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'Citizen Reporters review: S.S. McClure, Ida Tarbell, and the Magazine that Rewrote America

America needed their journalism; they needed each other

Citizen Reporters
Citizen Reporters

S.S. McClure feared being held back by his “cursed mediocre versatility.” Ida Tarbell resolved to be free; it followed, in her mind, that she “must be a spinster.” McClure channeled his versatility into founding and editing McClure’s magazine, which became a beacon of the American progressive movement. Tarbell gave up a measure of her freedom to join the staff of McClure’s, for which she wrote articles that led to the breakup of a corporate behemoth, the Standard Oil Trust. The symbiotic relationship between the mercurial editor and his steadfast reporter is the subject of Stephanie Gorton’s smart and illuminating new book, “Citizen Reporters.”

S.S. McClure’s “cursed” remark came at a low point in his life. There were plenty of those, along with a great many surges of manic activity. In 1866, his newly widowed mother and her four young sons emigrated from Scotland. They settled in Valparaiso, Indiana, just in time for the town’s Fourth of July celebration, at which 9-year-old Sam recognized that “here was a young country for Youth.” Reflecting on Sam’s years at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois, a classmate said he’d “seldom seen so much enthusiasm and life in such a small carcass.” The small carcass was soon pouring its enthusiasm into editing the campus newspaper.

After graduation, McClure moved to Boston, where he drew upon a connection with a bicycle mogul. A stint as a cycling instructor (the high-wheeled models of those days were hard to master) led to his appointment as editor of a new magazine called the Wheelman.

Tarbell graduated from Allegheny College, less than 30 miles from her hometown, Titusville, Pennsylvania. Titusville was an oil town, and her father, an oil producer and refiner, had been ruined there by the machinations of a greedy rival: John D. Rockefeller, later the brains behind the Standard Oil Trust. After two years of teaching school for long hours at low pay, Tarbell was hired as office manager for a magazine published by the Chautauqua Institution. But she sensed that writing was her calling and that a strong woman - Madame Manon Phlipon de Roland, one of the French Revolution’s countless stalwarts turned victims - should be her first subject. Tarbell resigned and went off to do research in Paris.

McClure had meanwhile moved to New York and gone to work in the print shop of the Century, a leading general-interest magazine. To serve the growth industry that magazines were at the time, McClure began syndicating clients’ articles and fiction in newspapers. After a few hand-to-mouth years, he made a go of this business, thanks in part to his representation of Robert Louis Stevenson,Rudyard Kipling and Arthur Conan Doyle.

Tarbell was making ends meet (barely) by writing articles about France, one of which she submitted to S.S. McClure’s syndicate. On a summer day in 1892, she answered a knock at the door to find herself looking at “the most vivid, vital creature that I had ever seen.” It was McClure, taking time out from a European trip to sign Tarbell up as a client. Back in the States, McClure realized his dream of starting a magazine, which he persuaded Tarbell to come home and work for. So began a stormy decade and a half in which she doubled as a McClure’s staff writer and a McClure whisperer. Better than anyone else, she could save the chief from his worst excesses.

Together with reporters Ray Stannard Baker and Lincoln Steffens, McClure and Tarbell served up meticulously researched exposés that might spill over into multiple issues. If you’re thinking “muckraking,” you’re on the right track, although the catalyst for President Theodore Roosevelt’s use of that slur in 1906 was a McClure’s wannabe: William Randolph Hearst’s Cosmopolitan magazine, which was running a series called “The Treason of the Senate,” by David Graham Phillips. Although Phillips’s heavy reliance on rhetoric and innuendo made his work inferior to the painstaking investigations of monopolies and corrupt city governments by McClure’s Big Three, the president made no exceptions: Journalists were sowing too much negativity.

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Only a few years earlier, McClure had been Roosevelt’s guest at the White House. The invitation had come after the president read the January 1903 issue of McClure’s, which represented the magazine at its best: “Alongside Miss Tarbell’s Oil War chapter and Steffens’s exposé of corruption in Minneapolis,” Gorton writes, “Baker published his fourth dispatch from the labor unrest in Pennsylvania coal country.” Appearing in the same glorious issue, however, was a “singsong poem” by an unknown 25-year-old named Florence Wilkinson.

Swatting away complaints from his staff, McClure continued to publish Wilkinson, and it soon became clear why: They were having an affair. Fearing exposure and disgrace, McClure - a married man - turned to Tarbell for help, which she gave. But the affair dragged on, and the breaking point came when the frantic McClure decided all would be well if he started a second magazine, McClure’s Universal Journal - at a time when McClure’s plain and simple was losing money because of rising publishing costs. And that wasn’t all. In a protracted fit of megalomania, McClure wanted to branch out into banking, insurance, a university and a planned town.

Tarbell warned him she would have nothing to do with these ridiculously grandiose schemes, but he persisted. On May 10, 1906, Tarbell “cleaned [out her desk] and left.” Not only did S.S. McClure’s grand illusions go nowhere; the chief himself was eventually forced out of his namesake magazine. In the late 1920s, Hearst bought McClure’s and merged it with another magazine. In 1931, the combined journal folded.

Tarbell became a freelance writer, lecturer and inspiration to ambitious women. In a commencement speech at her alma mater, she championed imagination for its ability to save “the average girl . . . from an imitative life.” Far from imitating anything, in their heyday she and McClure, with help from Baker and Steffens, showed America and the world something new: the power of long-form investigative reporting.

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We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.