Study Guide

Lincoln Steffens in The Man with the Muckrake

By Theodore Roosevelt

Lincoln Steffens

Like any good opening act (that's actually popular, not just awkwardly tacked onto the concert), Lincoln Steffens set the tone for muckrakers to follow. A Berkeley-trained journalist who cut his teeth in Europe, Steffens returned to the United States to cast some light on the political corruption that hung on cities like a jacket you haven't gotten around to dry cleaning yet.

His first heavy-hitting work was called "Pittsburgh is Hell with the Lid Off/ Pittsburgh: A City Ashamed" (best title, or best title?) and the next few years of his journalistic career were spent digging deep in the muck and printing his findings in the popular press.

However, unlike Teddy Roosevelt, who was convinced journalists had the pace of reform in a claw-like fist, Steffens became more and more disillusioned about whether publishing muckraking articles actually did anything to stop the corruption he fought so hard against.

Early Days

Steffens was born in that great Rice-a-Roni capital San Francisco, where he grew up in the Steffens family mansion—a mansion so nice it would become the mayor's mansion later on. He studied journalism at the University of California back when there was only one of those, and afterward went on to study in Germany.

During his whirlwind European tour, he met his first wife, whom he married in secret, and would return to the United States to enter the booming newspaper business. He trained under Jacob Riis, who first captivated audiences with his article "How the Other Half Lives," which brought pictures of conditions in tenement apartments to the public.

Professional Muckraker

Up through the 1910s, he focused on political corruption, writing about it in his trademark gripping style for years. He wasn't satisfied with Roosevelt's Man with the Muckrake answer of "there are bad people that make the corruption happen," and dedicated his career to finding out why things were corrupt and what legal and social conditions helped that corruption happen in the first place.

However, after the death of his wife, a sinking feeling started to bubble up for Steffens: was simply reporting on corruption really doing anything?

From Reformer to Revolutionary

He spent 1914 through 1915 covering the Mexican Revolution, where he realized that revolution was way better than journalism in getting things done. In 1919 he visited the Soviet Union, where, unlike Goldman, he was head-over-heels with the new soviet state.

Of the USSR, he said, "I have seen the future, and it works" (source).

After his trip back to the USSR (you don't know how lucky you are, boy, etc.), Steffens married his second wife, Lenore Sophie Winter, and the two of them spent some time in Italy before returning to Steffen's native California to live in Carmel-By-The-Sea, an art commune where the two of them lived comfortably in the leftist scene. Steffens, with his muckraking skills, blazed a trail for other investigative journalists to follow.

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