American 10). As an example of this shift in the understanding of muckrakers, Hofstadter considers them “overly moderate in suggesting needed changes” (qtd. in Stein, American 10) and Chamberlain finds them “ultimately inadequate in accomplishment despite their inspiration of much needed legislation” (qtd. in Stein, American 10). As Stein describes in the 1970s, muckrakers started to be seen as only one of the factors that helped spur legislation and political change (American 16).

As to the term “muckraker” itself, Weinberg and Weinberg explain how it came into being. Although President Theodore Roosevelt co-operated with muckrakers to some extent and took advantage of their work, it was he who decried their exposing practices in the end and named them “muckrakers.” He was agitated by their ongoing exposures and when he was delivering a speech on the occasion of dedicating the cornerstone of the House of Representatives office building in 1906, he compared the journalists to

the man with the muckrake in [John] Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress who could “look no way but downward, with a muckrake in his hands; who was offered a celestial crown for his muckrake, but who would neither look up nor regard the crown he was offered, but continued to rake to himself the filth of the floor.” (Weinberg and Weinberg xxi)

Thus, he accused them of trying to defame officials and well-known personalities who did not deserve it.

Nevertheless, it seems that muckrakers came at the right time. The United States was in a new century and was searching for the right way towards stable economic and social conditions. The public needed agents who would expose all its problems and help solve them. Although the actual role of muckrakers in the legislative process has been disputed, they were a factor in the betterment of the unsettled social, economic and political environment because they pointed at many cases of law violation and social injustice.

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