American History

Ida Tarbell and McClure’s: The Magazine That Rewrote America

Stephanie Gorton is the author of “Citizen Reporters: S. S. McClure, Ida Tarbell, and the Magazine That Rewrote America.”

Stephanie Gorton is the author of Citizen Reporters: S. S. McClure, Ida Tarbell, and the Magazine That Rewrote America (Harper Collins, 2020).

Who is Stephanie Gorton?

I’m a writer, researcher, and editor who is happiest chasing a subject through archives. I started out working in book publishing and began researching my first book, Citizen Reporters, in 2013.

The book (finally published in 2020) tells the story of the rise and fall of a Gilded Age magazine, McClure’s, and the two remarkable people at its helm, editor S. S. McClure and investigative journalist Ida Tarbell.

Right now I’m working on a new project about the history of birth control in the US. I live with my family in Providence, Rhode Island.

What is the backstory of Citizen Reporters?

I’ve always loved reading nonfiction about the Gilded Age in America: the wild technological leaps, pioneering feminists and Utopians, civil unrest, and, yes, appetite for sensational journalism.

S. S. McClure and Ida Tarbell kept cropping up in great books set during this period, like Doris Kearns Goodwin’s The Bully Pulpit, and I found myself wanting a book specifically about their heyday at McClure’s.

There is such a wealth of primary source material from both major characters and their larger group, and a project I started for myself snowballed into a book-length narrative packed with press history, relationship drama, and some uncanny parallels to the present day.

Is there a favorite story you had to cut to make the final word count?

I would have liked to say more about Viola Roseboro’, the sharp-tongued fiction editor at McClure’s. Roseboro’ (yes, she insisted on that apostrophe) was an essential early supporter of O. Henry, Willa Cather, and many others. In addition to having an incredible eye for new writers she was wonderfully eccentric and known as a brilliant talker; McClure called her “one of the greatest conversationalists of her time,” and Tarbell saw her as a “genius.”

She’s someone you might call a ghost of history, whose influence is very visible in the so-called canon of American fiction but whose name is highly obscure. In the end I saved up the bits and pieces I learned about her and wrote a profile here.

Who was S. S. McClure?

Samuel Sidney McClure was the visionary and mercurial founding editor of McClure’s magazine. He came to Indiana from rural Ireland when he was eight, worked his way through school in the Midwest, and came to the world of magazines after working as a bicycling instructor: a far cry from the usual path into the world of journalism, which often involved a prestigious college and some nepotism.

By 1900, McClure was widely recognized as one of the most important men in America. He was friends with Arthur Conan Doyle, appears as a character in a Robert Louis Stevenson novel, and was described as a “cyclone in a frock-coat” by Rudyard Kipling.

In a profile in Life, the writer noted, “nobody’s hand has been more perceptible than his on the crank that turns the world upside down.”

He recruited a brilliant staff of journalists, including Ida Tarbell, Lincoln Steffens, and Ray Stannard Baker, whose investigative work awakened readers to the widespread homegrown oppression around them and accelerated the pace of social reforms that came to define the Progressive Era.

S. S. McClure talking to Ida Tarbell, Willa Cather, and Will Irwin. Courtesy of Lilly Library, Indiana University, Bloomington.

Who was Ida Tarbell?

But there was so much more to her life and career: originally from northwestern Pennsylvania, she defied convention and moved to Paris on her own in her early thirties, began working with McClure as a freelancer on a wide range of assignments—including a groundbreaking life of Lincoln—and, after settling in New York, she rapidly became his magazine’s star reporter.

In the age of “Yellow Journalism,” when sales and sensations were the highest priorities for many reporters, Tarbell was committed to accuracy, objectivity, and thoroughness.

She left McClure’s in 1906, leading a walkout with other staff members, but she continued to write and report on the pressing social issues of her day until the end of her life.

Describe the influence of McClure’s at its apex.

At its peak, McClure’s had more than 400,000 subscribers, beating its venerable rivals Harper’s Monthly, Scribner’s Magazine, The Century, and The Atlantic.

The magazine was launched in 1893, at a time when print was the only mass medium. Reporters’ words did not only fill space on the page; they could make or break campaigns, careers, products, and fashions. Out of the many newspapers and magazines of the day, McClure’s was unprecedented in its determination to entertain, to chase the allure of the new, and to expose injustice.

McClure’s stories agitated for change, though they also sought subscribers the way television producers now chase ratings. They exposed the dysfunction of mob-run cities like St. Louis and Pittsburgh, reported on labor unrest and the consequences of steep economic inequality, and conveyed the urgent need for government-led reforms to those in the halls of power.

How did McClure’s break apart?

Most of the magazine’s key staff left in a walkout in the spring of 1906. S. S. McClure had grand ambitions to expand his publishing empire: he proposed launching a university, a bank, and even a model town, among other endeavors.

McClure’s ambition had previously served McClure’s well, though he could be an exasperating boss—flighty and very demanding at the same time.

Tarbell often found herself steadying him and at the same time doing damage control on her despairing colleagues. But by 1906 she was stretched too thin: the hard work on the Standard Oil series and a family tragedy of her own was compounded by the stress of McClure’s dreams of expansion and his careless philandering, which risked making the magazine an object of scandal.

She decided to resign, alongside Lincoln Steffens and Ray Stannard Baker, shortly before President Theodore Roosevelt gave a speech criticizing journalists and leaving them with the nickname “muckrakers.”

The character of McClure’s changed after the walkout, but it continued to publish in various forms until the early 1930s.

What was the potential of McClure’s if it hadn’t broken apart?

In McClure’s, the popular and the political converged. To give an example of the range of stories told in its pages: through 1899, McClure’s dwelled on the feats of Admiral Dewey in the Philippines and Mediterranean, reported from the mines of Cornwall and the Nile, published illustrations of the Dreyfus Trial in Paris, featured a short piece on “The Origin of the Sun and Planets,” and ran adventure and romance fiction.

A compilation of McClure’s Magazine covers.

McClure’s itself “was a citizen and wanted to do a citizen’s part,” in Tarbell’s words: “Having tasted blood, it could no longer be content with being merely attractive.”

Even after the staff walkout, McClure commissioned groundbreaking stories; he was instrumental in bringing the Montessori method of education to Americans, and the magazine’s coverage of Twilight Sleep introduced Americans to a new method of pain management in childbirth.

If he could have institutionalized the magazine’s inner workings and made it less dependent on his personality, today it might be a force for important journalism in the way its peer and rival The Atlantic still is today.

What’s the closest thing we have to McClure’s today?

: Today we might see the spirit of the McClure’s group in journalists across a range of media sources—all characterized by deep reporting. For instance, publications like The New Yorker and ProPublica, Buzzfeed and Vice, watchdog journalism nonprofits, documentary film and investigative podcasts, and in any telling of a true story that allows us to see our society and political leadership more clearly.

If you could go back in time and observe any event from the book, what would it be?

An impossible question! I would have loved to tag along with Ida Tarbell on pretty much any expedition: a Parisian salon, a secret interview at Standard Oil, or a weekend with friends at her farm in Connecticut.

It would have been something to see McClure in his heyday, and to see him and Tarbell hatching a new story idea together; she once described him as “the most vivid, vital creature that I had ever seen.”

At the same time, the nostalgia of the later gatherings appeals to me: through the 1930s, the McClure’s group got together to celebrate birthdays and talk about the old days. Tarbell called these reunions “the most beautiful personal demonstrations I have had of this unbreakable quality in friendship,” and who wouldn’t want to be part of that?

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By Kurt Manwaring

Writer. History nerd. Latter-day Saint.

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