Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces 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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