When Dr. Johnson defined patriotism as the last refuge of the scoundrel, he was unconscious of the then undeveloped capabilities and uses of the word “Reform.”

-Roscoe Conkling (1829-1888), machine Republican in the Garfield-Arthur Era, one of the most prominent proponents and beneficiaries of the “spoils system,” or pork barreling, whereby successful political candidates reward cronies and associates with positions, contracts and a chance to “put their snout in the trough of public spending.” A sworn enemy of the Progressive Movement.

All arts, inventions, philanthropies, religions, are but tentacul put forth, searching for the means to make the man of the future, who shall be what all who have the vision and faculty divine have always prophesied he would yet be-a microcosm, the mirror of the universe. We in our little corner, doing our work well-nigh unnoted by the world at large, are helping by our small increments of power to create this complete human being-the goal of all desire and hope.

-Frances Willard (1839-1898), Suffragist, educator and First President of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, one of the major groups associated with the Progressive Movement.


The term “Muckraking” generally applies to the endeavors of writers, both professional journalists and authors of fiction, politicians, social activists, community leaders and industry watchdogs-anyone who is in a position of disseminating information or influencing societal opinion and who seeks to publicly expose political and/or commercial fraud, corruption or malpractice, to highlight social inequities and to introduce what in their view is reform. More than even a forceful expression of social conscience (which for example Henry David Thoreau and Dr. Martin Luther might exemplify), Muckraking implies a process of investigation, documentation and at least the rhetorical prosecution of a case against an alleged offender, with the explicit aim of instigating concrete corrective change. (“Whistle Blower” is a related contemporary interpretation.) Inherent in both concepts is inside knowledge, whether that comes from personal experience or formal research.

Teddy Roosevelt

The term “Muckraker” is thought to have been introduced by Theodore Roosevelt in 1906, as a reference to one of the allegorical characters in John Bunyan’s A Pilgrim’s Progress (and it is worth noting that Roosevelt saw both great social good and potential harm in the practice). However, the spirit of Muckraking predates this and continues to this day. The practice can claim an obvious ancestry dating back to Ancient Greece and Socrates, who defined his role as a “gadfly…to sting people and whip them into a fury, all in the service of truth.” More recent examples would include journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein exposing the Watergate scandal, Ralph Nader crusading against unsafe practices in the automotive industry and documentary filmmaker Michael Moore, amongst many, many others.

In American literary terms, Muckrakers is a loose label assigned to a group of individual writers of varying experience and talent, who worked in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, principally known for their literary efforts in calling attention to political graft, corporate greed, racial, gender and social injustices, unhealthful industrial practices and the abuse of labor and the disadvantaged. Their topics and targets were as varied as the problems of their time: corporate monopolies, stock swindles, the persecution and disenfranchising of African-Americans and Native Americans, the inequality of women, the conditions of the poor, the treatment of the mentally ill, medical quackery, life in the coal mines and factories, and the pursuit of profit at the expense of the health and well-being of the working class.

One point unites all of the writers who are classified as Muckrakers-they viewed their work as social responsibility and maintained that the problems they addressed were in no way secrets but were actively allowed to exist because of organized public denial, laziness and the malign benefit of a select few. A large number of them criticized their fellow writers and citizens, and most especially the media, for acting as accomplices.

Because of the nature of Muckraking, many of the most important literary examples are works of nonfiction. These include:

  • How the Other Half Lives, Jacob Riis (1849-1914). A forensic early photojournalistic exposé of life in the tenements of New York City. A landmark work that continues to influence journalists, writers and photographers today.
  • The History of the Standard Oil Company, Ida Tarbell (1857-1944). A seminal corporate history of one of the greatest monopolies in American history.
  • A Century of Dishonor, Helen Hunt Jackson (1831-1885). A brutally frank documentation of the mistreatment of Native Americans via the mechanism of crafted U.S. policy.
  • The Great American Fraud, Samuel Hopkins Adams (1871-1958). One of the first and certainly most widely read investigations of chicanery in the patent medicine business.
  • The Bitter Cry of Children, John Spargo (1876-1966). As its title suggests, a scathing indictment of child labor practices.

The BellmanThere were also Muckraker writers who chose to present their arguments in more of an apparently fictional framework, whether they sought to gain a greater audience by this strategy, or because they felt their words would have more impact. Three novels in particular standout:

  • The Octopus, Frank Norris (1870-1902). A sweeping tale of corruption and greed in the railroad and wheat farming industries.
  • People of the Abyss, Jack London (1876-1916). Although this work documents the hardships and horrors of poverty in London, England, London the author became one of the most influential American writers of all time and was firmly rooted in a commitment to socialism, workers’ rights and help for the needy.
  • The Jungle, Upton Sinclair (1878-1968). Unquestionably the most famous and representative of all Muckraking novels, this work paints a gruesome portrait of the American meat packing industry of the day and had a profound effect on introducing both hygienic and workplace practice reform. If one had a single Muckraking book to read, this would be it.

These historic writers classified as Muckrakers and the agenda their works suggest should be viewed as part of the larger Progressive Movement-a strident call for reform in government, reform in business and manufacturing practices, reform in social and economic opportunity-it was both a cohesive enterprise with specific goals and also a general spirit of improvement with sometimes so broad an agenda as to be diffuse.

The forces behind the Progressive drive are decidedly clearer. They are:

  1. The residual impact of the Second Great Awakening (1790-1840s), a revival of religious fervor in America that emphasized reforms in the realms of prisons, workhouses and treatment of the poor, abolitionism and temperance.
  2. Enormous public pressure calling for change regarding the political greed fostered by the “spoils system” and the Tammany Hall style of bribery for influence, which began to gain momentum during Reconstruction and reached critical mass in the Garfield Era with the passing of the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act of 1883.
  3. The long shadow cast by slavery and the turmoil of the Civil War, which many sought to redress morally and many more realized needed to be practically addressed via social and economic policy.
  4. The growing movement seeking equal rights for women, beginning most importantly with the right to vote.
  5. The decisive triumph of an industrial metropolitan based economy over the agrarian/agricultural economy of the past. With this massive shift in capital, labor and deomographics, came the breakdown of the class system that had existed prior to the Civil War and the emergence of new possibilities for more widely spread prosperity-but also an arguably greater gulf and certainly a sharper perceived disparity between Rich and Poor. There also arose for the first time a truly mass culture, institutionalised media with a powerful and more immediate new reach into American society.

Each of these elements played a critical role in the Progressive Movement and influenced the spirit and practice of the Muckrakers.


The idea of Utopia hearkens back as far as the Garden of Eden and the mythic Golden Age of many cultures (not to mention Plato’s Republic), but it emerged as a distinct term and a cultural ideal with Sir Thomas More’s book Utopia published in 1516-with “ideal” being the key concept. From this work, “Utopian” came to refer to a perfect society where everyone lives in harmony with at least an implied sense of total equality and justice.

Sir Thomas clearly intended his story as literature-an allegory not a social prescription. But that would never stop people from attempting to turn the ideal into a practical reality. Many would argue that one of the essential motivations in the colonizing of America was the pursuit of the Utopian idea. It is certainly a fact that from as early as 1663, America has always been able to sprout “intentional communities” trying to realize this dream. The list of fledgling American settlements founded on such a principal is in fact phenomenally long.

The Brick Moon

Given that people were willing and indeed aspiring to realize this goal in physical, social terms, it is not surprising that others would write about it. Edward Bellamy (1850-1898) heads the list with his highly influential Looking Backward, published in 1888. Set in the year 2000, this novel, which in its day rivalled the importance and commercial success of Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, offered an unashamedly socialist vision of the future of humanity-or rather, the desperate need for a socialist vision as a tonic to the capitalist/pessimist/survival of the fittest Social Darwinist position Bellamy viewed as rampant and dominant.

Bellamy’s book has inspired many other writers since and gave rise to many actual communities in his day. Still, as singular as his vision may seem, he was not alone. Edward Everett Hale published a short story/novella entitled The Brick Moon serially in The Atlantic Monthly beginning in 1869. This obscure but important work of speculative fiction is regarded as the first depiction of an artificial satellite. Because people also come to inhabit the “moon,” it becomes a story of the first space station and also an allegory of a Utopian society-or at least the hope of one. The same can be said of Jules Verne’s The Mysterious Island, published in 1874, which continues to have enormous influence, not the least of which being on the creators of the television show Lost.

Looking BackwardThe fundamental link between the Progressive Movement (which spawned the Muckrakers) and the Utopian Movement, as it emerged in the post-Civil War period can be paraphrased as an evolution from religious, moral concerns to economic, social concerns. It is perhaps best expressed by Robert S. Fogarty in his significant but now hard to find work, American Utopianism.

“The period between 1820 and 1860 saw the proliferation of communities, as religious and sectarian efforts blossomed under the spirit of millennial and revival fervor and the influence of the philosophies of Robert Owen and Charles Fourier. With the decline of revivalism and the steady emergence of an industrial empire, the Arcadian models lost favor, and in fact, relevance. Some of the religious communities like Oneida and Amana, persevered in the post-Civil War period, but their biblical vision did not excite very many similar efforts. The publication of Bellamy’s Looking Backward and the rise of the labor and socialist groups signalled the emergence of a new tradition.”

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KRIS SAKNUSSEMM is a writer, painter and musical producer. He is the author of the international cult novels Zanesville and Private Midnight. Random House is bringing out his third novel in the USA in March 2011, and a new book called Reverend America has just been completed and is already being sold in Europe. A Fellow at the MacDowell Colony, he has won First Prize in the Boston Review and River Styx Short Fiction Contests, and received the Fiction Collective 2 Award for Innovative Writing, in addition to publishing in a wide range of places such as Playboy, Nerve.com, Opium Magazine, The Missouri Review, The Hudson Review, The Antioch Review, New Letters, Prairie Schooner and ZYZZYVA, amongst many others. You can find more about him on his Facebook Page.

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