A Muckraker's Odyssey
I Have Seen the Future
A Life of Lincoln Steffens
By Peter Hartshorn
528 pages; $30
Book review by Matthew Jakubowski
Matthew Jakubowski (firstname.lastname@example.org) has reviewed books for Bookforum, Cleveland’s Plain Dealer and Minneapolis’ Star Tribune, among others. He lives in Philadelphia.
Before falling prey to the charm of Vladimir Lenin and losing prestige as the best-known journalist in the country, Lincoln Steffens forged a sensational career.
He was the undisputed champion of honest muckraking, revealing nationwide corruption in his exposés on graft for McClure's Magazine in the early 1900s. His articles shocked the nation and changed public opinion. As Peter Hartshorn explains in this new biography, Steffens worked by "listening without judgment" and had such powers of empathy that every corrupt city boss he interviewed saw him coming, but they still told all.
This big, lively book is very well-researched and presents a fascinating history of the age when magazine writers steered national opinion -- a role Steffens embraced with vigor.
An affable, stylish man in a goatee and tweed cape who lived from 1866 to 1936, Steffens was there calm and Zelig-like in the company of hundreds of famous figures. His often-tense friendship with Teddy Roosevelt lasted decades. He was close with radical author John Reed. He covered Clarence Darrow's trials, worked alongside the great journalist Ida Tarbell at McClure's and met Leon Trotsky.
We see Steffens' story intersect with Langston Hughes, Upton Sinclair, Ernest Hemingway, Albert Einstein, Benito Mussolini and John Steinbeck. He argued with Woodrow Wilson during the Mexican and Russian revolutions.
He covered Harrison Gray Otis, owner of the Los Angeles Times, who "kept a case of loaded shotguns near the managing editor's desk and fifty rifles in a tower room" during a clash between police and labor organizers. Steffens even served as a part-time ambassador, sitting at the table when nations brokered peace after World War I.
Hartshorn's main focus is Steffens' education as a journalist and would-be revolutionary. His early work taking on big banks and oilmen led to a personal shock: People not only tolerated corruption; when it suited them, they'd vote out reformers to keep the corrupt in power. So Steffens set out to "unlearn" his assumptions about human nature and, if possible, "to find the source of corruption and, ultimately, a way back to democracy." Encouraged by the public's appetite for his investigative work, Steffens zeroed in
on the idea of eliminating "the affliction of privilege in American society."
Though he was, by all accounts, a kind-spirited man, his intellectual pursuits and the power he wielded drove him to extremes, isolating him from others. He ignored his first wife during their 20-year marriage so he could travel and write. As his sister lay dying in 1917, Steffens callously wrote her of his decision to cover the revolution in Russia rather than visit her.
Hartshorn withholds judgment -- one of the book's minor faults -- calling Steffens "strikingly insensitive but, in fact, perfectly honest." But he does
include a telling quote from artist and activist Mabel Dodge, who said that Steffens had "a small devil in him that liked to play with dynamite in human souls." This character flaw grows ominous after his trip to Russia.
After meeting Lenin, Steffens returned to America in "his incessant pursuit of revolution" and went "from celebrity journalist to wealthy radical." He toured the country touting Bolshevik communism, aiming to show Americans that their mix of business and politics was moving us from "a democracy to a plutocracy."
Despite this, Hartshorn writes that "Steffens was neither a socialist nor a communist, but the dream of revolutionary upheaval burned as brightly in his soul as any party member could have wished."
The English feared his rhetoric so much that he was eventually "banned from the British Empire" for several years. He was viewed by some as a "stooge for the Reds and the Wobblies." His infamous "I have seen the future" quote, referring to Russia as humanity's great hope, ruined his reputation in many circles.
It's a tough change to understand, because Steffens' big thinking and actions earlier in life seem based on a genuine concern for people's suffering. The hard fact is, however, that Steffens espoused fascist ideals even as he knew millions were dying in Europe at the time.
This is an extraordinary book about a complex man whose life and decisions invite closer scrutiny, and some will certainly find his rise and fall instructive. Must there always be an ugly side when a person, even a dedicated journalist, comes to wield immense power?
Not all that much has changed in American business and politics since Steffens' time. The cure for corruption that Steffens sought still eludes us. ###