Citizen Reporters: S.S. McClure, Ida Tarbell, and the Magazine that Rewrote America, by Stephanie Gorton (Ecco, 2020, $27.99)
At certain times and in certain places, packs of talented and relentless journalists coalesce around a given periodical and its editor, establishing a restless, noisy variant on Martin Luther King Jr.’s “beloved community.” These scribblers, grappling with one another and with their work amid rampant intellectual and emotional intensity, fuss and fidget and fight. Their collaboration and competition foster punchily influential copy that bespeaks their era as uniquely as a thumbprint. Such were the Gilded Age magazine McClure’s, that monthly’s principal contributors, and its volatile founder and namesake.
McClure’s flourished on either flank of 1900 by delivering unblinking and lengthy exposes on corporate greed, civil corruption, political shillyshallying, and racism, among others, before coming to sudden grief. With vigor and rigor author Stephanie Gorton recounts how at 26, against the sucking tide of the Panic of 1893, Samuel Sidney McClure, an immigrant Irish fireball of massive ambition with editing and publishing chops to match, elbowed his way into the clubby scrum of Gotham-based “magazinists,” as the term then was, when magazines were becoming the media mainspring of late 19th century America. Trusting his gut, McClure nurtured his concept into a juggernaut of nationwide substance and entrancing style. After establishing and guiding the eponymous monthly to a level of such primacy that President Theodore Roosevelt was trying to break into its pages and courting its reporters as prospective acolytes, McClure wigged out so flamboyantly as to undermine his marriage, alienate his staff, and trigger his magazine’s demise.
The author, a veteran online long-form reporter and so herself a digital-age magazinist, may give McClure and his soulmate, ace muckraker Ida Tarbell, pride of subtitled place, but she also profiles Lincoln Steffens, Willa Cather, Ray Stannard Baker, John Siddal, and other stalwarts of the McClure’s masthead, as well as a flock of literary figures like Robert Louis Stevenson, Rudyard Kipling, Arthur Conan Doyle, Jack London, Booth Tarkington, and others whose work McClure’s ran, often as an act of discovery. Citizen Reporters not only etches a detailed portrait of the electrifying rise and astonishing fall of a publisher and his magazine intertwined with a moving biography of the incomparable Tarbell but also maps the emerging magazine industry that made them household words and the rich cultural, political, and economic territory of the incipient Progressive Era. —Michael Dolan is editor of American History.
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