The McClure’s schism demonstrated a fundamental incongruity of the progressive mentality, which believed “perfection [lay] at the end of constant struggles and attainments of men. ” (1) This moralistic struggle toward a perfect society, combined with the “incurable optimism” of the era, did not allow for imperfections inherent in human nature. S.S. McClure, the figurehead of a progressive media machine which bore his name, was stained by the “sin” of marital infidelity. Having affronted the moral standards of his colleagues, McClure suffered from feelings of guilt, which only exacerbated his already unstable temperament. His “utter nervous exhaustion” (2) enabled him to convince himself he could stone for his sin through achievement. by attempting to build a business empire that would help to correct fundamental social wrongs, he hoped to find vindication. Instead, McClure only succeeded in convincing his staff that he was attempting to form a publishing “trust.” Morally outraged and economically imperiled, they left the magazines.
A study of the McClure’s breakup is historically significant because it chronicles “the explosions of…idealistic undertakings.” (3) The McClure’s staff, under its editor’s leadership, inaugurated the muckraking movement. The muckraker’s, in turn, received their moralistic vitality from progressivism, but also inherited its flawed ideology. Progressivism was often simplistic and idealistic. Seeking the “realization of high principles,” (4) the progressives’ “quest for solutions to current problems assumed the nature of a moral crusade…because ultimately their search was a moral endeavor.” (5) Accordingly, the McClure’s muckrakers put their pens to paper and attempted, through their exposures, to point the way to moral perfection. Though they espoused this idealistic hope for mankind, S.S. McClure’s moral offenses implied such a goal was unrealistic. McClure, who had helped to arraign society for its immoral behavior, was himself “immoral,” and this realization forced the McClure’s staff to watch “something in which they deeply believed go to pieces.” (6)
To imply that the McClure’s schism caused the downfall of muckraking would be inaccurate. But the breakup did act as a barometer indicating ideological flaws within the movement. The public’s favorable reaction to Roosevelt’s “man-with-a-muck-rake” speech implied they had begun to view the muckrakers’ quests as unrealistic. Many, like Theodore Roosevelt, wanted less pessimistic journalism which “put more sky in [the] landscape.” (7) Thus, by the time the McClure’s staff breakup occurred, muckraking was already in the throes of decline, (8) and the public, “who had become sickened and satiated by several years of a constant flow of exposes…turned to new diversions.“(9) Since muckraking was tied inextricably to progressivism, its excesses helped bring about a loss of faith in the progressive movement. McClure’s instabilities exemplified the imperfect nature of man, and confirmed his inability to create a perfect world around him. The McClure’s schism was a harbinger indicating the muckrakers–and the progressives who supported them–would soon remove their rose-tinted spectacles. Ray Stannard Baker, reflecting upon earlier times, exemplified this realization: “I think often of the old days,” he wrote Lincoln Steffens in 1930, “and never at any time of more interest than of those days at McClure’s…when we were saving the world–so blithely! We didn’t know at the time quite how hard boiled it was. ” (10)
CONCLUSION END NOTES:
1 Wilson, McClure’s Magazine, p. 293.
2 H. McClure to I. Tarbell, June 1, 1904.
3 I. Tarbell to R. Baker, October 17, 1939.
4 Hofstadter, Age of Reform, pp. 183-184.
5 Stanley K. Schultz, “The Morality of Politics: The Muckrakers’ Vision of Democracy,” Journal of American History 52 (December 1965): 529.
6 Tarbell, Day’s Work, p. 259.
7 Cited in Wilson, McClure’s Magazine, p. 179.
8 Mott, American Magazines, p. 494.