Masterplots II: Juvenile & Young Adult Biography Series The Autobiography of Lincoln Steffens Analysis
Steffens wrote a fast-paced autobiography that touches on a broad cross section of United States and world history from the 1890’s to the 1920’s. In 1903, he gained national attention with his description of crooked politics in Minneapolis. There followed a series of exposés of corruption from coast to coast in which Steffens shocked his readers by arguing that graft was not limited to the smoke-filled rooms of political bosses but included the petty corruption of ordinary citizens in their daily lives. Stealing an apple from the corner grocer, he contended, was a part of the same syndrome of corruption that led greedy bosses to loot the city treasury.
Steffens used his national prominence to arouse public opinion about the need for reform. He worked with editor S. S. McClure to place the muckraking McClure’s Magazine at the forefront of the Progressive movement. Steffens and other crusading journalists helped to inspire this movement, which stimulated efforts at the local, state, and national levels to end corrupt, inefficient practices in government and business. Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson brought Progressive reform into national affairs.
Although Steffens was close to many famous Progressive leaders, he often disagreed with them. He met Theodore Roosevelt when the future president was a reform-minded police commissioner in New York City in the 1890’s. Steffens admired Roosevelt’s energetic style in the White House, but the muckraker was eventually disappointed by what he believed were the president’s inconsistencies as a reformer. In his autobiography, Steffens remembered Roosevelt as...
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Masterplots II: Nonfiction Series The Autobiography of Lincoln Steffens Analysis
Lincoln Steffens had two careers. The first lasted almost twenty years, from 1892 to 1911, and brought him fame and modest wealth. This was the newspaperman, feature writer, and muckraker period. The second, from 1912 to 1930, brought him not only derision but also personal happiness and intellectual contentment. This was the radical propagandist period. To Steffens, however, the evolution of his thinking, which these two careers constitute, was seamless and began long before his working life commenced in New York City; it began in fact in a boy’s Western childhood.
Born in San Francisco a year after the Civil War ended, Lincoln Steffens grew up in Sacramento, still in the 1870’s a frontier town of gamblers, miners, and cowboys. His description is of a golden childhood, for Steffens’ parents pampered him yet allowed him considerable freedom. On his beloved pony, Lincoln could ride for hours (and as he grew older, days) to satisfy an insistent curiosity about what lay beyond the next hill. Since the Steffens family was financially comfortable, young Lincoln lacked no material advantage. His was certainly no Dickensian childhood, in which the struggle for food or shelter makes the ordinary pleasures of growing up impossible. If Lincoln sometimes suffered from his father’s taciturn nature, he was never abused or unloved.
Autobiography is a genre which encourages an emphasis on those moments and events in childhood which create or reflect the adult’s ethics and values. Since his childhood and adolescent years were neither dramatic nor traumatic, Steffens permits himself the luxury of underscoring those occasions which formed (he implies) the attitudes of the muckraking reformer and radical. When, for example, a friend of his father promises Lincoln a pony and then fails to deliver, the youngster concludes that there is much sham in life and that promises are seldom kept. When an artist produces for the boy a beautiful painting of an ugly ravine, Lincoln realizes that there is beauty in even the most seemingly hideous situation, if one has the imagination to see it. When Lincoln discovers that horse races are fixed, he generalizes that corruption naturally overtakes an activity involving money. Whether these incidents actually occurred or the boy actually drew these morals from them is unimportant. Since Steffens’ story is about the growth of a mind, not a child, the episodes are organic and pleasing.
So too are the lessons learned at Berkeley and in Germany. Steffens’ schooling convinced him, he tells his readers, that American higher education errs in demanding the memorization of facts rather than challenging students to seek answers to unanswered (and unasked) questions and solutions to unsolved problems. Postgraduate study abroad reinforced his belief in the scientific method, in the usefulness of the laboratory study of all subjects, including morals and social behavior. Thus, when Steffens returned to the United States at age twenty-six and began his newspaper career, he took a scientific, objective approach to whatever story he was covering and revealed in his writing a sociological curiosity about his subject then unique to journalism.
Steffens saw writing as an art, himself as an artist. From the first, his talents lay chiefly in exploring the human condition, not in reporting mere facts. This, coupled with his devotion to the scientific method, led to the probing, investigative style of journalism he pioneered. As an interviewer Steffens had no peer. He could elicit admissions of wrongdoing...
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Critical Context (Masterplots II: Juvenile & Young Adult Biography Series)
As was the case with much of his writing, Steffens’ autobiography was a reflection of the time in which it was written and, in this sense, was a classic statement of American ideas and ideals in the early years of the Great Depression. The book appeared in 1931, when the United States was sliding further into the depths of economic collapse. Steffens’ observations on public corruption and private greed seemed to fit into the widely held assumption of the early 1930’s that capitalism had failed. His shift from reform under Progressivism to revolution under communism seemed to reflect the mood of many readers in those years.
The Autobiography of Lincoln Steffens, however, is more than a Depression-era document. Steffens summarized the results of four decades of observation and analysis on the ever-relevant topic of corruption in government. His descriptions of James M. “Boss” Cox, Nelson Aldrich, Theodore Roosevelt, and Robert M. La Follette invite comparisons with later generations of wheeler-dealers and reformers. Although Steffens tended to respond to personalities as much as to issues and had a blind spot for the harsh side of Soviet Communism, his commentary provides valuable insights into the workings of corruption, the fragility of reform, and the quest for and abuse of power in the United States, the Soviet Union, and Mexico. Because he rarely attempted to disguise his opinions, his autobiography provides the young reader with the opportunity to explore and to make judgments about the mind of a sincere and thoughtful journalist who experimented with some of the most significant ideas and ideologies of the twentieth century.
Critical Context (Masterplots II: Nonfiction Series)
The Autobiography of Lincoln Steffens was an influential book in the 1930’s, providing all leftists, and Marxists in particular, with a way out of the American wilderness created by the prosperity of the 1920’s and the campaign of fear initiated by Attorney General Alexander Palmer. It remains important, even when more radical primers for revolution have been published.
It is first of all a lively history of the United States from 1895 to 1920, featuring vivid, unforgettable portraits of the famous men and women of the time, including Theodore Roosevelt, Wilson, J. P. Morgan, Clarence Darrow, and Tarbell. Further, readers are introduced to or reminded of persons once famous, perhaps now forgotten: reformers such as Charles Parkhurst, Joe Folk, and Brand Whitlock; political bosses such as Richard Croker of Tammany Hall, Matthew Quay, and Martin Lomasny; press barons such as S.S. McClure, E.W. Scripps, and William Randolph Hearst; writers such as Walter Lippmann, John Reed, and Finley Peter Dunne; radicals such as Emma Goldman, Big Bill Haywood, and Mabel Dodge; as well as international figures including Vladimir Ilich Lenin, Venustiano Carranza, and Benito Mussolini.
Beyond the personalities, however, this is the history of radicalism in the United States of Lincoln Steffens. The evolution of Steffens’ thinking parallels the movement of American liberalism from progressivism to socialism to communism. In The Autobiography of...
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