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.