Thursday, August 26, 2010

Why Muckraking Was Successful

Reading Richard Hofstadter's classic (though by absolutely no means unimpeachable) history of the Progressive Era, The Age of Reform, I came across this very provocative quote from an article by Robert Cantwell in a collection of essays about American culture. Here's the quote:
The political side of the muckrakers' contribution was unquestionably great, but it has been overvalued, and the simple journalistic boldness and effectiveness of their writing has been overlooked. After thirty years the simple bulk of their work is astonishing; in five years' time a handful of gifted writers conducted a searching exploration of American society—industrial, financial, political, moral. Moreover, they did this with a wealth of local color, with wonderful savory names and places that had never been elevated into prose before. It was not because muckrakers exposed the corruption of Minneapolis, for example, that they were widely read, but because they wrote about Minneapolis at a time when it had not been written about, without patronizing or boosting it, and with an attempt to explore its life realistically and intelligently.

They wrote, in short, an intimate, anecdotal, behind-the-scenes history of their own times—or, rather, they tried to write it, for they often fell down. They traced the intricate relationship of the police, the underworld, the local political bosses, the secret connections between the new corporations (then consolidating at an unprecedented rate) and the legislatures and the courts. In doing this they drew a new cast of characters for the drama of American society: bosses, professional politicians, reformers, racketeers, captains of industry. Everybody recognized these native types; everybody knew about them; but they had not been characterized before; their social functions had not been analyzed. At the same time, the muckrakers pictured stage settings that everybody recognized but that nobody had written about—oil refineries, slums, the red-light districts, the hotel rooms where political deals were made—the familiar, unadorned, homely stages where the teeming day-to-day dramas of American life were enacted. How could the aloof literary magazines of the East, with their essays and their contributions from distinguished novelists, tap this rich material?

For literary, and not for political reasons, the muckrakers were successful. Their writing was jagged and hasty, and their moralizing now sounds not only dull but a little phony, yet they charged into situations that were deliberately obscured by the people involved in them; they sized up hundreds of complicated and intense struggles at their moment of greatest intensity; they dealt with material subject to great pressure and about which journalists could easily be misled. In a time of oppressive literary gentility they covered the histories of the great fortunes and the histories of corporations—something that had not been done before and that has scarcely been done well since—the real estate holdings of churches, the ownership of houses of prostitution, insurance scandals, railway scandals, the political set-ups of Ohio, Missouri, Wisconsin, Chicago, Cleveland, San Francsisco, New York. The new huge cities of the West had not been explored after their growth through the 70's and 80's (just as, say, Tulsa, Oklahoma, has not been written about after its astonishing growth through the 1920's) and because they wrote of them, the writing of the muckrakers was packed with local color, the names and appearances of hotels and bars, crusading ministers and town bosses and bankers. They told people who owned the factories they worked in, who rigged the votes they cast, who profited from the new bond issue, the new street-railway franchise and the new city hall, who foreclosed the mortgage, tightened credit, and controlled the Irish vote on the other side of the river. Their exposures, as such, were not so sensational. People knew all the scandals, and worse ones. But they liked to read about towns they knew, characters they recognized, and a setting they understood. The old magazines had never given them that.
To some extent, I think this interest or impulse that Cantwell is describing never really has gone away. An argument can be made that HBO is a sort of modern-day McClure's, with its (fictional) shows each carving a subculture off the American body politic and presenting it in the round with all its familiar character types and settings which, in many cases, also have not had the benefit of such devoted depiction, at least not "with an attempt to explore its life realistically and intelligently." The Italian mob, the Baltimore drug trade, Utah polygamists, the vampire underground, Larry David's life (okay, that one's a stretch), a South Dakotan frontier town, New Orleans music (?—haven't seen Treme yet, sorry), etc. The new Boardwalk Empire even looks like it's supposed to be a sort of attempt at historical muckraking—its source material was subtitled, "The Birth, High Times, and Corruption of Atlantic City."

Even if the muck's not always there in these shows (though it almost always is), something's generally being raked out into the open, and mostly with a more systematic mentality than the more "private life of…" approach than, say, Showtime takes to its programming. (In this sense, Mad Men certainly does demonstrate its HBO roots—it's a lot more panoramic, or panoptic. If it were on Showtime, I imagine it being called Draper.)

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