Peter Lyon discusses the book "Success Story: The Life and Times of S. S. McClure"
BROADCAST: Aug. 1, 1967 | DURATION: 00:57:08
Peter Lyon discusses the book "Success Story: The Life and Times of S. S. McClure." Includes recitation of "Immortality" by William Jennings Bryan.
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William Jennings Bryan "'Immortality' by William Jennings Bryan, Edison records. 'If the Father deigns to touch with divine power the cold and pulseless heart of the buried acorn and to make it to burst forth from its prison walls, will he leave neglected in the earth the soul of man, made in the image of his Creator? If he stoops to give to the rose bush, whose withered blossoms float upon the autumn breeze, the sweet assurance of another springtime, will He refuse the words of hope to the sons of men when the frosts of winter come? If matter, mute and inanimate, though changed by the forces of nature into a multitude of forms, can never die, will the spirit of man suffer annihilation when it has paid a brief visit like a royal guest to this tenement of clay? No, I am as sure that there is another life as I am that I live today. In Cairo I secured a few grains of wheat that have slumbered for more than 3,000 years in an Egyptian tomb. As I looked upon them, this thought came into my mind: If one of those grains had been planted on the banks of the Nile the year after it grew, and if all its lineal descendants had been planted and replanted from that time until now, its progeny would today be sufficiently numerous to feed the teeming millions of the world. There is in the grain of wheat an invisible something that has power to discard the body that we see, and from earth and air fashion a new body so much like the old one that we cannot tell the one from the other. And if this invisible germ of life in the grain of wheat can thus pass unimpaired through 3,000 resurrections, I shall not doubt that my soul has power to clothe itself with a body suited to its new existence when this earthly frame has crumbled into dust.'"
Studs Terkel As we hear the voice of William Jennings Bryan, this must have been during the time of McKinley, it may have been 1898, manifest destiny, America growing. But the voice is Bryan on immortality, he just returned from the Holy Land, and so on hearing this voice you have a feeling there were giants, charlatans, perhaps, in a time but gigantic charlatans, and you wonder in the age in which we live with technology more and more, taking ove,r the Emerson phrase "Things are in the saddle and ride mankind," has the human dimension diminished, whether it be among politicians, among writers, and specifically, and this is among editors, a contemporary of Bryan was S.S. McClure, probably the greatest magazine editor America has ever known. A revolutionary, really, in that--well, we'll hear about this from the biographer, Pete Lyon. Several years ago this book appeared and should have won the National Book Award, according to one reader--this one. It's a remarkable work and Scribner's published it and soon will be forthcoming I think in paperback, won't it?
Peter Lyon No, it's, the second edition is a clothbound edition that's being brought out by The Edwards Press, a small press down in Florida, and it's a handsome clothbound second edition with a very fine introduction that's been written for it by Ellen Moers, who's a first-rate critic of American letters.
Studs Terkel I'm thinking, Pete, Pete Lyon, biographer, writer, and a very fantastic one, I think, of this man McClure, S.S. McClure. As a boy I remember I was talking, about 1923, 24, was there a "McClure's" magazine? I saw a copy, I don't know if it was then.
Studs Terkel Twenty-two, 23?
Peter Lyon Yes, he tried to revive the old great magazine in the '20s and it was a failure.
Studs Terkel All I remember, it was kind of a nothing much, but, from your biography, we learned something about a remarkable figure. We hear there have been biographies of Harold Ross, no doubt there'll be one of Luce. These to me are Lilliputians compared to McClure, than nothing, really. Now McClure did what?
Peter Lyon What he was able to do was to bring the work of first-rate writers into the biggest newspapers in the country and into many of the biggest newspapers, if not all of them. And in other words, the success of his syndicate, the importance of his syndicate was that in the earlier syndicates had been fifth-rate material written by nobodies and published in boilerplate and the word stereotype really comes from the kind of writing that was used in those early syndicates. When McClure launched his syndicate, his best writers in the earliest days were still not the first-rate writers because he had the problem of trying to educate writers themselves into allowing their work to be used in newspapers, and the notion of first-rate writing, poetry, fiction, whatever, in a newspaper was unheard of at that time. And there was a process by which he had to educate both the newspaper editor into buying the material and the writers, the authors, into permitting their writings to be syndicated.
Studs Terkel Wasn't he also discovering a new audience, too, a developing new
Peter Lyon It was a brand new audience, but quite as important as the audience, it seems to me, is the fact that because of this syndicate, he was able to assist in the birth of the whole school of realism and naturalism in American letters, because the newspaper editors were much quicker to understand that here was a vigorous kind of writing which the magazine editors of the late '80s and early '90s were very much against. They considered this well below the salt. They didn't like the early attempts at writing naturalist and realist fiction.
Studs Terkel He recognized a new form 'til then was sort of a Victorian romantic writing, but it was he who brought forth London and Frank Norris, among the American writers.
Peter Lyon Conrad.
Studs Terkel We'll talk about the muckrakers in a moment. And among the British writers also Kipling and Stevenson.
Peter Lyon He was the first to publish Kipling in this country and he was not the first to publish Stevenson in this country, but he was unquestionably responsible for Stevenson's great upsurging popularity in the '90s.
Studs Terkel Of course there's a remarkable sequence here concerning his almost genuflection. Here's a question of an editor, of a publisher, who pay such tribute to an artist who has seemingly has, not contempt, at least the feeling of patronizing.
Peter Lyon He was derisive of McClure. There was no question about it. He looked down on
Studs Terkel the He respected the artist was the point.
Peter Lyon Oh, yes. Oh, yes. Stevenson and McClure, that whole relationship is I think a ludicrous one, because here on the one hand McClure is doing at one point he said to his partner John Phillips, I want the syndicate run as though it were for the benefit of Robert Louis Stevenson. Then in fact it was run for his benefit and what Stevenson paid him back in was derision and contempt, even, I would even go so far as
Studs Terkel To me there is something fascinating about that sequence and we'll return to the matter of the realistic writing and the time in America at the time is that here was a publisher, you know, established or beginning to be established, who was paying tribute to the artist. He wasn't owning the artist, he let the artist own him, it's almost a reversal [unintelligible].
Peter Lyon If I can jump to his magazine now, that was that he started his magazine in 1892, the first issues came out in '93. But he understood from the very beginning that the only way to have material written for a magazine was to give it to hire writers, put them on staff, and give them all the time that they needed to develop their research and then to write their stuff and deadline was unheard of. This freedom that he gave them of time, this generosity that he had with high-salaried writers, giving them all the time in the world. this whole notion of a staff writer was original, I believe, with McClure I know of no instance of it in American magazine publishing before McClure took this notion on and of course now every magazine and other media, too, have staff writers, have people whom they
Studs Terkel You know, as Pete Lyon is talking about the protagonist of his remarkable biography, "Success Story", it's called, "Life and Times of S.S. McClure", Sam McClure. I can't help but think of someone I knew years ago who died, a British producer named Laurence Gilliam who in a sense may have heard of McClure, may have not, did the same thing with Dylan Thomas and Louis MacNeice on BBC Features, now dead. But at the time he says they are artists. They ought take as much time as they want. I will see they're subsidized. McClure was able to subsidize men like Stevenson a lot of the time, but Gilliam was following a pattern, seems that way.
Peter Lyon Jack London is an example of this. London said he wanted to write a novel, but he didn't have the money to do it. McClure sent him a letter saying, I've forgotten the numbers now, how many dollars it was he was to pay him. But he said, "We will pay you so many dollars a week until your novel is finished," and he says "If that so many dollars is not enough, we will pay you" and then he -- It's another five or ten dollars a week. "We will pay you this much." And he leaves it up to the author to say how many, whether he'll take $35 a week or $40 a week while he is writing, struggling to write his first novel. And again I don't, I can't, it may be that there had been publishers who would risk their funds, venture their funds this way, but I don't know of them. I think that this was an extraordinary kind of support. This is the kind of support, of course, that if a young writer who is poor needs, this is the kind of support he needs, and almost never gets.
Studs Terkel If we can come back, let's come back to this period, we'll return to McClure himself, this time in which McClure was becoming a publisher, was a remarkable time for American journalism and magazines. You have incredible statistics here it occurs to me there were about 33, where was that, incredible, half the population we have today, about twice the number of magazines, weeklies and monthlies.
Peter Lyon More than twice, I should say, and certainly more than twice as many newspapers because the cold hand of consolidation hadn't yet begun to clutch at the throat of journalism. Every town had its own newspaper, every city had eight or ten or 12 newspapers. Now in New York, there are how many daily newspapers, the "Times", the "News", the "Post", is that it?
Studs Terkel Is that it? You [unintelligible] three then.
Peter Lyon I think that there may
Studs Terkel Lot more there back in say, the time of McKinley, the time of Teddy Roosevelt.
Peter Lyon How many newspapers in New York?
Peter Lyon Oh, there must have been at least 16 newspapers.
Studs Terkel Now it's true we can attribute a part of this to radio and television, but there's something else involved, because Pete Lyon, in this book, you know
Peter Lyon They sold for only one or two cents apiece, too [unintelligible].
Studs Terkel But there were a variety of opinions. A variety
Peter Lyon -- Oh, yes. Oh, a whole chorus of
Studs Terkel Wild pluralism.
Peter Lyon Yeah. Of different ideas. You could -- You bought your newspaper for politics, possibly. I imagine that's why you bought, it was a Republican or a Democratic or an independent or a socialist or of course the Republican Party itself in the early years of this century was divided. Roosevelt had presided over a Republican Party that half stand pat and half progressive
Peter Lyon Yes. And that split of course finally came about in the election in 1912 when he was running against Taft and got, both got beat by Wilson.
Studs Terkel Somehow as this book deals with that period about a half century ago, somehow you think, gee, what a -- Some parallels in a strange way today in your differences.
Peter Lyon I think that the real difference in this -- Between the world of, let's say, 19 or 1895 to 1910, that 15 years, the real difference between then and now was that at that time there was still a belief that a utopia was possible to achieve, there was still the dream of perfection and perfectibility in society. Now this dream no realistic person assumes that this is a possibility any more.
Studs Terkel And yet of course the crazy thing is with technology, this is another subject,
Peter Lyon This tremendous optimism that went on generally in the days before the war of 1914,
Studs Terkel Someone calls it innocence.
Peter Lyon Well, I suppose to a certain extent there is, we today would charge them with naivete or innocence in the sense that they thought that perfection was possible.
Studs Terkel Coming back to McClure, now before we come to this tremendous kind of vision and people he discovered, those whom Teddy Roosevelt called in a derogatory way, "muckrakers," tremendous contribution to American letters and journalism. McClure, who was McClure? He is a kid came from a very poverty-stricken family in Ireland, came here, Indiana.
Peter Lyon It was a poor family of North Irish, Protestant Irish family. They had --- They were his people, I guess five or six generations before he was born had been brought into the north of Ireland from Scotland as part of the British effort to make Ireland a Protestant country. Not a notably successful effort. At all events, he was one of four boys, the oldest of four boys born to these poor farmers, peasants I suppose they would be properly called, and his father died when he was still very young. I think he was about eight or 10 when his father died, and at that point his mother was in despair as to what to do and eventually decided that America was the land of promises and she would bring her four boys to this country and struggled to start a new life.
Studs Terkel And so Knox, he went to Knox in Galesburg.
Peter Lyon He went to Knox College in Galesburg.
Studs Terkel Galesburg, by the way, Carl Sandberg's home town. Interestingly enough, yeah, but so -- And then journalism. He did -- But was the big thing in him. He had a fantastic color and drive.
Peter Lyon I think that the first important thing about him is that he demanded on getting an education for himself. This was an extraordinary thing for a youngster at that time, and it took him the devil of a time to do because when he got to Galesburg first he found that his education was not sufficient to permit of admission into the undergraduate body, so he had to go to Knox Academy, I think it was called, for a couple of years to take courses that were required in order that he would be qualified to get into the college, and it took him five years to negotiate the four years of college because he was working his way through the college and at the same time helping to support his mother who was again widowed. She'd married a second time, but again had been widowed and his three younger brothers. So he had, he was the man of the family even while he was putting himself through college and this was, this required an extraordinary amount of perseverance and determination.
Studs Terkel Well, I'm thinking out loud now, Pete, Pete Lyon, I'm thinking out loud. McClure's drive for knowledge, drive for information as though almost he were a surrogate for the others, for the readers, the millions who read his magazines. He says, "You must know, you must know some aspect of truth." This seemed to be his driving force, wasn't it?
Peter Lyon Well, I think certainly when he began to edit for his syndicate and later for his magazine, he had in mind the memory of himself as a youngster struggling to get an education and struggling to find things to read. He was an omnivorous reader and he had read everything he could lay his hands on and when he was going to college, one of his minor projects that he set himself was to read every book in the Galesburg public library, and this hunger and thirst for knowledge and for reading that he had was something that he felt other youngsters growing up in the Midwest, he kept thinking of the Midwest because that was where he'd spent most of his youth, he felt that there must be farm boys like him, only 20 or 30 or 40 years younger, who would have the same thirst and he kept this in mind as editor of both syndicate and later of magazine to try and get them the kind of stuff that he would have liked to have had available when he was a boy.
Studs Terkel You know, Pete, as you're talking again something occurs to me, something to me very fascinating. Here was a popular publisher of a magazine that became very popular, at his height it had what circulation?
Peter Lyon Oh, I guess it got up as high as while he was, well in its great days up around 600,000 copies.
Studs Terkel Six hundred thousand then, somewhere between 1890 and 1915, 1910 would be equivalent to about several million today, wouldn't it?
Peter Lyon Well yes, I guess it would. It's a little difficult to extrapolate these figures but certainly it was the, of the monthly magazines of its time it was the most influential and the most popular
Studs Terkel The thought that occurs to me is reaching a mass audience, a man rather than denigrate public taste, appeal to what we call the low common denominator, whether on TV or using the praise of many of our
Studs Terkel the Publishers today, you know, "We give people what they want," he gave people what he wanted.
Peter Lyon Right. There were three or four very good magazines that were being published: "Harper's", "The Atlantic", "Scribner's", and "The Century", which were expensive magazines, they cost 25, 30 cents apiece, and that was an enormous sum for a boy that wanted to put himself through college. He had seen, he would see these magazines on somebody's living room table and look at the price and be appalled, so that when he started his magazine, he wanted it to be considerably cheaper. He wanted to be able to bring it into the, within the pocketbook of people who couldn't afford a 25, 30 cent magazine. And he started it out, he hoped to start it out 10 cents a copy, he actually started at 15, and then brought it down to 10 cents a copy after about six months and of its first publication, and the other, the publishers of the other magazines sneered at it, said that it was impossible for these cheap magazines like "McClure's" at 10 cents a copy to print the work of the best writers, and they boasted and patted down their back hair about how they were publishing writers that McClure would never be able to publish. Well, this was nonsense and he answered them at once in an editorial in about the fifth or sixth issue of his magazine, he pointed out how wrong they were, that already the work that he had published was on a par with the best that they'd ever done and the same people in some cases, in some cases better writers, he had a much better eye for the new writer with talent than they had because they waited for somebody to make a reputation before they published it and he made the reputation for the people that he published. He discovered an enormous number of
Studs Terkel Among them, you know, even though he couldn't afford to buy "Red Badge of Courage", it was Stephen Crane whom he saw.
Peter Lyon Stephen Crane was on his staff for a while. He had "Red Badge of Courage" in his hands and he just couldn't because that was when he was struggling to start his magazine and he held the manuscript for about six or eight months and just never was able to get the money
Studs Terkel Jack London of San
Peter Lyon Jack London was another.
Peter Lyon He was the first to publish Booth Tarkington. He was the first to publish Willa Cather, he was the first to publish oh, an enormous number of writers who were first talent.
Studs Terkel And the first to introduce British writers. If we can include Henry James, the American, as a British writer, I mean, he brought, didn't he syndicate James, too? Conan Doyle.
Peter Lyon He syndicated one of, a couple of James's novels, yes. Conan Doyle, he was the first to publish in this country, and Stevenson, and
Studs Terkel Conrad.
Peter Lyon Conrad, he was the first to publish Conrad
Studs Terkel Now here we come to something, he reached in syndication. He reached small-town papers.
Peter Lyon Sure.
Studs Terkel It could be Wahoo, Nebraska.
Peter Lyon Certainly.
Studs Terkel And they, that man in that town, somebody there, a young McClure, possibly someone there could be able to read Joseph Conrad.
Peter Lyon He was the first, incidentally, before I forget, he was the first to publish the byline on the story was Alfred Damon Runyon.
Studs Terkel He published Runyon? Latter days.
Peter Lyon No, this was the, it's the first story that Damon Runyon ever wrote.
Studs Terkel No, I mean, in "McClure's" latter days.
Studs Terkel Really?
Peter Lyon Yeah.
Studs Terkel As far back as that.
Peter Lyon Or maybe 1907, seven or eight, along in there. When Runyon was out in Colorado, I believe, working on a Denver newspaper, he sent a story in which McClure at once picked up and the thing that's extraordinary about it is that it's completely typical Damon Runyon story, it's written in slang. It's sentimental. This tough-guy sentimentality that Damon Runyon had, and it's this first story is still teeming with slang which was at that time, I'm sure, quite fresh and new, but even now doesn't sound too antiquated, it's
Studs Terkel To me the McClure story that Pete Lyon has put down and very vividly indeed is a man who had a vision and was able to follow through on it. You know, it is also a very wild suspense story of having to make ends meet continuously. He was juggling one way or another [unintelligible].
Peter Lyon He ignored money completely and regarded money only as something that he would be able to use to buy material properly. But I think we ought to talk about the muckraking.
Studs Terkel Now we come to perhaps the most exciting contribution of McClure: challenging establishment with right "muckraking," the word itself. This is a -- Teddy Roosevelt coined the word.
Peter Lyon Well, he didn't, no, that's not strictly accurate. In "The Pilgrim's Progress", John Bunyan tells how the pilgrim at one point came in, I've forgotten exactly, I'll have to get to the book.
Studs Terkel The man with the rake.
Peter Lyon The man with the muckrake. The man with the muckrake was somebody whom the pilgrim encountered during the course of his journey to the Eternal City. And I think it's the interpreter that points out the man with the muckrake to him, and here is this man raking to himself the muck on the floor where the muckrake, and the man with the muckrake obviously symbolized in Bunyan's allegory, symbolized a man who spends all his time trying to amass money, worldly wealth, and Roosevelt, who prided himself on his wide reading, certainly must have known that this was Bunyan's intention, to draw the man with the muckrake as the symbol of the kind of fellow who instead of aspiring toward higher things, toward a fuller, and enrich your life for himself and for his fellows, spends all his time greedily gathering up money. Well, that was the figure that Bunyan used in the allegory and what Roosevelt did was to take this and say of it that he did not like the kind of writer who paid attention only to the evils in society. And did not at some time raise his eye to look at the things that were better in society. So he said these writers were muckrakers, they paid attention only to the evil side of society, when in fact the muckrakers that he was deriding were attacking the people who were symbolized by Bunyan as the man with the muckrake. They were attacking the monopolists, the men who were smashing the trade unions and exploiting society.
Studs Terkel If we could come to this period, this is a very exciting period of, obviously thrust in many directions, the growth of a country, exploitation, brutality, meanness, at the same time along comes McClure, who puts his reputation and his dough on the line in hiring these young writers whom he met, beginning with this remarkable woman, Ida Tarbell.
Peter Lyon Yes, well now you see, the thing, this whole business of monopoly and the trust, the word "the trust," was a fighting word in the '90s. Everybody was terribly excited about what the Trusts were doing to the country. This was a process in our industrial history when the small agrarian community was disappearing and the big industrial city was growing and coming into birth and growing, and getting more and more important in the whole national scene. And obviously there were a number of people who were, great masses of people who were very unhappy and fearful and suspicious about the trusts and the monopolies that come along and McClure was investigative. He, as soon as he knew that a lot of people were interested in this and excited about it and alarmed about it, he felt that it was important to get somebody who would write about it and make sense about it, and they wondered in the office, they spent I don't know how many hours conferring and arguing and trying to figure out how to attack this, where to begin, how to try and get an article or a series of articles that would explain to people what was this monster, this octopus, this secret power, this hidden government based on the trusts and on them, on the growing nascent monopolies. And I ran across a letter that Ida Tarbell had written to Ray Stannard Baker, who was another of McClure's first-rate journalists. He'd hired him away from a Chicago newspaper. I've forgotten -- the record, the record, that's right.
Studs Terkel And Baker's series, Ida Tarbell's great series was Standard Oil.
Peter Lyon Standard Oil. Well, I would, I was just coming to that. The point is, that the letter that I ran across in Ray Stannard Baker's collection of letters down at the Library of Congress, this letter that Tarbell had written to him said that she had been, he was out in California at the time, she was writing from New York where she just had another conversation with McClure, they were wondering how could they go about, they thought of the United States Steel Corporation, which was then just coming into existence, they thought maybe they could tell the story of the United States Steel Corporation beginning, perhaps, with just a colliery somewhere in Pennsylvania, a coal mine or an iron mine and show how gradually this whole thing grew into a complex of steel mills and so on and so on and how it had been born and what the whole process by which it was financed and so on and so on and so on, all this. She suggested a letter, in this letter that maybe he should think about this, and the thing that's extraordinary is that Ida Tarbell had herself been born in the oil regions of Pennsylvania, had considered writing a novel about the growth of the Standard Oil Company, and she never apparently saw herself that if they were going to do a series on the trusts that they should begin with the mother of all the trusts, the oil trust, the Standard Oil Trust, and eventually she got around somehow, this realization grew that if they were going to tackle this, she should do it and she should write about Standard Oil, and again McClure gave her, was very generous with the time that was given in order that she might gather her material carefully and present it accurately. And this resulted in her stunning series on the Standard Oil Company. That was the first of the, and the best, I think, of the series of studies that of contemporary society that were published in "McClure's". About that same time McClure had been very much disturbed by graft in municipal government and had instructed Lincoln Steffens to go out take a trip all over the country and study the cities and the states to see how this graft had come about, who was responsible for it, what the people could do about it, and Steffens had sniffed at the idea. He was by no means sure. He had had an enormous amount of experience in New York as a reporter, knew reformers fairly well, knew politicians fairly well, and didn't think much of any idea that would involve his writing about reform because he didn't think that would ever work, and McClure had suggested to him that he go to Cleveland, where there was a reform
Peter Lyon Tom Johnson was the mayor and
Studs Terkel Called "Golden Rule" Johnson.
Peter Lyon No, that's "Golden Rule" Jones. He was Toledo, Ohio. No. So Steffens went out on this, he had to be pushed out onto the road to fame because his heart wasn't in it, but suddenly he found that, with to his astonishment and to his growing excitement, he found that yes, there was a hell of a story to be told and went from St. Louis to, I think the next one was Minneapolis, and then back to St. Louis, then to Philadelphia, then to Pittsburgh, and
Peter Lyon Chicago, too, and then "The Shame of the Cities" was the title for the series and that began running concurrently with the series that Tarbell had written about Standard Oil.
Studs Terkel Now we come to something. So here are two key series, one by Ida Tarbell on Standard Oil, though innocently enough she began, he discovered her in Paris, he met her there, and she wrote something called, he began a series called "Human Documents" about Lincoln and Grant, photojournalism, but then we come to Tarbell and Standard Oil read by about 600,000 people.
Peter Lyon Well, no, there's no, circulation wasn't that high then, the circulation was then still I think probably less than 400,000.
Studs Terkel But even so, a considerable portion of the population
Studs Terkel Reading this and Stannard Baker on
Peter Lyon Certainly the most important part of the population, the opinion leaders, the clergymen, the college professors, the public officials and professional people of that type were the backbone of "McClure's" readers.
Studs Terkel McClure now was on the road to challenging power. So it's Ida Tarbell on Standard Oil, Lincoln Steffens on corruption in big cities, Ray Stannard Baker on coal
Peter Lyon No, Ray Stannard Baker began with a series, it began with I think it was a two-parter on United Mine Workers and the strike that they were carrying out against the anthracite mine owners in Pennsylvania and later on, a couple of years later on, he did a six-part series on the railroads, called "The Railroads on Trial", which was a first-rate piece of magazine journalism.
Studs Terkel Well, this comes, and then George Kibbe Turner on patent medicines?
Peter Lyon Well, no, no, George Kibbe Turner came later in McClure's career and he wrote mostly about the same sort of thing that Steffens had been writing about, only in my opinion did it much better. I do want to come back though, I don't think it would be quite accurate to say that McClure was challenging authority or that he was in fact challenging the system, a phrase, incidentally, which was originated by Steffens.
Peter Lyon "The system." He was arrayed against the system, but I don't think he, in fact I'm quite certain that he did not start out with the idea that he was going to attack the system. That was not on his mind, but he was out to do was to try and clarify matters of public policy that that had arisen in the country and that he knew were alarming and interesting and exciting the population, and it was his intention simply to write about them accurately and well. That was his idea. He was not himself, properly speaking, a reformer. He was an editor who wanted to publish well-written, well-documented material about matters that concerned the nation.
Studs Terkel By this point comes out to me very dramatically clear to readers, I'm sure, of Peter Lyon's biography of McClure's success story, his disputes and suspicions of Lincoln Steffens. He liked Ida Tarbell, because he had himself you say was not a -- He wanted good, solid journalism.
Peter Lyon Right.
Studs Terkel And he thought that Steffens was stacking the cards a bit, was editorializing too much.
Peter Lyon He regarded, he had a tendency to regard his staff writers as extensions of his own mind. If he got an idea for a series, then one of these staff writers would take it on, and therefore he wanted them to do what it was that he felt needed to be done, which I've described earlier, that's to say to write well and vividly and accurately on matters of, questions of national importance, the trust being one, the graft in the municipal government being another, the railroads being certainly a third, because the railroads were probably as thoroughly and widely detested as any industry ever has been in this country around the turn of the century.
Studs Terkel And it was connected also later on with Baker's piece on packing house, too, and beef, railroad and that was connected about the same time as Upton Sinclair's "Jungle"
Peter Lyon Well, what happened was you see that by examining in his series on the railroads he eventually took up the question of the private cars on railroads where those private car companies were those that were operated by people like Armour to carry their enormous freight traffic back
Studs Terkel I want to come to a key question now, and also Samuel Hopkins Adams followed later attacking patent medicines.
Peter Lyon Well, you see, now the whole question, while Tarbell was at work and Steffens was at work and Baker was at work, that it happened that each of them had an article in one particular issue of "McClure's", in January, I think it was 1903, and when this issue hit the stands, it was enormously successful. It was swept right off the newsstands they had to print a second edition of that particular issue so that they could try and meet the demand for it. And of course, the editor of every other magazine was not blind to the fact that here was a new and exciting area to get into. "Collier's" got into it, every other magazine got into it, but the reason I mentioned "Collier's" is because the editor of "Collier's" was concerned about patent medicines and got hold of a man who had been trained by McClure and had worked on "McClure's" for many years, Samuel Hopkins Adams, and he hired Sam Adams away from "McClure's" with McClure's permission, went over to "Collier's" to write this series on the patent medicine racket lobby.
Studs Terkel So how we come to a key question. Here was McClure challenging big boys indeed. Even from a standpoint of journalism and fairness, wasn't there? Advertising now is coming into play to a great extent.
Peter Lyon Yes, well, advertising itself had begun to mushroom around 1890, '93, just about the time that McClure started publishing his magazine. National advertising began to mushroom in a large way. The first advertising agencies were born, J. Walter Thompson came and started his agency about that time. He
Studs Terkel He wanted to buy "McClure's" once, wasn't there?
Peter Lyon That was later. There was a moment there where there was some talk of his finding somebody who had a lot of money that would be able to invest in "McClure's". But the point is that with this upsurge of advertising, it meant that both magazines could be more profitable, but also it did not yet mean that the advertisers would bring too much pressure on a publication. Certainly McClure paid no attention to this because, in the series that Baker wrote on the railroads, which, as you pointed out, toward the end it dealt with Armour and the other big butchers in Chicago, Armour had been running a full page of advertising in "McClure's" for more than 10 years at that point. And this didn't deter McClure from going ahead with the publication of his piece, and when he heard that there was some disposition on the part of the people at the Armour company to bring suit against "McClure's", that simply irritated him to the point where he wrote to Ray Baker saying that he was going to get Sam Adams and Mark Sullivan to go to Chicago and really find out what the truth of the whole Armour meat packing
Studs Terkel Mark Sullivan, too, by the way, honored name among journalists in America, early part of the century, and later was always a discovery
Peter Lyon First hired by McClure,
Studs Terkel But the courage, now we come to the courage of a certain publisher, the courage of the man.
Peter Lyon See, while today, ex post facto, looking back on it, we say yes, this was courageous, but I don't think that McClure regarded himself as being particularly courageous, but what he wanted to do was edit as good a magazine as possible. And if this involved stepping on the toes of advertisers, that was too bad, he was unhappy if he hurt anybody's toes, but he was still going to publish a good magazine, therefore, courage I think is something that is a quality we can only confer upon him in retrospect.
Studs Terkel Now we're turning over the tape and perhaps we could even in turning over the tape skip some of the aspects here, of course. Pete Lyon is full of remarkable anecdotes about this man McClure. Not courage was not the point, but publishing a magazine on seeking truth was the point. Thus far, perhaps, while Mel is turning over the tape and coming near the end of it and the relationship of McClure to Peter Lyon, the man we're talking to, McClure himself had difficulties later on, was bypassed, the century, the time was changing. He was also involved in Henry Ford's peace ship, and again had opinions of his own, even though it was something of a quixotic venture. It was quite a remarkable excursion indeed, finally wound up eating in the Automat, lost all his money, but apparently no regrets were involved always wanted to come back, too, always sought to come back. No regrets were involved here. Rather, it was seeking after truth on the part of the magazine publisher. [pause in recording] I think one of the most powerful aspects of this book is Pete Lyon's own understanding here. Not a question of morality now, not a question of editorializing as Steffens certainly did, and to a lesser extent Tarbell and Baker, Moody and Turner saying, this is what is, the nature of a certain society is going this way.
Peter Lyon Yes. I think though very few of these, their editorializing was more in a point of view than anything else, because the articles themselves were not editorial articles, they were factual articles, and in fact, one of the socialists of the time, who himself wrote a first-rate book in this period of muckraking and is himself regarded as a muckraker, Upton Sinclair, his book
Peter Lyon His book on the -- Yeah, "The Jungle". Now, when Baker began writing about the railroads, Upton Sinclair sent him a letter.
Peter Lyon Bawling him out. And it's an interesting letter, because it's the kind of a letter, if McClure had ever seen it, he would have been delighted. Could you stop that tape just for a second? Here, Upton Sinclair wrote to Baker, I write "Upton Sinclair, who would have been satisfied with nothing short of nationalization of the railroads, wrote to Baker quote, 'You can beat even the rest of the folks on "McClure's" for getting together facts minus conclusions.' Close the quote, "McClure would have been tickled to read that note, for he had always held that conclusions should be drawn by the readers." And any article that pointed the way in a big sloganeering fashion, he would have cut, he would have cut the sloganeering out
Studs Terkel Trouble With Steffens.
Peter Lyon Yeah, he wanted Steffens to do less editorializing, just let the facts get out and let the people then reach their own conclusions.
Studs Terkel Of course, as in retrospect as we think now in reading this book, which is a powerful one because suddenly it makes you think how 1967 is, as Pete Lyon does -- It's a monumental book, by the way, the story of S.S. -- "Times of S.S. McClure, Success" -- "Life and Times, Success Story", is then there were the buccaneers who were big in those days, who were being attacked, today they're sort of faceless, they're managers, they're more or less the caretakers today, the difference. McClure, again we come back -- Remember the very beginning, we heard Brian's voice?
Peter Lyon Well, the whole thing has changed immensely because the labor movement in this country today, the organized labor is a much, much more powerful force in society than it was in those days. There was very little organized opposition to the trusts and to the monopolies of those days. Now the government is bigger, labor is bigger, and while capital investment is also much bigger, to steal a phrase from Galbraith, "these countervailing forces kind of even out," and the function of magazine journalism therefore -- I'm not sure that today there would be any purpose for this kind of series. And if there were a magazine like "McClure's" around, "Harper's" or "The Atlantic" would be the only two that I could think of that might [either?] take such a series. I'm not sure that they would gain too much from the publication because investment capital is not as menacing an ogre today as it was in the time that "McClure's" was being published. I think that's an accurate statement.
Studs Terkel But this is what Kibbe and Turner are coming back, I mean, Turner and Moody.
Peter Lyon Yes.
Studs Terkel Turner and Moody in a sense were implying that something was happening. They were saying. They were not, they were muckrakers, but they were saying, look, we're not, we're showing you what is. And the danger I suppose to the individual that we see
Peter Lyon I'm not sure, but I believe it is Marcel Duchamp, the painter, who made the celebrated comment "Less is more," and
Studs Terkel Mies van der Rohe, too, has used that as his,
Peter Lyon Yes.
Studs Terkel Used that as his credo.
Peter Lyon Maybe it was Mies van
Studs Terkel -- "More with less," more with less.
Peter Lyon Maybe this is Mies' phrase, but less is more, and this was one of the great virtues of the journalism that was published in "McClure's", understatement was one of the things that he insisted upon, and it is a tremendously powerful thing and an overstated article loses all its force and that's why I think that he was right in demanding of his writers that they not print the conclusions to something, but rather simply to print an accurately gathered and organized set of facts about any given
Studs Terkel One thing should be pointed out about Peter Lyon's book, though as you can gather, a view of a certain period, a certain time, but you view a man, a human being named Sam McClure, and there's a rather tragic end, at the same time heroic.
Peter Lyon Well, "Success Story" was designed for, I use the title, it's not a terribly good title, I'm afraid. It's ironic. I decided on it because in the first place, success story, S, S, and his name, S.S. McClure, I wanted to play around with that on the jacket, but the title "Success Story" is an ironic title, because his life was a success only in its middle years.
Studs Terkel Of course, at 55 you have a chapter, being called "Unhorsed".
Peter Lyon Yes.
Studs Terkel And so here is something tragic happens. It was an exciting period, an exciting assemblage of people, and a schism occurred, and they left him, some of his favorites did, and we found others.
Peter Lyon In 1906, the Tarbell Steffens Baker group left "McClure's" and
Studs Terkel Why? They felt he was slipping, was that it?
Peter Lyon No, I think it was just a question of, he was a very difficult man to get along with. He was a wild, his mind just teemed with ideas, and Miss Tarbell wrote in her autobiography that only one out of 100 ideas was great, but somebody should always be there to grab that one hundredth idea. I think that they underestimated. I think that more than one out of a hundred were good ideas, but there were simply not enough people around him to deal with the ideas that he came up with well, and he was a tempestuous fellow and manic most of the time, depressive sometimes. I think he was a manic depressive, speaking in a clinical way, although I don't use any of the psychological jargon in this book. I believe he was a manic depressive, and this sort of a fellow is not an easy man to get along with, and eventually John Phillips, who had been his partner in the syndicate before and in the magazine and had been a classmate of his at Knox, their association had been a long and very intimate one, and he led the others out of "McClure's" and over to found "The American" magazine.
Studs Terkel What was fantastic about McClure even though he was heartbroken and they left him, he still had this incredible antennae, able to discover Willa Cather, and then, by the way, Maria Montessori, since Montessori's name is so much in the news these days, particularly with mothers of young children. He heard of this Italian educator and thought
Peter Lyon Brought her over to this country.
Studs Terkel [Italian].
Peter Lyon The first articles about her system of education were printed in "McClure's" and then he brought her over to this country and they went up, they had a tour together, she speaking and he speaking from the same platform, and showing
Studs Terkel He was quite a talker himself, by the way. He was an ebullient, he could talk for hours and hours.
Peter Lyon Tremendous talker. This is one of the things that wore out his associates, I expect. But the magazine was still a successful magazine after they left. As a matter of fact, I believe its circulation went up after they left. The difficulty with McClure was that he had absolutely no financial sense at all. As one of his associates said of him, if he had been a woman, as a businessman if he'd been a woman, he would have been pregnant all the time.
Studs Terkel There's a funny footnote here about that. He couldn't say "No."
Peter Lyon He couldn't say "No."
Studs Terkel The man who couldn't say "No." He was like the girl in Oklahoma. You know? He couldn't say "No." [pause in recording] I thought perhaps just to save there is further conversation, further anecdotes about S.S. McClure, Samuel S. McClure, remarkable publisher by Peter Lyon his biographer. I thought Mel could probably come near the end for what might be in a novel or a play the switch, the O. Henry touch to it. Peter Lyon writing a biography of a man in American history. [pause in recording] Could you read the last paragraph? 'Cause I love that last sentence, you know, McClure now got along, had a baked potato at the Automat and he was finally awarded, he got some honor, finally.
Peter Lyon Oh, yes. He was given the gold medal by the
Studs Terkel National Academy.
Peter Lyon National Academy of Arts and Letters and that was a fine thing. He died in 1947, I guess.
Studs Terkel Ninety-two, about.
Peter Lyon "S.S. McClure died at 9:30 on the night of March 21, 1949 in his 92nd year. His body was coffined and taken to Galesburg, Illinois where it was buried next to that of his wife. Galesburg was not his home, but after all, there really was no place that had been his home. The feeling of homelessness, he had told his wife in 1883, has been upon me ever since my father died. It may be doubted he ever shook it off. His Galesburg friends remarked that on the day of his funeral, the town was struck by the worst cyclone in its history. S.S. McClure, they agreed, went out with a bang."
Studs Terkel Out with a bang. Far, far from a whimper indeed. Well, Peter Lyon wrote this biography that is now going to be reissued again under what label?
Studs Terkel Originally published by Scribner's.
Peter Lyon It's been republished, the second edition is published by the Everett Edwards Press, a small publishing company in Florida, and they do most of their business on a direct mail basis, and it's, they tell me the book is selling better that way than it sold in the trade edition that Scribner's brought out. It's the same clothbound edition.
Studs Terkel It's called "Success Story: Life of S.S. McClure". One last question. Peter Lyon. Why did you, what is it about McClure that attracted you?
Peter Lyon Well, nobody had done his biography and I knew something about him because he was my grandfather. I didn't say anything of that on the book jacket or in my introduction because it didn't seem to me that the biological connection was very important. I had known my grandfather only very slightly, and only at the end toward the end of his life, and I had regarded him as only a garrulous old bore and there was no particular dialogue between us, nor seems to me would one have been possible. Although while I was writing the book I certainly wished that I had had the sense to talk to him more intelligently about his career so that I would have been able to answer some of the questions that came up as I was gathering material for the writing of the book. I did not deliberately, did not talk about my relationship with him while I was gathering that material, and I think very wisely, for example Samuel Hopkins Adams was still alive and I had spent a very pleasant four hours talking with him about McClure, and he told me a great many things about McClure which he would never have told me had he known that I was McClure's grandson.
Studs Terkel Oh, Adams didn't know that McClure was your
Peter Lyon No, nor did anybody else, while some people did, because some people knew my family and knew therefore that I was related to McClure, but in the case of Adams, for example, he told me a great deal about McClure's personal life which, when I told him at the end of our conversation that I was McClure's grandson, he immediately reacted by saying that he would never have said those things had he realized that there had been a relationship because they were simply not the things that a gentleman would say, and I explained that that was precisely why I had kept my relationship with McClure hidden from him, and he chuckled and agreed that it was a sensible thing
Studs Terkel Pete, as you say, that is very, naturally it's deeply moving. It occurs to me that this may be the first time a grandson has done a, how shall we put it, an unauthorized biography of a grandfather. I wasn't aware of this, by the way, 'til today. A mutual friend had told me this, and
Peter Lyon -- What, of the relationship,
Studs Terkel Yes. And something occurred to me
Peter Lyon Excuse me, as you have read the book and you did not know that he was my grandfather, did you feel that I had approached him with favoritism and
Studs Terkel On the contrary, I felt this was a biography of a very, I say a very powerful, I think it should've won the National Book Award for that year, but I think it's a powerful biography by a very excellent biographer who was clear-eyed about someone who I did not know was his grandfather, but there's something you said, before we say goodbye for now. You said you just knew a garrulous old bore and he was, that you were how old, you were a kid.
Peter Lyon Well, let's see, I was -- The last time that I saw him for any length of time was the year I'd just come out of college, and while I was 21 or two at that time, I still was -- I had my own selfish preoccupations and he did not enter into them.
Studs Terkel Well, it seems to me that there's another dimension to the book even now, just as perhaps with this last comment of Peter Lyon, about knowing someone and yet not knowing someone and they deal with perhaps in the whole subject of the elderly itself and
Peter Lyon Yes.
Studs Terkel This generation,
Studs Terkel "Success Story" by Pete Lyon, "Success Story", and the bell rang, just then a friend entered. Everett Edwards the publishers, available now. Peter Lyon "Success Story", the biography of S.S. McClure, a remarkable one, indeed.