Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Lincoln Steffens

I just finished reading Peter Hartshorn's I Have Seen the Future: A Life of Lincoln Steffens. I was drawn to it by my interest in Carey McWilliams, who met Steffens in the 1930s, and my interest in muckraking generally. But I knew little about the impressive sweep of Steffens's life and work.

Hartshorn lays it all out, starting in Sacramento, where Steffens grew up in the family home that later became the governor's mansion. Then on to Berkeley and the continent for higher education and back to New York for his early journalism. There Steffens befriended the city's police commissioner, a fellow by the name of Theodore Roosevelt. Steffens's muckraking efforts during the Gilded Age, mostly published in McClure's, made him famous and wealthy. Before it was all over, he would also mix with Woodrow Wilson, Clarence Darrow, Walter Lippmann, Eugene Debs, Robert La Follette, John Reed, Louis Brandeis, William Randolph Hearst, Vladimir Lenin, Herbert Hoover, Ernest Hemingway, Mary Austin, Robinson Jeffers, and many other notables.

For a muckraker especially, his life was charmed. He was a busy lecturer, but there was also a great deal of leisurely travel, especially in Europe. Indeed, one of Hartshorn's challenges is to make the second half of the biography something more than a travelogue. Steffens produced little writing of note during that time except for his autobiography, which was a hit. But during his travels he met and married the much younger Ella Winter, with whom he had a son. After much roaming, they settled in Carmel. The return to California was enriched by his connection to his niece, Jane Hollister. Her enormous family ranch in central California was another playground for the Steffens family.

Hartshorn spends a good deal of time on Steffens's connection to the Russian Revolution and communism. The book's title, for example, echoes Steffens's enthusiastic assessment of the USSR and its prospects. Having muckraked during the Robber Baron era and witnessed the senseless slaughter of the First World War, Steffens wanted basic reform and embraced various revolutionary efforts. Later, the Great Depression confirmed his sense that capitalism was hopeless.

Hartshorn provides the context for Steffens's convictions but doesn't share them. It's an easy call at this historical remove, but one wonders how Steffens and others accepted such widespread brutality in exchange for the promise of democracy. Part of the answer, Hartshorn argues, was Steffens's advancing age and the comfort he and his family enjoyed in Carmel, a world away from the terror.

During one of his lecture tours in 1920, Steffens noted that his talks were growing "clearer, firmer, [and] redder." In Pennsylvania, he reckoned that one-third of his audience was "visibly shocked." "Apparently I am to talk every night," he wrote his sister Laura, "until I land in San Francisco or jail."


At 9:42 AM , Anonymous Elaine said...

Thanks for letting us know about this -- I can't wait to read it. I was lucky enough to meet Ella Winter in London and admire them both so much!

At 10:45 AM , Blogger Peter Richardson said...

Wow. Until I read this book, that would have sounded like meeting Mother Jones.

At 4:47 PM , Anonymous Steven Hill said...

Peter, I always enjoy your blog whenever I stop by. It's like talking to you over a cup of something. BTW, I didn't know about your interest in Lincoln Steffens. I knew his son Pete quite well, and could have perhaps set up a phone convo if that was of interest. Pete was always a fascinating conversation. But alas Pete just passed away last month. So many interesting people take their histories with them, unfortunately.

Good luck with your endeavors

Steven Hill


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