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Reconsideration: The Shame of the Cities

The Shame of the Cities
by Lincoln Steffens (Hill and Wang; paper, $1.95) 

Lincoln Steffens came to Pittsburgh on a spring night in 1903 to muckrake the town for McClure’s Magazine. He decided to take a walk around the streets before retiring, and his rambles finally brought him to a hill overlooking the huge fire-belching furnaces of the steel mills. The might and mystery of what he saw before him impressed Steffens powerfully as the symbol of the city, and he wrote back to New York for an artist—not merely an illustrator, he recalled — to capture it on canvas for McClure's. Jules Guerin's painting "Pittsburgh as Hell With the Lid Off" appeared with Steffen's own "Pittsburgh: A City Ashamed" in May 1903.

What distinguished Steffens from other journalists was, among other things, his keen sense of how things looked: a careful eye for appearances and the symbolic value thrown up by objective data. In other cities he searched for unusual portraits of the bosses whose sordid tales he spread on McClure's pages, or he might look for facsimiles of the handwritten "contracts" which governed the dealings of one boss with another. In St. Louis he found photographs of expensive, half-finished public buildings already falling to ruin as symbols of the city's moral and material rot. Unfortunately, few of these pictures were included in The Shame of the Cities when McClure's issued a selection of the original articles in book form.

But no matter, for Steffen's sensitivity to detail was even stronger in the sharp prose he used to dissect St. Louis, Pittsburgh, or any of the other cities he visited. It is this, the extraordinary manner of presentation, which makes the articles worth reading again. Steffen's substantive findings, while not wholly discredited, have been reexamined over the years and the verdict among historians is at least mixed. Some say he pinpointed the characters and activities of bosses and reformers with only small distortions, but others, like Samuel P. Hays, find the dichotomy Steffens saw between the people ("the Pittsburghers," for example) and the bosses much overdrawn in the face of the reality of interest group politics and the multi-faceted social-political milieu which characterized American cities. Also, the new urban history of the last decade has tried to get away from looking at cities as problem children; the idea now is to study not cities but urbanization— the city as process. (Sam Bass Warner, Jr.'s The Urban Wilderness [1972] is an interesting combination of the problem and process approaches. seeking out the roots of the modern urban crisis in a very scholarly analysis of the urbanization process.) Finally, it is difficult now in the days of incredibly sophisticated media technology to accept Steffens's main assertion that "the people" are as guilty as their governments because they tolerate corruption. Reports of reality are easily faked and people's behavior in response to such reports can be managed.

Steffens did not fake reality. He did not even want to reveal new realities, despite a reputation that made him out to be a kind of special prosecutor digging out facts and relationships never before known outside a city's criminal ring. Steffens said it himself: "The exposition of what people know and stand for is the purpose of these articles, not the exposure of corruption . . . ." The shame of the cities was ultimately the shame of the people. By night, Pittsburgh was, physically, "Hell With the Lid Off," but by day Steffens found that it was, politically, "hell with the lid on," and he wanted to find out why it was still on. To do that he had to write in such a way as to make politics and political characters unforgettably real in the consciousness of those who must rise against them.

Language itself—the careful choice of words—could do as much as anything to call a reader's attention to the articles' contents. S. S. McClure, Steffens's editor and publisher, said he wanted words like "shame" and phrases like "enemies of the republic" scattered through the muckrake pieces because they shocked people and heightened the effect of bad news appearing month by month in the magazine, so Steffens wrote of "The Shame of Minneapolis," "The Shamelessness of St. Louis," and "Pittsburgh: A City Ashamed."

But language was only the beginning. The real attraction of Steffens's work was his skill at weaving tales of corruption around personalities. No impersonal forces of economics or demography shaped Steffens's cities; they were in the grip of bosses and reformers with sharply defined personal histories and characters. Every city had a boss like St. Louis's Colonel Ed Butler or Minneapolis's "Doc" Ames, and when there were two bosses in one city, they worked as one. Thus Steffens described Chris Magee and William Flinn of Pittsburgh as two parts of a split personality: "Magee wanted power, Flinn wanted wealth. Each got both these things; but Magee spent his wealth for more power, and Flinn spent his power for more wealth. Magee was the sower, Flinn the reaper. In dealing with men they came to be necessary to each other, these two. Magee attracted followers, Flinn employed them. The men Magee won, Flinn compelled to obey, and those he lost Magee won back.” And the bosses were brazen, cocky men, all seeming to mouth Boss William Marcy Tweed’s earlier famous taunt, “What are you going o do about it?” When they talked to Steffens tey seemed willing to spill all with a smiling assurance that no one could touch them. Steffens made as much of this as he could because he, too, wanted to taunt his readers, to repeat and amplify the isult with the intention of goading them into action.

Steffens described the reformers, too, sohat his articles emphasized characteristics which tended to "type" them. They all seemed to resemble Joseph w. Folk, Circuit Attorney for St. Louis, “a thin-lipped, firm-mouthed, dark little man, who never raises his voice." Quiet-spoken, ordinary citizens—perhaps the way Steffens imagined his own readers—the reformers were at first reluctant to leave private life and start fights with the bosses, but once involved, they fought tenaciously, uncompromisingly, in ways that must command the respect of the bosses themselves. If a bank president refuses to open a safe deposit box to reveal a suspected bundle of bribery cash and pleads in fearful, "almost inaudible tones" for time to consult legal advice. Folk says: "We will wait ten minutes." If the prosecuting attorney for Minneapolis is too frightened to attack "Doc" Ames, then Hovey Clarke, foreman of the grand jury says simply: "You are excused." There is a scene. "'Do you think, Mr. Clarke,' be cried, 'that you can run the grand jury and my office, too?’ ‘Yes,' said Clarke, 'I will run your office if I want to; and I want to. You're excused.’”

Writing in terms of personalities had been standard policy at McClure’s for a decade, well before the magazine's muckrake phase, but it was especially useful in Steffens's work. Another tested device was to write part or all of an article as the story of the reporter's own visit to the people involved. Steffens used this device to give a sense of the urgent present to articles which otherwise often dealt with the history of one or another city's corruption. He reported conversations with citizens about local politics and gave his reader tours of cities' decaying streets in an effort to bring home the very present physical consequences of bad government. But best of all was a description of a visit to a boss in his own bastion, an invitation to size up a powerful man as Steffens himself had to do. In "Ohio; A Tale of Two Cities" which Steffens prepared in 1905 after The Shame of the Cities appeared, the reader climbs the stairs with the reporter to Boss George Cox's office above a Cincinnati saloon:

A great hulk of a man sat there alone, poring over a newspaper, with his back to the door. He did not look up. "Mr. Cox?" I said. There was a grunt: that was all. “Mr. Cox," I said. "I understand that you are the boss of Cincinnati." His feet sloivly moved his chair about, and a stolid lace turned to mute. Two dark, sharp eyes studied me and while they measured. I explained that I was a student of "politics, corrupt politics, and bosses." I repeated that I had heard he was the boss ot Cincinnati. "Are you?" I concluded. "I am." he grumbled in his harsh, throaty voice. "Of course you have a mayor, and a council and judges?" "Yes," he admitted: "but—"he pointed with his thumb over his shoulder to the desk— “I have a telephone, too.”

 The reporter offers no ready made conclusions but tries instead to give the appearance of sharing an experience— not the awareness itself but the process of becoming aware.

The Shame of the Cities made Steffens famous for his detailed exposition of corruption in high places and the way be got down to specifics in naming names, times, places and people. Yet he also knew when to avoid masses of detail in favor of a more careful and sparse selection of symbolic events—things which would stay in a reader's mind the longer because they stood alone and uncluttered on the page. Steffens measured the distance which "Doc” Ames bad traveled toward moral degeneracy, for example, by offering two sketches of the Minneapolis boss; in one Ames is a young doctor helping the poor without charge ("Richer men than you will pay your bill"): in the other an older Ames has neglected his family, left his wife for another woman, and now sits in a carnage outside the wife's funeral, "with his feet up and a cigar in his mouth, till the funeral moved; then he circled around, crossing it and meeting it, and making altogether a scene which might well close any man s career." Of the same quality is another prose image of Philadelphia boodlers as they "counted out the ‘divvy’ of their graft in unison with tbe ancient chime of Independence Hall."

Steffens did not write this way merely to call attention to himself or his articles, though certainly the success of any McClure’s serial depended upon a reader's coming back again and again for a known quantity of excitement. Both Steffens and McClure hoped that a sense of interest or oven outrage would last well beyond the point when a reader finished the magazine and put it back on the coffee table. If it did not last, then the muckraker's faith in the people was wrong, but judging by the mail he received, Steffens thought the interest did last.

And something else may brave happened as well. By personalizing urban problems and by sketching memorable portraits of big city politicos as they sat in their offices or moved about their city halls, hotels and police stations. Steffens probably helped to stereotype them in the public mind as targets for reform. McClure’s was, after all, a nationally circulated monthly with a circulation of about 377,000 when the articles appeared, and its actual readership was considerably higher; people in the city and in the country were coming to know intimately—if too simply certain kinds of characters which they had never thought much about before. They were also learning to recognize and use a vocabulary {"boss," "boodle," "streeters," "boosters." "speakeasy ") which, despite Steffens's stated purpose of merely giving effective arrangement to facts which he claimed were well-known, was new to most of them. Robert Cantwell suggested something like this about all muckraking in the essay he wrote in the 1930s for Harold Stearns's America Now. Progressive journalists were successful, he thought, for reasons which had little to do with politics or the specific proposals they made. Indeed, muckrakers did not much concern themselves with proposals except their very general and implied invitation to Americans that they return to a presumed 19th century ethical, democratic conduct. The journalists' success owed more to the fact that they created an original genre of American literature, "a literature of information and inquiry." The famous boast about the muckrakers that they named the names and fixed the dates associated with corruption in American institutions is true not so much in the sense that they provided data for indictments but that they made the patterns of corruption real in the public mind by reconstructing those patterns with people and personalities.

If that is true, then Steffens contributed something unique toward making Progressivism a truly national reform consciousness. Historians agree now that the term "Progressive Movement" is a misnomer since it overstates the degree to which turn-of-the-century reformers were united in an organized, homogeneous body possessed of sharply articulated goals. Even the Progressive Party of 1912 is better understood in the context of that year's peculiar politics than as a political manifestation of an entire reform era. And if Herbert Croly's Promise of American Life (1909) is generally taken lo have been the formulation of the Progressive philosophy, it is still worth noting that Croly derived large parts of it from the presidential behavior of Theodore Roosevelt, a Progressive to be sure, but only one among many whose interests and methods varied. Progressivism was a reform consciousness which involved thousands of people at various levels of awareness and degrees of participation.

Yet the awareness was real and it was built in large part by journalists like Lincoln Steffens. Steffens did not write about everybody's problems, but neither was he the only muckraker. Ida M. Tarbell and Ray Stannard Baker published McClure's articles in the same style about corporate and labor lawlessness, and there were other writers on the staffs of other magazines. All of this takes on rather special implications when one recalls the further fact that the muckrakers' magazines were nationally circulated, giving their work a new breadth availability, and cheap enough (10 cents) to give the articles a depth of circulation never before possible. This shift in the range and reach of magazine literature which only began about 1890 probably triggered a shift of American reform, making Progressivism different in character—more national—from Populism and perhaps even Jacksonian reform.

It would be easy to over-argue the point and construct a kind of false "media determinism," but it is at least time to re-examine the specific roll of the muckrakers. In the Age of Reform, for while everyone agrees their work was significant, the significance may have been different than we have supposed.

This article originally appeared in the July 9, 1977 issue of the magazine