Citizen Reporters a New Look at Muckraking


Citizen Reporters: S. S. McClure Ida Tarbell, and the Magazine That Rewrote America (2020)

By Stephanie Gorton

New York: Ecco 288 pages + back matter.





What’s the difference between investigative reporters and muckrakers? Usually, if you agree with them, they’re reporters; if not, they’re muckrakers. That’s how it played out for Samuel S. McClure, his namesake magazine, and those who wrote for him during the golden age of investigative reporting (1890s into the1920s).


McClure’s spotlighted some of the most impressive writers in the history of journalism, including Ray Stannard Baker, Willa Cather, Theodore Dreiser, Sarah Orne Jewett, Jack London, Frank Norris, Emily Post, Upton Sinclair, Lincoln Steffens, Mark Twain, and Ida Tarbell. McClure also featured British writers he cajoled: J. M. Barrie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Rudyard Kipling, Robert Louis Stevenson…. It is no exaggeration to say that McClure’s and competitors such as The Atlantic, Century, Colliers, Harper’s, and Munsey’s helped invent the Progressive Era.


Citizen Reporters focuses on McClure and Ida Tarbell, the first full-time female features writer in American history. Stephanie Gorton’s eminently readable account flip-flops between the two to give germane biographical details and to offer contrasting points of view. She also interweaves developments and politics of the age–from anarchist terrorism to world fairs, inventions, the New Woman, and the New Journalism. New ideas were in the air.


McClure was a master at reinvention. He was a short, wiry man born who grew up in a County Antrim blackhouse and immigrated to Indiana with his widowed mother. Things weren’t much better at first, and McClure did a stint as a pedlar. He managed to get through Knox College, a minor miracle as he spent more time on the student newspaper than in the classroom. His break came as editor of The Wheelman, a trade publication for Pope Bicycles, which he turned into a sporting publication. McClure never really stopped being a pitchman. He managed to woo and marry Harriet (“Hattie”) Hurd, a professor’s daughter, after a dogged pursuit and over her family’s objections.


Ida Tarbell was McClure’s opposite, including being tall. She haled from the oil region of Western Pennsylvania, and enjoyed financial comfort before her father was ruined by John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil juggernaut. It was only then that he noticed of the ugliness of the region, or how Standard Oil crushed smaller manufacturers. She graduated from Allegheny College, taught briefly, and got her start in journalism with The Chautauquan, a journal for the adult education summer resort in southwestern New York. She moved to Paris when Impressionism was in bloom and wrote of her experiences for American newspapers.


Gorton portrays McClure as a man of boundless energy who cooked up one scheme after another. He often traveled to Europe–sometimes for business and sometimes to recover from probable bipolar disorder–and he was not an easy man for whom to work. When one of his half-baked ideas was opposed by more pragmatic staff, he acted as if was surrounded by traitors. The exception was Tarbell, the calm in the storm and his confidant.


McClure’s became famous for crusades against corruption. Baker wrote about Coxey’s Army, the Pullman strike, and race riots. Steffens produced an entire series on graft in American cities and covered both the Mexican and Russian revolutions. As for Tarbell, she began by writing biographies (Lincoln, Madame Roland, Napoleon), but gained fame for investigative pieces, including exposés of Standard Oil that led to numerous pieces of Progressive Era legislation and the breakup of Standard Oil. She also placed U.S. Steel and General Electric under her social microscope.


Some scholars assert that muckrakers made Theodore Roosevelt. That’s debatable, but Roosevelt certainly helped unmake the muckrakers. Gorton presents Roosevelt’s rants against reformist journalists–he tried to turn Baker, whom he knew personally–as if they were extremists. That was perhaps true of Steffens, who was briefly a communist, but it was not the case for most. Tarbell actually developed sympathy for John Rockefeller, and was conservative in her personal habits, morals, and belief in fair play. She enjoyed easy-going banter with Standard Oil’s Henry Huddleston Rogers, who could be so ruthless he was nicknamed “Hell Hound Rogers.” Tarbell, who never married, was often upheld as a feminist, but she was initially suspicious of it and only embraced feminism in semi-retirement.


Gorton suggests that Progressive Era reformers bit the hand that fed them when attacking magazines like McClure’s, but blames McClure for the decline of the magazine. He was small in stature, but large in ego. McClure engaged in several affairs, which the staff tried to scuttle, as such revelations were ruinous at the time. Oddly, Hattie–a more organized business person than her husband–sometimes enabled his philandering. Ultimately, McClure’s erratic behavior and constant attempts to launch new magazines led Tarbell to push back. He dismissed her and she and several other writers bolted to The American Magazine, a competitor. In 1911, the McClure’s board fired their founder and World War One hastened the demise of muckraking journals.


Gorton gives us a look at the inner workings of a magazine whose reformist fires burned briefly, but brightly. She is to commended for taking us beyond stereotypical views of such publications. As suggested in the lede, muckraker is a loaded word. Congress and the White House often get too much credit for the Progressive Era correctives. It is hard to imagine reform would have been as sweeping without journalists such as S.S. McClure and Ida Tarbell.


Rob Weir



The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue a Page-turner


The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue (2020)

By V(ictoria) E. Schwab

Tor Books, 444 pages.





Music, novels, and legends are replete with tales of meeting the Devil at the crossroads and striking a bad bargain. Somehow, the story never grows old and The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue is another good one.


It begins in the village of Villon-sur-Sarthe in the northwestern part of France. Addie LaRue is a free-spirited jeune fille with a mind of her own and is more drawn to her woodworker father than her severe, tradition-based mother. When you live in the 17th century though–the story begins in 1698–tradition is not something one can simply ignore. Yet Adeline is more determined to do so when her father takes her with him to peddle his wares in Le Mans, a giant city for a country girl. Fast forward to 1714, and Adeline is now of marriageable age. Her parents have picked out her husband-to-be, Roger, a solid guy, but one Adeline has no desire to wed.


Adeline has spent time with Estelle, an eccentric old woman and spinner of yarns, who tells her about the old gods. Adeline is fascinated, but Estelle offers a sober warning: “No matter how desperate or dire, never pray to the gods that answer after dark.” These gods, Estelle admonishes, are fickle and exact a steep price for answered prayers. Can you say “Pandora’s box?” Faced with an impending bond with Roger, Adeline slips into the woods and violates Estelle’s advice. This is her first encounter with Luc. Adeline tells him that she wishes to be “free” and without attachments.


Lesson Two: Semantics matter. Luc grants her wish, but with the spin is that no one will remember Adeline. The moment she leaves someone’s presence, that person cannot recall who she is. She can’t write her story or name; the words disappear on the page. Luc also owns her soul when she’s done with it. Soon, she has trouble saying her own name; hence she becomes Addie.


By now, perhaps you suspect that Luc may be Lucifer. That’s never really spelled out, but some Biblical scholars think that Lucifer was one of the old gods. (Satan, Mephistopheles, Lucifer, and Beelzebub are often conflated in the Old Testament, so these are debates over identities of each.)


Addie revels in her freedom, though Luc pays periodic visits to see if she’s ready to keep her part of the “deal.” Addie ignores him and experiences many things: the French Revolution, the building of the Eiffel tower, opera in Munich, Chicago during Prohibition, two world wars, Frank Sinatra when he was a new phenomenon….  She even returns to Villon, but each time it is less familiar to her. She has lovers of both sexes, who discover her anew each day, and meets fascinating people who forget who she is when she walks into another room. Oddly, she and Luc become close; she is “my dear Adeline” to him, the only being who remembers her, and is perhaps in love with her. Luc tells her, “You move among them like a ghost… not really human,” and in her darkest moments she thinks, “Living in the present, and only the present… is a run-on sentence.” How does Addie leave any sort of a mark?


In 2014, she is in New York City and meets Henry Strauss, a smart but unambitious man who works in a used bookstore. For some reason, he remembers her. Why? How? Addie is head-over-heels in love with Henry, and maybe with Luc as well!  The latter presses her to spend eternity with him, but that would mean consummating their deal and handing over her soul. You can’t change a deal with a god, can you?


Although I would not call The Invisible Life of Addy LaRue a great work of literature – whatever that means – it’s certainly a proverbial page-turner. It works because it touches upon an existential human dilemma: insofar as we know, we are the only species on earth consciously aware of its own mortality. Many humans fear death and yearn for immortality of some sort. Addie LaRue works for the same reason readers devour stories about vampires. In each case, the question is what would you give up to be immortal, or to get what you most desire? Would you accept gifts from a visible deity, or hold onto vague promises from one who never appears?


Like vampire tales, Addie LaRue is full of romance and dread, discovery and danger, thrills and terrors. Schwab certainly knows how to spin a great story and hers is a fresh look at both the crossroads legend and the encounter between Jesus and Satan in the Wilderness. Schwab spins us across 300 years of history, and deposits us in the 21st century. What would you trade to see the 22nd, 23rd, and 24th?


Rob Weir



"Harriet " a Nice Intro to Harriet, but Hold the Melodrama!



Harriet (2019)

Directed by Kasi Lemmons

Focus Features, 126 minutes, PG-13 (violence, racial slurs)



tells the story of one of history’s more remarkable individuals: Araminta (“Minty”) Ross (1822-1913). Don’t recognize that name? How about Harriet Tubman? That’s the name she chose when, in 1849, she fled on foot from bondage from a plantation on Maryland’s Eastern Shore and made her way to Philadelphia.  


That journey would have been enough trauma for most escaped slaves, but instead Tubman became a major “conductor” on the Underground Railroad. The diminutive Tubman–she was barely 5’ tall–made 13 returns across the Mason-Dixon Line and liberated an estimated 70 slaves. Once the Fugitive Slave Act went into effect in 1850, she also helped smuggle those without freedom papers into Canada. (The Canadian Federation, as a British Commonwealth partner, abolished slavery in 1833.) Tubman went on to become the first African American woman to command Federal troops and led an 1863 raid in South Carolina that freed an additional 750 slaves.


Director Kasi Lemmons–who also cowrote the screenplay with Gregory Allen Howard–concentrates on Tubman during the years 1852-60, with a coda concerning the South Carolina raid. Kudos for casting Cynthia Erivo as Harriet. Erivo portrays Harriet as equal parts country girl, spitfire, and fiery adversary. We don’t get much information about her childhood, and the source of the visions she endured is merely alluded to. (An overseer hurled a metal weight at another slave, missed, and instead struck Harriet in the forehead. Tubman suffered painful headaches that one biographer suggests were epilepsy.)  For Minty, the breaking point came when she married John Tubman in 1844. Documents surfaced that showed that she and her mother was supposed to be freed when the latter turned 45. Minty approached her master Edward Brodess, but the documents were ignored. The last straw was the sale of her three sisters, which occurred after Edward died and left his widow Eliza (country singer Jennifer Nettles, looking a lot like Amy Poehler) with crippling debt.


In Philadelphia, Minty became Harriet Tubman after meeting black abolitionist William Still (Leslie Odom, Jr.), who coordinated Underground Railroad raids. She would eventually also meet William Seward, Frederick Douglass, and John Brown. (She took  part in planning for Brown’s ill-fated 1859 raid on Harpers Ferry.) Tubman even returned to Maryland to liberate her husband (Zackary Momoh), only to learn he assumed Harriet was dead, had taken another wife, and didn’t wish to flee.


This is all very dramatic stuff. Lemmons assembles a good cast, but she slips when drama becomes melodrama. A major subplot involves Harriet’s dealings with Gideon Ross (Joe Alwyn). Alwyn is very good as a blue-eyed son of privilege who tries to keep Minty in line when she’s on the plantation and pursues her when she flees. There is frisson between the two that implies past closeness with hints it might have been sexual. Is Gideon looking out for her safety, or is he the Devil in disguise? It doesn’t matter; he is not an historical character. Gideon is at best a composite; at worst he’s like Harriet’s elegant Philadelphia boarding house keeper Marie Buchanon (Janelle Monáe): a complete fiction. Also on the melodramatic side is Lemmons’ elision of time. The suggestion is that Harriet was constantly bursting into Still’s office to demand another raid to free more Maryland slaves; in truth, her ventures took place over an 11-year period.


I give Lemmons a (half) pass on the latter, given that it’s very difficult to bring biography to the screen. All movie biographies shrink time and, when done well, we seldom notice. I noticed. There are a few other invented characters as well, including black slave catchers Bigger Long (Omar J. Dorsey) and Walter (Henry Hunter Hall), though such individuals were real enough.


If you don’t know very much about Tubman’s life, Harriet is a decent introduction. I would, however, encourage you not to let this film substitute for learning more. What you see on the screen can be mostly trusted, but despite its tough subject of slavery, Harriet sometimes plays against its full horror through Hallmark-like sentimental interludes. A question that constantly perplexes me is why screenwriters feel the need to embellish when history hands them ready-made drama.


As a final aside, it is important at this moment in our own history to step back from notions that African Americans freed themselves. What the Underground Railroad did was remarkable and Harriet Tubman is a personal hero, but despite a spate of works–grounded more in now than then–the total number of slaves who escaped was around 100,000. That is impressive, but a small dent in the 4 million who remained in bondage. It took a civil war to end slavery.


Rob Weir