The Dirt

We are so tired of negative news. That blanket statement, I believe, is based on the experience of most of us.

But do you remember the term “muckrakers” from high school or college history class? I always paralleled them with writers who liked to dig up dirt on other people, more specifically really bad dirt that you’d find in an animal’s stall on a farm.

President Theodore Roosevelt assigned that word, which he found in Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, to certain journalists. Historical accounts say that he was talking about an unusual reporter, Ida Tarbell, and her colleagues at McClure’s Magazine in the early 1900s. But not so fast.

Ida Tarbell: Muckraker, Journalist, Monopoly Critic

Ida Minerva Tarbell (

Tarbell was different, for one thing, because she was a female professional writer. Most women of the day married and took care of their families for the rest of their lives. But Ida loved science as a high school student, going on to study at Allegheny College in Pennsylvania. She was one of five female students on campus and the only one in her freshman class.

She worked as a teacher for a time, and then as an editor for a regional publication. Then she sailed to France to see more of the world. Sharing a small flat with friends, eking out a living as a freelance writer, she produced remarkable work, including biographical sketches of Madame Roland and Napoleon. Samuel McClure convinced to to move back to New York to write for the magazine named for himself.

McClure was not an ordinary publisher. He gave his writers two very important things to carry out their assignments to the best level they could: time and money. To Tarbell fell the job of to investigating John D. Rockefeller and Standard Oil Company, a story which grew into 23 installments, a book, and ultimately anti-trust legislation in America.

Ray Stannard Baker (

Ray Baker, another prolific member of the McClure’s team, wrote a series about the manipulation of union members. He was described as a good listener whom “you could not ruffle or antagonize.”

Lincoln Steffens, more outspoken, was fascinated by the relationships between the police and politicians, the law and city officials, and business and the church. Readers were drawn to his stories, which included the corruption of politicians in Minneapolis and Cleveland.

File:Photo of Lincoln Steffens.jpg - Wikimedia Commons

Lincoln Austin Steffens (

In two separate 1906 speeches, Theodore Roosevelt lambasted “muckrakers.” He later said he was talking about employees of William Randolph Hearst’s Cosmopolitan. In a letter to a friend, he wrote, “Hearst edited a large number of the very worst type of sensational, scandal-mongering newspapers…he preaches the gospel of hatred, envy and unrest…cares nothing for the nation, nor any citizen in it.”

As a point of reference, one of Hearst’s writers, David Graham Phillips, wrote a scathing story called “Treason of the Senate.” Author William Harbaugh later said that TR was just plain afraid that the reform movement was getting out of hand.

Of course newspapers were defensive in general. Public sentiment was leveraged toward the institutions and corporations being attacked. Baker lost respect in many ways for TR, later becoming an advisor to Woodrow Wilson. Steffens ended his career sympathetic with communism.

In a simple analysis, the muckraker speech backfired on President Roosevelt. He didn’t mention it in his autobiography but he did say a lot about “practical politics,” which means the philosophy of giving consideration to both corporations and individuals.

And Ida Tarbell, in her memoirs, chided TR, whom she felt “had misread his Bunyan.” The man with the muck rake was an allegory for someone who “would only peer down at the debris and dust” — rather than looking up to his purpose in life.

Tarbell, Baker and Steffens left McClure’s soon after TR’s speech, a move probably not directly caused by it. Their boss was scheming for a large, multi-faceted corporation with which they could not agree. The three writers bought another magazine in New York for which they wrote and edited several more years.

Today scandals in government and big business seem more common and dirty than ever. Most writers of a century ago would be indignant, even embarrassed, of what now appears in print and on the the nightly news. Twenty-four hour a day cable channels and social media have desensitized many readers so that the bad stuff becomes larger and more visible. But least for Tarbell and others like her, the old word “muckraker” did not do justice. She said she should instead be called an historian. And there are still a few investigative journalists around who would agree.

Two Authors, and the History of Two Centuries

This post is the complete opposite of my last one about an old time Christmas celebration, which came easily and took a short time to write.  A month’s wave of procrastination does not change the will to begin it.

You may notice, while you’re reading, that these words exist in a slightly more streamlined format.  This is I suppose in part due to the style of someone I’ve been thinking about for many weeks – a writer whom I admired greatly – Sylvia Jukes Morris.

Image result for edmund and sylvia morris

The Morrises chat with President and Mrs. Reagan in the 80s.  (NY Times)

It was a shock to learn in early January that she had passed away at her sister’s home in England,  only eight months after her husband’s death from a sudden stroke.

Sylvia was the author of three definitive biographies, one volume on Edith Roosevelt, and two on Clare Boothe Luce.  The latter, of the twentieth century elite, is probably not a household name, but her life story embodies the society and politics of the time.

Sylvia was married for fifty years to Edmund Morris, Pulitzer Prize winner and prolific biographer of Theodore Roosevelt, Ludwig von Beethoven, Ronald Reagan and Thomas Edison.  Like his wife, he found the research on Roosevelt too much to present in a single book, so ultimately he composed a trilogy.  The sum of their work adds much to our knowledge of the 1800s and the 1900s.

Sylvia and Edmund were a team unequaled in talent, poise and personality.  They invited my daughter and I to their Manhattan home in 2006.  We were doing research at the Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace, and I’d asked for an interview.  It helped that my husband had created a model of Sagamore Hill, the Roosevelt family home, for Mr. Morris.

I remember a spectacular, monochromatic apartment with stairs leading up to a bookcase-lined mezzanine which overlooked Central Park.  The couple pulled some of their books and autographed them for us.  My daughter identified a modern artist whose original painting hung on their dining room wall, with Edmund complimenting her,  “Good eye!”

We saw them again at a Theodore Roosevelt Association book talk in New York City a few years later.  “Margaret!” she said warmly in her beautiful British voice.  I was pleased she remembered me, and we told her we’d seen her recently on C-Span’s Book TV.

I was hoping very much to go to a book signing when Edmund’s Edison was published, but it was not to be.  The first bound book was delivered to their home in Connecticut shortly before he died.  Then, I hoped we could see her after her period of grief subsided, but that was not to be, either.  “It doesn’t get better – it gets worse,” she told a friend in the fall.

They were so close.  And perhaps it was merciful that she didn’t have to face her first Valentine’s Day without him, but instead join him where their marriage had been made.

A moving tribute to Sylvia may be found at this link:

Teddy Bears, TR, and the Hoosier Poet

These were my remarks for the 2018 Spring Meeting of the Indiana Chapter of the Theodore Roosevelt Association at the James Whitcomb Riley Home and Museum, Indianapolis:

Let’s start with a trivia quiz about the teddy bear (answers below).

  • Which state’s governor invited Theodore Roosevelt to a hunting trip in 1902?
  • Why did TR refuse to shoot the only bear to be found?
  • In which newspaper did Clifford Berryman publish his famous cartoon about TR and the bear?
  • Mrs. Morris Michton soon made two stuffed bears to display in her husband’s store in Brooklyn, after which he asked TR permission to name them after him.  What kind of store was it?
  • What toy company evolved from the teddy bears?

Our meeting tonight is next door to the residence of James Whitcomb Riley.  You have seen firsthand that it is a lovely preserved, not restored, late Victorian home, one of very few in the United States.  We are also having a silent auction fundraiser for the Teddy Bears for Kids program of the Theodore Roosevelt Association.  We will donate the teddy bears we buy to Riley Hospital for Children, so it seemed a very appropriate venue for the evening.

Image result for james whitcomb riley home and museum

Besides the teddy bear, the two subjects of this presentation are obvious: Theodore Roosevelt, our twenty-sixth president; and James Whitcomb Riley, the Hoosier Poet.  They are remembered today as literary men of the same era, both best-selling authors with massive bodies of work.  Roosevelt wrote 36 books, the most highly-acclaimed being The Winning of the West series, while Riley composed over 1,000 poems, including Little Orphant Annie and The Frost is on the Punkin.

They were both born in the month of October, Riley in 1849 and Roosevelt in 1858.  Roosevelt grew up in the east; Riley in the midwest.  Their fathers were involved in the Civil War, leaving their wives and children at home.  Mr. Riley enlisted in the army; Mr. Roosevelt was head of the Allotment Commission which sent home soldiers’ pay to their families.

Roosevelt and  Riley were both taught at home in early childhood.  Their mothers reading aloud to them were some of their fondest memories.  Though their careers took different pathways, they both went on public tours, Riley with readings and Roosevelt with political speeches.  Both received honorary degrees from Indiana University.   They had their portraits painted by John Singer Sargent in the same year.  It seems Riley was the more cooperative subject, however.  TR just never liked to sit still.

See the source image      See the source image

But there were decided differences.  Roosevelt came from a privileged family; Riley did not.  Roosevelt graduated from Harvard University; Riley went right to work, selling patent medicine, painting signs, and writing for newspapers.  TR was married twice and had six boisterous children; James Whitcomb Riley never married.  And while the Roosevelts’ musical talent was limited to playing the Victrola, as Edith liked to say, Riley was an accomplished violinist.

James Whitcomb Riley was an alcoholic whose addiction affected his public engagements, while Theodore Roosevelt was a teetotaler who saw his brother destroyed by drink.

The Library of Congress Manuscript Division includes a letter from Theodore Roosevelt to James Whitcomb Riley dated November 3, 1902.  It says, “My Dear Mr. Riley: I value the book greatly, and of course what you have written in the fly-leaf not merely adds to the value of the book, but puts me under obligation to you.  I thank you heartily.  Faithfully yours, Theodore Roosevelt.”

When I checked with the National Park Service, they confirmed that in Theodore Roosevelt’s extensive library at his home, Sagamore Hill, on Long Island, there is a six-volume Complete Works of James Whitcomb Riley.  It was in the inventory from 1919, which was the year TR died.  Two more Riley books were added later, so it seems Edith liked his poems, too.

Theodore Roosevelt visited Indiana many times.  Here is a photograph taken at the dedication of the Henry Lawton Statue in 1907 (Major General Lawton was known for capturing Geronimo, fighting with the regular army in the Spanish-American War, and for his peacemaking efforts in the Philippines, where he was killed in the Insurrection of 1899).  When this picture was taken, the award-winning statue was close to the Marion County Courthouse; it was later moved to Garfield Park.  James Whitcomb Riley and Vice President Charles W. Fairbanks of Indiana are seated on the speaker’s platform in this scene.  Riley composed and read a poem for the occasion, one of his last public events before the stroke which inhibited his final years.

Image result for lawton statue dedication

But here we come back to the reasons both men are famous in the literary world.  They appealed to the people, Riley with his dialect of common folk; and Roosevelt with his intense love of history and justice for every citizen.  People, especially children, came in droves to visit them at their homes.  Their common values manifested themselves in a Riley poem.  Larry Marple has agreed to read Our Kind of a Man for us.

The kind of a man for you and me!
He faces the world unflinchingly,
And smites, as long as the wrong resists,
With a knuckled faith and force like fists:
He lives the life he is preaching of,
And loves where most is the need of love;
His voice is clear to the deaf man’s ears,
And his face sublime through the blind man’s tears;
The light shines out where the clouds were dim,
And the widow’s prayer goes up for him;
The latch is clicked at the hovel door
And the sick man sees the sun once more,
And out o’er the barren fields he sees
Springing blossoms and waving trees,
Feeling as only the dying may,
That God’s own servant has come that way,
Smoothing the path as it still winds on
Through the golden gate where his loved have gone.

The kind of a man for me and you!
However little of worth we do
He credits full, and abides in trust
That time will teach us how more is just.
He walks abroad, and he meets all kinds
Of querulous and uneasy minds,
And sympathizing, he shares the pain
Of the doubts that rack us, heart and brain;
And knowing this, as we grasp his hand
We are surely coming to understand!
He looks on sin with pitying eyes–
E’en as the Lord, since Paradise–,
Else, should we read, Though our sins should glow
As scarlet, they shall be white as snow–?
And feeling still, with a grief half glad,
That the bad are as good as the good are bad,
He strikes straight out for the Right– and he
Is the kind of a man for you and me!

Answers to teddy bear quiz : Missouri, the Washington Star, unsportsmanlike to shoot a bear which was tied up, candy store, Ideal.

Author! Author!

Journalist Anderson Cooper began a week of special appearances in person at the April meeting of the Public Library Association in Denver.  He walked on stage in the theatre of the convention center there, saying, “What I want to know is: Who’s in the library right now?”

The top photo from my phone is of the big screen with captions; second from top is one live on stage.  As on 60 Minutes, CNN’s Anderson Cooper 360, CBS This Morning, Kelly and Michael, etc., he is very personable and direct.

Mr. Cooper had to “book it” (pardon the pun) to New York for a morning show the next day so he did not stay to autograph copies of The Rainbow Comes and Goes, about his relationship with his mother, Gloria Vanderbilt.  He did provide some already-signed books for sale afterwards, for which I was happy to wait in line.  And it debuted on the New York Times Bestseller List as #1!


From Tuesday through Thursday there were plenty of people available to sign books they’d written.  Lauren Myracle, below, has a new novel called Wishing Day.

The next author, Alison Hodgson, brought her main character, Oliver, along to meet convention attendees.  The Pug List tells of “a ridiculous little dog, a family who lost everything, and how they all found their way home.”


An unexpected pleasure was meeting a young author named Jessica Lawson who lives in Colorado, but, I found out, is a graduate of Homestead High School in Fort Wayne.  Interesting title, and from what I’ve already read, a wonderful book.  It’s about a little boy who has more than one reason to visit the famous Masters’ Tournament in Augusta, Georgia.  Her bookmarks were golf tees.

Children’s author Natasha Wing of The Night Before picture book series has a bubbly persona.   I was able to get The Night Before Kindergarten for my kindergarten teacher daughter, and the more recent The Night Before My Birthday for our granddaughter.  Shhhh!  It’s a surprise.