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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,246

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This is the grave of Lincoln Steffens.

Born in 1866 in San Francisco, Steffens grew up super wealthy, mostly in Sacramento. In fact, the house he grew up in later became the California governor’s mansion. He attended the University of California in Berkeley and graduated in 1889. He was interested in psychology and went to Paris to study with some real experts. He was a strong positivist and these ideas would infuse his life. As Steffens grew up, he realized that all the horse races his father made money on were fixed. This set in his brain an absolutely hatred for corruption and this would dominate his fruitful life.

Steffens came back to the U.S. not so much wanting to do more on psychology but instead going into journalism. He started working for New York newspapers in 1892. He started at the Commercial Advertiser and then moved to the Evening Post. He started hanging out on the Lower East Side, a world away from the rich west coast environment in which he grew up. He loved and he learned about immigrants, about politics, and more about the corruption about which he already knew.

Steffens worked in newspapers until 1901 and then he became an editor at McClure’s. This was the height of the so-called muckrakers, the Progressive journalists seeking to do real reporting on the actual issues of the day. Much of this was exposing the massive corruption and violence of the day. These people weren’t leftist by any definition–often opposing unions as much as corporate domination. But given the context of the time, they often did good work. He worked at McClure’s with people such as Ida Tarbell and Ray Stannard Baker, other leading journalists of the day who were not unproblematic themselves, but again, who mostly did better work than not. Some of his early work helped challenge Tammany Hall and the corruption at the heart of New York politics, and helped elect the reformist William Strong into the mayor’s office in 1894.

Steffens became famous when he took a bunch of his articles about urban corruption and the political machines dominating municipal politics in his 1904 book The Shame of the Cities. One of the most important books of the Progressive Era. His point in this was not just to damn the cheap cruddy politicians of the era. It was to damn the middle class whites who allowed it to continue. The book tried to promote the idea of the “right” people taking over urban politics and those people definitely were not those serving immigrant populations and others who were “lesser.” Hilariously, Jay Gould‘s children contacted Steffens to investigate Pittsburgh during all of this–can’t have any corruption impacting the Gould family!!!!! In any case, the book was a huge sensation, easily the highlight of Steffens’ career.

Steffens, now maybe the most famous journalist in America, tried to build on this. He was a good public speaker and hit the road to give speeches. The point of his lectures tended to be to challenge people to action. He wasn’t the kind of guy who thought he could solve any problem, but he did want to raise the problem and press audiences to take their complicity with evil seriously. In fact, he was an amazing journalist in the sense of getting anyone to talk to him. Heck, he could get William Randolph Hearst to sit down for long interviews, not exactly the most media-friendly guy in the world later in his life.

The next year, he published The Traitor State to attack New Jersey over its use of incorporation to ensure protection from real governance. Then came The Struggle for Self-Government in 1906, which was another exploration of urban politics. He, Baker, and Tarbell all left McClure’s in 1906 to start The American Magazine, which was a huge player in Progressive journalism for the rest of that era and remained an active publication until 1956.

It’s always interesting to me to see where Progressives moved politically as time went on. Some, like Herbert Hoover, became arch-reactionaries. Others remained strong liberals and weathered the twenties to emerge again in the New Deal, such as Frances Perkins. But a few, such as John Reed and including Steffens, moved well to the left. Steffens gave up on reform and by the 1910s was increasingly embracing revolutionary ideas. He, like so many leftists, found the Mexican Revolution inspiring. He became a major early American supporter of the Soviet Union through the 1920s. He visited the USSR and wrote glowingly of the New Society. His famous saying about the USSR, “I have seen the future, and it works” became a mantra for him through that decade. When the USSR went through famine in the mid-20s, Steffens hit the road in the U.S. to raise money for famine relief. Hoover, ironically given where he would turn by the 30s, led the relief effort. Steffens during these years outright supported a communist revolution in the United States and spoke nationally about how it would be great. To say the least, this cost him many of his supporters and readers. The 1920s was not exactly a propitious time to promote radical revolution in the very conservative United States.

For much of this time, he was living in Italy. Steffens came to find the U.S. boring and reactionary. So he moved to Italy to imbibe in the revolutionary movements of the Europe. He stayed there until 1927, by which time he had experienced not a left-wing revolution but a right-wing one with Mussolini.

Now, Steffens did turn against communism earlier than many supporters at this time. He wrote his autobiography in 1931, though he was an increasingly minor figure by this time. He demonstrated his growing distrust of the USSR in the book, though not too many people paid that much attention. His health was not super great by this time and so his planned book tour didn’t happen. He started working in the New Deal for the California Writers’ Project, that state’s participation in the Federal Writers Project. In his late life, he was active in leftist California communities, engaging in all the internecine politics that came with the territory. He had quite a political journey from rich San Francisco elite to Progressive to communist to cranky anti-communist leftist.

Steffens died in 1936. He was 70 years old.

Lincoln Steffens is buried in Cypress Lawn Memorial Park, Colma, California.

If you would like this series to visit other Progressive Era journalists, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Ida Tarbell is supposedly in Titusville, Pennsylvania but I scoured that graveyard and didn’t see it, so I dunno. Other possibilities include David G. Phillips is in Kensico, New York and S.S. McClure is in Galesburg, Illinois. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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