On this day in 1906 President Theodore Roosevelt made his famous speech labeling as “muckrakers” the new breed of investigative writers — a group including Ida Tarbell (writing on Standard Oil), Lincoln Steffens (municipal politics), David Graham Phillips (Senate politics), Ray Stannard Baker (treatment of minorities), Samuel Hopkins Adams (patent medicines), and, most famously, Upton Sinclair (the meat industry). In his speech, Roosevelt gave full credit to his inspiration:
In Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress you may recall the description of the Man with the Muck-rake, the man who could look no way but downward, with the muck-rake in his hand; who was offered a celestial crown for his muck-rake, but who would neither look up nor regard the crown he was offered, but continued to rake himself the filth of the floor…. Now it is very necessary that we should not flinch from seeing what is vile and debasing. There is filth on the floor, and it must be scraped up with the muck-rake: and there are times and places where this service is the most needed of all the services that can be performed. But the man who never does anything else, who never thinks or speaks or writes save of his feats with the muck-rake, speedily becomes, not a help to society, not an incitement to good, but one of the most potent forces for evil.
Many in the muckraker group took offense that Roosevelt would dismiss their reformist aims with such an allusion. Sinclair looked upon the label as a compliment, if not the designation of a new category of superhero:
He knows of many things he would like to do and to be, many ways in which he could amuse himself. And yet instead of this, he begins to go about pointing out disagreeable truths to people. He says: “See, we are just like Rome. Our legislatures are corrupt; our politicians are unprincipled; our rich men are ambitious and unscrupulous. Our newspapers have been purchased and gagged….” This has been said in our country for a generation. Abraham Lincoln said it, for one. All earnest students knew it. But the public merely laughed incredulously. And then comes the Muckrake Man….”
Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.