The Autobiography of Lincoln Steffens by Lincoln Steffens

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Critical Edition of Young Adult Fiction 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 “a politician much more than he was a reformer as an opportunist with no deep insight into the issues.”

Steffens’ autobiography has the limitations of most books of the genre: The author tends to place himself at the center of events, interviewing and offering advice to presidents and revolutionary leaders. Steffens may have said the things that he recorded in The Autobiography of Lincoln Steffens, but it is difficult to determine whether these powerful leaders took his advice, as he often implied. For example, for more than a decade Steffens took credit for writing article 27 of the Mexican Constitution of 1917 (which gave the Mexican government the control of that nation’s oil and mineral resources over the protests of large international corporations). In his autobiography, Steffens finally admitted that he had not written this law, but he continued to make claims of personal influence with the Carranza administration that historians have found to be exaggerated.

The Autobiography of Lincoln Steffens must be read with caution for another reason: At the end of the book, Steffens describes his conviction that the Soviet Union of the early 1920’s has discovered the ideal political and economic system...

(The entire section is 678 words.)