By Robert Miraldi
Palgrave MacMillan, 321 pp., $35
Charles Edward Russell (1860-1941) may be the most famous largely forgotten newspaperman in this country's history -- a muckraker as well known in his day as Ida Tarbell, Upton Sinclair, and Lincoln Steffens. But he was more: a Socialist Party candidate for national and state offices; a co-founder of the NAACP; an author of more than two dozen books; and a poet. Why, then, largely forgotten? Robert Miraldi in his prologue to The Pen Is Mightier wonders the same thing and sees it this way:
"While all of the major muckrakers have had biographies ... little has been written about Russell. This is odd given that he muckraked on more topics and wrote more exposé articles for a longer period of time than any of the others. Nonetheless, he had no one 'smoking gun' issue that won him fame. ... In addition, Russell's turn to Socialism in 1908 and his foray into elective office isolated him from the more conventional and popular reformers of his day . Have historians resented Russell for leaving the conventional political fold and embracing radicalism? ... Russell the person may have also diminished his standing in history. Formal, private, and almost austere, he has failed to capture the imagination of biographers."
Or is it the biographers who've failed to capture Russell? Failed, that is, until now, because in Miraldi -- professor of journalism; author of Muckraking and Objectivity -- Russell has finally gotten the biographer he deserves. And yet, as Miraldi admits, "[F]inding the personal side of Russell has been near impossible for this writer. When they can be found, his letters are almost always on social issues and deal little with passion, love, or family." Still, "[Russell] was a pervasive figure who deserves to be front and center in any discussion of twentieth-century social justice, investigative journalism, and progressive publicity."
Thus, then, The Pen Is Mightier. Russell: front, center, and clearly the product of his family and his times but in the end perhaps unknowable still.
On one side of that family was Grandpa Rutledge, a Baptist minister who preached charity to all and "feared nothing that walked, drunk or sober." For her part, Russell's mother instilled in him a love of Shakespeare and music. On the other side was Russell's abolitionist father, part-owner and editor of the Davenport (Iowa) Gazette, who taught his son not only the mechanics of newspaper publishing but introduced him to a line of worldly "tramp printers" with stories of legendary editors in New York and Chicago, stories that thrilled the young Russell.
Boarding school in Vermont, endowed by Vermont's ranking industrialist family, the Fairbanks, taught Russell another thing or two. Make that three: 1) a lifetime love of public speaking, 2) an abiding concern for the common good, and 3) a lifelong hatred of economic injustice. For, to Russell's amazement, he learned that it was the underpaid craftsmen inside the Fairbanks' factories that had "made" the family's fortune. Capitalistic money-grubbing eclipsed individual, skilled labor. The system stank. What to do?
Russell headed back to Davenport, the Gazette, and his first crusade: an unjust tariff system that "allowed the few to profit while the many suffered" (the "many" being Iowa farmers). But when his father's paper folded ("by a cabal of commercial power"?), Russell headed to papers in St. Paul, Minneapolis, and Detroit, brief stopovers on his way to twin goals: New York City and a position at any one of that city's 15 dailies. He reached the first goal in 1886 with $37 in his pocket. His first defeat: no reporter positions to be had.
So he freelanced. He hustled. He wrote what passed for journalism in late-19th-century New York, "yellow" journalism, long on sensationalism, long on "human interest," idiotic: a story about a doctor who fell in love with his leprosy-infected patient; another about a Bowery museum where snakes got baths; another about a family that chewed gum all day. His take-home pay one month: $20.92.
He hung out with detectives. He walked the Lower East Side, got to know its tenements and the dwellers. He was appalled, and he wrote about it: the conditions and what those conditions can drive people to do, become. He caught the eye of Joseph Pulitzer, owner/publisher of the New York World, a paper that combined "sensation, reportage, political acumen, and marketing." In other words, a paper that was itself a sensation. Pulitzer sent him to Chicago to report on the aftermath of the Haymarket riot. Anarchy was in the air, and Russell saw it firsthand, saw four men hanged ("according to the fashion of surviving barbarism"). But Russell knew how to milk a story for all it was worth -- facts, figures, and the "human-interest" element that made any news story worthwhile, sold newspapers, made newspaper owners rich or richer.
William Randolph Hearst, he of the bottomless checkbook, he of the New York Journal, didn't need money. He needed top-notch reporters and he got them, one was Russell (who'd made a great name for himself reporting on the Johnstown flood of 1889 for the New York Herald), to go inside a newspaper that regularly ran headlines on the order of "Parboiled alive in bathtub" or "Demented woman's dance on roof." (One editor called the Journal's newsroom "a lunatic asylum"; Miraldi calls the paper "a schizoid spray of printer's ink.") But Hearst wanted his paper, in Russell's words, "to fight for the weak, to represent the unrepresented, to better conditions, to protect the unprotected," and in Russell Hearst found his main man. But in 1901, Russell's wife died of typhoid. Hearst's man, age 41, had a nervous breakdown.
Russell traveled to Europe to rest and returned from Europe to work. He took on the meat-packing antitrust violators in Chicago for Everybody's magazine. He took on slum-lord Trinity Church, Wall Street's church, for Cosmopolitan. He investigated prison slave-labor in Georgia. He helped found the NAACP. And in 1910, Russell ran for governor of New York on the Socialist Party ticket. The "prince of the muckrakers" was taking direct action. Preaching to crowds was family tradition. Capitalism was "illogical, brutal, and destined to die," "the cause of American poverty and its problems." Russell campaigned for an eight-hour workday, overtime pay for work beyond the normal workweek, equal pay for men and women, a ban on child labor, workers' compensation for injury, government-funded pensions for the aged (aka Social Security), breakfast and lunch programs for schoolchildren. Crazy stuff. Russell lost his bid.
He took on the railroads. He went on the Chautauqua speaking circuit. He ran for New York mayor and lost. He traveled by the Lusitania to Europe. He ran for the Senate and lost. And he saw, on the eve of World War I, democracy in danger. And what of socialism when democracy itself was at stake? He said no to the pacifiers. The Socialists got rid of him. He traveled to revolutionary Russia, member of a U.S.-sponsored delegation to caution the Russians not to make peace with Germany. He returned to the U.S. to write books, among them a biography of Charlemagne and a biography of orchestra conductor Theodore Thomas, which won him a Pulitzer in 1927. He died in 1941, as one headline put it, "From Overwork."
Miraldi's book is full of surprises: surprise that Russell's long career as a liberal crusader has been so overlooked; surprise over learning that in one sentence he's married, another sentence he's a father, another he's a widower, another he's remarried and never living entirely happily ever after, I'm thinking.
Still thinking, and wondering if Robert Miraldi isn't too, who this Charles Edward Russell was when he wasn't agitating, wasn't fighting the good fight, wasn't going up against the "interests," wasn't calling for some human decency, what he was like off the page, at home, with his roses, reading his beloved Swinburne. The Pen Is Mightier is a great effort at a hard look.