I HAVE SEEN THE FUTURE
A Life of Lincoln Steffens
By Peter Hartshorn
He knew everyone and he went everywhere. He was a confidant to presidents, a mentor to two of the most influential journalists in American history, a friend to industrialists, artists, ward heelers, Communists and bohemians. He claimed to have spent the rest of his life after college “unlearning” everything he had been taught. He saw through all pretenses, circumventions and lies — even the ones he told himself — until in the end he was hornswoggled by the biggest lie of all.
Lincoln Steffens isn’t much remembered today, though Peter Hartshorn’s absorbing biography, I Have Seen the Future, makes it clear why he should be. As one of the original “muckrakers,” Steffens wrote newspaper and magazine exposés that gave journalism a new purpose, a voice in American democracy beyond simply endorsing one party or another.
Born in 1866 to a rich businessman and his wife — one family home later became the California governor’s mansion — Steffens passed an idyllic childhood exploring the Sacramento countryside on his beloved pony. He gained an early education in the ways of the world, discovering that the horse races his father bet on were fixed to take advantage of the “suckers.” While he loved his father, he “did not care for suckers” — and determined never to be one.
After acquiring a degree (and a secret fiancée) at Berkeley — “It is possible to get an education at a university. It has been done; not often” — Steffens prevailed on his father to send him to Europe for three years of study in philosophy, ethics, art history and science. No idler, he read everything and studied at universities throughout Germany and France. But here, too, he was frustrated by his professors: “They could not agree upon what was knowledge, nor upon what was good and what evil, nor why.” Returning to America with a trunkful of English clothes, “a book-length essay on ethics,” a (secret) young wife and vague intentions of becoming a businessman, the 26-year-old Steffens was stunned to receive a letter from his father with a hundred dollars and an order “to stay in New York and hustle” until he learned the “practical side” of life.
It was the making of him. Hustling desperately, too proud to tell his family he was married, he landed a job as a reporter for The New York Evening Post, where he learned the workings of both Wall Street and the immigrant slums of the Lower East Side, and made friends with a vigorous young police commissioner named Theodore Roosevelt. He learned to write and to invest, and within nine years was the managing editor of McClure’s, one of the most popular and prestigious magazines in the country.
He was, as usual, in the right place at the right time. Volatile Sam McClure was transforming his namesake publication into a journal that would rip the veil from American life, forcing readers to confront the corruption that had seeped into every seam of their democracy. The January 1903 issue alone featured an installment of Ida Tarbell’s groundbreaking history of the Standard Oil Company; Ray Stannard Baker’s reporting on a coal miners’ strike in Pennsylvania; and Steffens’s own exposé of political corruption in Minneapolis.
No one had ever done journalism like this before. McClure’s took on corporate monopolies and political machines, the awful conditions most Americans lived and worked in, the tainted food and water they ate and drank. The public devoured it, even while claiming to want more “positive” stories. (They didn’t. A book Steffens wrote solely about crusading reformers, “Upbuilders,” sold all of 684 copies in its first year.)
Steffens wanted to go beyond the simple idea “that political evils were due to bad men of some sort and curable by the substitution of good men.” Working constantly, traveling ceaselessly, he visited one city after another, trying to decipher how the whole system worked — why it was corrupt, as well as how. He brought to the job a penetrating intelligence, a great human sympathy and a knack for turning a phrase; whole books could be filled with his aphorisms: “I was never again mistaken for an honest man by a crook”; “You ask men in office to be honest, I ask them to serve the public”; “Nothing fails like success”; “You cannot commit rape a little.”
Above all, in those halcyon days before public relations experts, he possessed an astonishing ability to get anyone to open up to him, even his targets, whether the lumber baron Frederick Weyerhaeuser, the Tammany boss Richard Croker or the newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst, who, according to Hartshorn, called Steffens “the most effective interviewer he had faced.” There was something irresistible about this slight, comical little man who Malcolm Cowley thought “looked like a cartoonist’s notion of a dapper French artist.”
He managed to remain friends with Roosevelt and then Woodrow Wilson even when he told them they were wrong — no small feat. His protégés included John Reed and Walter Lippmann; his friends, Jimmy Cagney and James Joyce. He seemed, always, to be in the middle of things: reveling with the younger bohemians at Mabel Dodge’s Village salon; hanging with the expats of the Lost Generation in France after World War I. When Hadley Richardson lost all of the manuscripts belonging to her husband, Ernest Hemingway, she had been rushing them down to Lausanne for Steffens’s perusal.
By then, he had come to regret his past. The muckrakers had achieved great things; Steffens’s investigations of Wall Street, for instance, helped lead to nothing less than the Federal Reserve System. But this was not enough. Steffens was dismayed by how little permanent good muckraking seemed to achieve, by how quickly reformers were swept out of office and reforms neglected once the latest scandal was past. He saw an answer, for a time, in Christianity — “The doctrine of Jesus is the most revolutionary propaganda that I have ever encountered” — though he lamented, “I never heard a Christian sermon preached in a church.” Further disillusioned by the continuing violence between labor and capital, by the slaughter of World War I and the ramshackle peace cobbled together at Versailles, he stepped up his old quest for certainty, for “facts of scientific value” that would solve all social questions.
He had his pick. “Scientific” politics were in stock between the wars. Intrigued by Mussolini, Steffens was captivated by Lenin, whom he interviewed briefly during the revolution. He became one of the first of that sad little band of Western intellectuals who fell head over heels for the Soviet Union. Unlike most of them, he did not deny the stories of atrocities leaking out of the workers’ paradise. Even more chilling, he simply believed them necessary to bring about the great changes to come. He never wavered from his infamous first impression of the U.S.S.R., “I have seen the future, and it works.” Instead, living comfortably on money he made from the stock market, he insisted that “nothing must jar our perfect loyalty to the party and its leaders,” and that “the notion of liberty . . . is false, a hangover from our Western tyranny.”
Such Olympian distancing revealed a cold streak in an otherwise warm nature, something also present in the emotionally sadistic way he treated women. One lover, searching for an apartment to share with Steffens, was shocked to encounter him doing the same — with another woman. “Am I a blankety-blank? I don’t know. But certainly I can do fierce things to those that love me,” he confessed to a friend. “I am really puzzled to understand myself.”
Revelations like that might have informed him that no system, scientific or otherwise, would change the essential nature of man. But like any sucker, Steffens could not let go of his delusions. He was just lucky that few were listening by then. Hartshorn judges that his blind support of the Communists, disgusting as it was, should not distract “from his significant influence on both the profession of journalism and the nature of government in America.” He’s right about that, and in support of this judgment he has produced a biography that is prodigiously researched, fantastically interesting and extremely well written. Steffens would have been pleased by how well Hartshorn has turned him inside out.