After Steffens

FORTY-FIVE years ago, in October, 1902, McClure’s Magazine published “Tweed Days in St. Louis,” the first of Lincoln Steffens’s exposures of corruption in American cities. Steffens was a moralist, a seeker for sure-fire answers, and a writer of remarkable talent; his dead hand rests heavily on the authors of Our Fair City (Vanguard, $3.50).
This volume, edited by Robert S. Allen, formerly the partner of Drew Pearson in conducting the syndicated Washington Merry-Go-Round column, is a collection of articles about American towns— Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Miami, Birmingham, Cleveland, Detroit, Chicago, Milwaukee, Memphis, St. Louis, Kansas City, Denver, Butte, Seattle, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. Most of the articles were written by local newspapermen. The editor gives the keynote of the book in the title of his introduction: Still “Corrupt and Content.” Corrupt and Contented was the title of Steffens’s indictment of Philadelphia.
“We have made no fundamental progress in municipal government in the past fifty years,” says Mr. Allen. “ The low and sordid stale of local rule is basically the same to-day as it was a half-century ago.”
This contention is pretty consistently maintained by the authors in the brief space each has at his disposal. In effect they bring Steffens up to date; they rapidly survey the home-town political swindles of the past generation, they take a quick look at particular local and regional influences, they throw in an anecdote or so, and then beat it. It doesn’t work. Seemingly, they are as moral as Steffens, but the old fervor is gone.
The main trouble with Our Fair City is that — with the exception of the pieces on Cleveland and San Francisco — it’s dull. Though it treats of affairs of the past, few years, it smells of the lamp. The United States isn’t the place it was when Steffens exposed his towns, and the nearest the authors come to indicating the fact is to point to the growth of satellite towns and suburbs peopled with fugitives from city taxes, the decrepitude of urban transportation, and the dwindling number of local newspapers.
You would scarcely guess from this book that there had been tremendous internal migrations in the United States, that there had been two wars and a great depression since Steffens’s day. Few of the changes have been of the sort that would nourish local self-sufficiency, local industry, local culture, or, perhaps, local honesty. The authors are acutely conscious of the physical dilapidation of American towns, — true even in New York, where La Guardia and Moses spent, tremendous Federal doles in new construction, — but we get no real feeling of life going on in these blighted areas. There is no organic picture of any kind.
Richard Maher’s piece about Cleveland is interesting, not because the author takes Tom Johnson out of the moth balls, but because the citizens of Cleveland have apparently been willing to change the form of their city government at any time. Mr. Maher says that Cleveland has tried it twelve different ways in seventy-eight years, and he uses space to demonstrate some of the changes.
Mr. Raudebaugh, the author of the article on San Francisco, also gets some ginger into his work. Writing of the streetcar mess he says, “The end of the war caught Mayor Lapham with his trolley down.” Aphorisms such as “It is much easier to deal with a practical polit ician than with an idealist" are scattered through the piece. His passage beginning “For a clear and basic understanding of local and state governments in California, Walker’s Manual of Pacific Coast Securities is absolutely essential. Its coldly factual pages explain many strange deeds and events,” is a nice example of getting to the point without waste of time.
Perhaps a credit ought to go to Louis M. Lyons, who wrote the piece about Boston. Mr. Lyons points out a very serious flaw in the Steffens technique, a flaw thal Steffens was tolerably adept in concealing. Steffens’s great trick was getting political bosses to tell all. Then he’d dramatize the confession. But it was a different story when he went to work on the businessmen. Before he ever started his muckraking, Steffens tried to get Frederick Weyerhaeuser, “the greatest lumberman in all the world,” to tell how rich he was. The magic didn’t work; Steffens didn’t find out. Steffens got the McNamaras to confess their complicity in the Los Angeles dynamiting as part of a deal with local businessmen who wanted industrial “ peace.” Skeptical, the McNamaras were finally sold on the idea and confessed. The employers snatched their opportunity and sent the McNamaras to prison.
Mr. Lyons is conscious of this mote in Steffens’s eye and says about the book on Boston that Steffens proposed to write: “He got the leading political boss, Martin Lomasney, to confess the crimes of politics. But the financial element in the reform group wanted no public confessions. So the whole thing fizzled. Steffens’s book on Boston never came off, and mystery lingered about the project long after he departed. It needn’t have. Steffens just found the people who mattered too tough to come clean.”