The Cyclone and the Trust-Buster

For today’s Wall Street Journal, I reviewed Citizen Reporters: S.S. McClure, Ida Tarbell, and the Magazine That Rewrote America. Here’s the review:

Samuel Sidney McClure once said to his wife: “I would rather edit a magazine than be president of the United States.”

Today, that remark might elicit the response, “What’s a magazine?” But in the 1890s, it was a credible sentiment. Presidents, after all, had to contend with Congress, the press and the Electoral College. But to helm a magazine was to conduct an enterprise, as McClure wrote in ads for the one he launched in 1893, “designed to reflect the moving spirit of the time.”

It was indeed a moment when magazines were at the center of American culture. Part of the reason was a new literate audience. In Citizen Reporters, Stephanie Gorton tells us that at the time of the Civil War, 6% of the population had attended high school; by the turn of the century, the figure was more than half. This big chunk of the public not only could read but was able to stay in a chair and pay attention. Writing decades after his time on magazines, Ray Stannard Baker, a pioneer of long-form journalism, observed that in the turn-of-the-century period, readers “would swallow dissertations of ten or twelve thousand words without even blinking—and ask for more.”

Technology boosted magazines as well: The arrival of electricity, halftone reproduction, the linotype machine, photography, the telephone and the typewriter allowed for the speedy production of a high-quality product at a reasonable price. (McClure once showed off a spiffy new printing press to his friend Mark Twain. The writer remarked, “Can that thing vote, too?”)

As for the competition, newspapers were partisan and (increasingly) sensationalistic, a 400-page book could be daunting, and movies had not yet begun to talk, emote or exceed a couple of minutes in length. And so magazines took up the task of informing and entertaining and sometimes provoking, among them the Century, Cosmopolitan, and the one that McClure, with characteristic immodesty, named after himself. (“Ah, Wagner,” he once mused. “He was the McClure of music.”) The publications were in everyone’s parlor, their writers’ names on everyone’s lips. After one of the muckraking writers McClure discovered, Lincoln Steffens, wrote an attention-grabbing series of articles called “The Shame of the Cities,” the boss was so impressed that he gave Steffens a 20-foot boat. Meanwhile, a cigar company approached the writer about endorsing its product. Reader, I will give you a cigar if you can name me even two current magazine journalists besides Malcolm Gladwell.

Outsize confidence was a lifetime characteristic of S.S. McClure, and Ms. Gorton’s book makes clear that it helped to fuel his Horatio Alger rise. (It was not unrelated to what today would probably be diagnosed as bipolar disorder. Rudyard Kipling, whose work McClure popularized in America, called him, in manic phases, a “cyclone in a frock-coat.”) Born in Northern Ireland, McClure grew up in Indiana, always one step from poverty. He couldn’t afford adequate outerwear and in the wintertime ran to school to keep warm. “Speed was my overcoat,” he said. It took him eight years to graduate from Knox College because every time he ran out of money, he’d withdraw from his studies and take up a route as a rural peddler.

After college he found his way to a series of positions in the publishing field and one day had a brainstorm that appeared to him, he later recalled, as “huge transparent globes like soap bubbles. I saw it, in all its ramifications.” His thought was to create a literary syndicate, acquiring stories and articles and placing them in newspapers all over the country. This was novel but not new; Charles Dana of the New York Sun had already embarked on a similar endeavor, selling stories by Bret Harte, Henry James and others. McClure took the Steve Jobs tack, polishing and expanding the idea and then acting as if it were his. “The proper policy of doing business is never originate if you can imitate,” he said.

All great editors have an eye for talent. After reading Citizen Reporters, I’m convinced that McClure had the greatest eye of all time. At the syndicate, he published—in most cases for the first time in the United States—Kipling, Robert Louis Stevenson, Wilkie Collins, Joseph Conrad, Arthur Conan Doyle and H.G. Wells. He sent Stephen Crane to report on Pennsylvania coal mines and, after reading a short story by a young California writer, commissioned Jack London to write his first novel.

The editors and writers he spotted and hired at McClure’s included (besides Baker and Steffens) William Allen White, Frank Norris, Willa Cather and Viola Roseboro. The last name is probably not familiar to you, but as the editor in charge of unsolicited manuscripts, she plucked from the slush pile work by the until-then-unknown Booth Tarkington, Damon Runyan and William Sidney Porter. (Porter would carve out a pretty good career as a short-story writer using the pen name O. Henry.)

But McClure’s greatest hire was Ida Tarbell. The two were born in the same year (1857), came from the heartland (western Pennsylvania in her case) and, rare among Americans at the time, had formative experiences in college. But the bond between them was even deeper than that, and Ms. Gorton appropriately and deftly structures her book as a dual biography.

Two years after Tarbell’s birth, oil was struck near her home, an event that would have profound consequences for the region, the country and Tarbell herself. Her father became an oilman, and the move initially pulled the family from poverty. But soon the cost of the industry became apparent, not only in damage to the landscape but in fires and accidents that took the lives of friends and neighbors. Tarbell wrote in her autobiography: “No industry of man in its early days has ever been more destructive of beauty, order, decency, than the production of petroleum.”

In time, her father’s fortunes suffered as a result of a secret plan devised by the railroads and the larger oil interests—dominated by John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil—to put the small oilmen out of business. Tarbell never forgot, and the experience ultimately led to her greatest work: a series of investigative articles on Rockefeller and his monopoly, published in McClure’s starting in 1902 and two years later forming a book, The History of the Standard Oil Company. In its journalistic standards and rigor, doggedness, and clear writing style, the book could be said to have invented modern investigative reporting. In 2000, a blue-ribbon panel named it the fifth-greatest work of journalism of the 20th century. (No. 1 was John Hersey’s Hiroshima, and in sixth place was Steffens’s 1904 collection The Shame of the Cities.) Tarbell could not have written it without the time, resources and moral support supplied by McClure.

Editor and writer had met cute, a decade earlier. Tarbell—whose lifelong quiet refusal to follow convention is inspiring—had moved to Paris with the idea of supporting herself as a writer. One day, about a year later, she opened her door to find that the person knocking on it was McClure, then in the middle of one of the frequent continental trips he took in equal parts to scout talent and draw down his alarming energy reserves. He said he had admired one of her recent submissions but had only 10 minutes to talk before his train left for Switzerland. He kept talking for three hours. When he finally left, he asked her if he could borrow $40. Surprisingly enough, she had it, and maybe even more surprisingly, she gave it to him.

Not long afterward, she joined the McClure’s staff in New York, just as the magazine was entering its golden period. A little more than a decade after its founding, circulation reached 400,000 and its journalism was driving the national debate. According to American National Biography, the January 1903 issue “has been called the most important single issue in the history of early twentieth-century periodical publication.” It included the third installment of Tarbell’s Standard Oil series, Steffens’s “The Shame of Minneapolis,” a piece by Baker investigating labor unions, and, it must be said, several works of genteel fiction and poetry that have not aged well.

Citizen Reporters, which is Ms. Gorton’s first book, doesn’t start auspiciously. There’s both a preface and a prologue, which is a little throat-cleary. Writing about the 1870s, she refers to Cornell as being in the Ivy League, a term that didn’t exist till the 1930s. Worst of all, she takes two separate occurrences and presents them as one composite scene. That isn’t an acceptable thing to do, least of all in a book about journalism, and her editor should have laid down the law.

However, as the book proceeds, one feels her gaining authority as a writer, and when she gets into the story proper, Citizen Reporters is solid, well-crafted and readable. It should be noted that much of the book traverses familiar ground, and Ms. Gorton’s notes cite many previous works. But she has also discovered letters and manuscripts from her subjects and effectively quotes them in the service of nuanced character portraits. Happily, none of her portraits are fuller than those of her principals, McClure and his creative other half, Tarbell. He was the undisciplined idea man who “valued accuracy and timeliness above all else”; she, as his editorial sounding board and star staff writer, was “the realizer of his visions.” They were never lovers but were something more than colleagues: Ms. Gorton calls them, at the height of their complementary powers, “a neatly effective symbiotic unit.”

The glory years at McClure’s ended abruptly. The boss’s confidence swelled into hubris as he schemed to start a second periodical, a bank, an insurance company, an entire Utopian town. Meanwhile, his infatuation with a female poet (and insistence on publishing her mediocre verse in the magazine) threatened his marriage and embarrassed his associates. In 1906 most of the senior staff, including Steffens, Baker and, yes, Tarbell, walked out to help launch a rival monthly, the American Magazine.

Both McClure and Tarbell lived a long time, into the mid-1940s. She wrote and lectured widely, but McClure suffered a series of business failures and ultimately became known as a remnant of a lost age, always good for an interview but difficult to shut up.Back in 1907, he had written Tarbell a letter that poignantly reflected not only how much he relied on her calm competence but also how painful the end of their partnership felt. It read in part:

“I dreamed of you a day or two ago. I often dream of you.

“I thought I was telling you how I found out that by speaking slowly & calmly & acting calmly I found I had much greater influence on people . . . & I thought that I was standing by your chair & you drew me down & kissed me to show your approval.

“When you disapproved of me it nearly broke my heart. . . .

“I wish you had not turned away.”