When I first caught sight of Ida Tarbell’s name and photo on the cover of Citizen Reporters: S.S. McClure, Ida Tarbell, and the Magazine That Rewrote America, by Stephanie Gorton, I was immediately intrigued, because the fierce and determined 19th-century investigative journalist is one of the subjects that I’ve chosen to feature in a book on single women through history.
Citizen Reporters offers a great overview of American journalism at the end of the 19th century and early 20th century, through the rise and fall of McClure’s Magazine, a now-extinct magazine that rivaled in popularity with major publications such as Harper’s Magazine and The Atlantic – which are still in circulation today. It centers around two people who were an essential part of American journalism and McClure’s specifically: S. S. McClure (1857–1949), the founder, and Ida Tarbell (1857–1944), the journalist whose investigative reporting was instrumental to the magazine’s fame.
If I had to describe Stephanie Gorton’s Citizen Reporters in one sentence, I would use the same phrasing used to describe Ida Tarbell’s own writing: a “deeply researched, ‘documented narrative’ that told a story ‘so people would read it’” (p.152). Gorton does so by allowing the reader to emotionally connect to McClure and Tarbell, as individuals, before diving into a wider historical analysis of American journalism at the turn of the century.
An in-depth look into the lives of S. S. McClure and Ida Tarbell: contrasting but symbiotic in their partnership
At first, Stephanie Gorton guides the reader through alternating chapters that follow the paths of S. S. McClure and Ida Tarbell, in parallel, until their destinies meet. As the timeline progresses, the reader is introduced to secondary (but important) editors and journalists, such as John Sanborn Phillips, Viola Roseboro, Lincoln Steffens, and Ray Stannard Baker.
The first few chapters highlight how different McClure and Tarbell were: McClure was 5’6 to Tarbell’s 6 feet tall; McClure came from an impoverished, working-class, immigrant Irish family while Tarbell grew up solidly middle-class with educated parents; McClure pined after the same woman for over seven years before marrying her while Tarbell never married although she had a number of male suitors in college.
A large part of Citizen Reporters is devoted to exploring McClure and Tarbell’s relationship: a professional partnership that lasted over a decade, fueled by a push-and-pull dynamic that seeped into their personal friendship.
What is most interesting is how vividly Gorton describes McClure and Tarbell’s personalities. McClure’s constant hustling and his mania, which both exhausted and inspired his friends, transpires through the pages, such as through Rudyard Kipling’s statement that “McClure is a great man but he’d kill me in a week with mere surplus” (p.94). Tarbell’s determination, undeterred focus, and poise are also evident through her own testimony and that of those who knew her.
McClure’s ingenuity and keen eye for talented writers brought contributions from authors such as Robert Louis Stevenson, J. M. Barrie, Rudyard Kipling, and Mark Twain, some of whom were still up-and-coming at the time, while Tarbell’s writings on Napoleon Bonaparte and Abraham Lincoln played a significant part in the magazine’s popularity.
Despite her own interest in historical reporting, it was Tarbell’s modern-day investigative work that cemented her legacy, including her exposé of John D. Rockefeller’s unfair and dishonest business practices in the oil industry. Tarbell had been personally affected by them during her teenage years, as her own father, an oilman in Pennsylvania, had been, like many smaller entrepreneurs, forced into bankruptcy. This weaving of Tarbell’s personal circumstances with larger-scale issues is how Gorton drives the narrative in Citizen Reporters.
Despite her own interest in historical reporting, it was Tarbell’s modern-day investigative work that cemented her legacy
A screenshot of American history that parallels today’s labor and financial crisis
Uber-wealthy business tycoons with monopolies on specific industries, heightened conflicts between workers and large-scale employers, one of the most severe financial crises in the history of the United States, the rapid and destabilizing advancement of technology, and clickbait journalism* – all these issues from the late 19th century parallel those faced today, which is one reason why Citizen Reporters is so relevant.
By intertwining Tarbell’s life with this wider overview, Gorton provides valuable historical facts sprinkled through a fascinating biographical narrative.
*Mainly presented are John D. Rockefeller, the Pullman strike, the Panic of 1893, ongoing racism and xenophobia (from anti-Irish sentiments to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the lynchings of Black people in the 1880s-90s), and what was called “yellow” journalism (sensationalist and not always fact-checked stories meant to provoke emotional reactions)
Uber-wealthy business tycoons with monopolies, such as Rockefeller and his Standard Oil Company, were exposed in McClure’s
Singleness and childlessness in the lives of women writers
As my own interest lies in women’s history, especially the stories of women who had no children, I was especially partial to the bits and pieces of women’s history presented within the book.
Gorton offers a nuanced portrait of Ida Tarbell and her contradictions: an educated, unmarried, and independent woman who was at the forefront of a male-dominated field yet, somehow, opposed women’s suffrage (as did her contemporaries Viola Roseboro and Jeannette Gilder).
Throughout the book, Tarbell’s intentions to remain unmarried is made clear: “I must be free; and to be free I must be a spinster. When I was fourteen I was praying God on my knees to keep me from marriage” (p.25). Seemingly, part of her decision to stay away from romantic relationships with men was to limit the sexism she already faced as a woman. It definitely allowed her to devote herself to her work, her career, and her travels.
Not surprisingly, a number of Tarbell’s contemporaries mentioned throughout the book – especially writers – were also single or without children:
Citizen Reporters is a well-written, well-paced, and entertaining read. It will please both the general public and those already familiar with the history of American journalism. As a sort of dual biography of S.S. McClure and Ida Tarbell, it can reach a diverse group of readers: those interested in political figures (the dynamic between the magazine and Theodore Roosevelt, before and during his presidency is explored in later chapters), American history, women’s history, and the powerful link between social and labor movements and the press.
Citizen Reporters: S.S. McClure, Ida Tarbell, and the Magazine That Rewrote America, by Stephanie Gorton (2020) – Available for purchase here