The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21). rn VOLUME XVII. Later National Literature, Part II.XIX. Later Magazines
§ 17. Muck-Raking; McClures Magazine
Of those mentioned, McClure’s may be taken as a type, and as most interesting to the student of literature, though it was not the earliest in the field, it did not attain the greatest circulation, and in recent years it has suffered a more serious decline than some of its rivals. S. S. McClure, the projector and editor, had established a syndicate which bought the work of prominent authors and sold the rights of publication to newspapers. He was thus able to pay sums which obtained manuscripts from the more distinguished writers of the day, English and American. Among those who contributed, often of their very best work, to the early volumes of the magazine were Stevenson, Kipling, Thomas Hardy, Andrew Lang, Conan Doyle, William Dean Howells, Joel Chandler Harris, F. Marion Crawford, Edward Everett Hale, George W. Cable, and others of similar rank. It is not, however, great names or even meritorious articles bought and inserted at random which give character to a literary periodical. In its best days McClure’s was in no sense a rival of the Atlantic, Harper’s, the Century, or Scribner’s, though at times these could hardly boast more impressive lists of contributors. It did not even equal in popularity some of the other magazines of its own class. Its greatest success was due, not to the work of the well-known writers named above, but to articles of a sensational and timely nature—the so-called “literature of exposure.” The formula for these articles was simple. It consisted in adhering strictly to the literal truth, but in so arranging and proportioning statements of fact as to show most disadvantageously some person, corporation, or other organization of which the public mind was predisposed to believe the worst. Although the formula was simple, the technique attained was in its way masterly. The writers were mostly persons of journalistic instincts and practical newspaper training who on giving evidence of unusual aptitude for this kind of writing were regularly employed on the staff of the magazine. Ida Tarbell, who had previously compiled a life of Napoleon and a popular life of Lincoln, prepared a hostile history of the Standard Oil Company. Ray Stannard Baker also wrote sensationally on economic questions, and attacked other corporations. Lincoln Steffens confined himself especially to political corruption. These flourished in McClure’s from 1902 or earlier until 1906, when they associated themselves with the newly-established American Magazine, and McClure’s developed a new staff of workers according to the same models. In 1906 President Roosevelt in a famous address expressed his disapproval of this kind of writing, and applied to its authors the term “muck-rakers,” which with the derivative “muck-raking” has since been accepted as a fitting designation. Popular judgment agreed on the whole with the President, and while this type of writing is not even now extinct, it gradually lost its vogue. Though it may fairly be said to have begun with McClure’s Magazine, it was really symptomatic of a tendency of the time, and most other popular magazines with the exception of Munsey’s indulged in it. One of the most famous series of muck-raking articles, in some ways more sensational than anything in McClure’s, was Frenzied Finance, by Thomas W. Lawson, published in Everybody’s.