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date: 01 October 2020

Summary and Keywords

The forerunners of modern investigative journalism emerged during the US Progressive Era Presidency of Theodore Roosevelt and became known as the muckrakers, a badge of shame they often wore with honor. Finding venues in the popular mass magazines of the early 20th century—such as Collier’s, Cosmopolitan, and McClure’s—and in more overtly populist, socialist publications, such as the Appeal to Reason, that also had considerable readerships, these writers railed against corporate greed, political corruption, and to a lesser degree race discrimination (their race investigations seldom challenged Jim Crow or Mexican- and Chinese-Exclusion). Muckrakers’ value-driven investigations often clashed with the purported professional objectivity of the day’s more politically beholden mainstream journalists. Ironically, Upton Sinclair—who began as a romantic-minded novelist and never quite worked as a journalist, properly speaking—became the most famous among them. Sinclair’s investigation into the meatpacking industry, which brought him to fame as their exemplar, began as an assignment for the Appeal, before it developed into a novel, The Jungle. He had narrated it to move readers to socialism. Instead, it provoked Roosevelt to pass the Pure Food and Drug Act. Ignoring the disdain of high literary circles, Sinclair went on to self-publish a staggering number of reform-driven novels, book-length essays, and pamphlets grounded in evidence-based critiques of every conceivable injustice. He sold them directly, democratically, and cheaply to huge and growing audiences throughout his lifetime and became, arguably, the world’s first mass-market author. Sinclair also remains representative of the white, culturally Protestant narrative privilege that historical muckrakers tended to assume. He would rise to world prominence and would carry the muckrakers’ historical moment and movement beyond their own times, into its final connection with the more racially inclusive New Left that arose at the time of his death.

Keywords: Upton Sinclair, muckrakers, progressivism, investigative journalism, magazines-early 20th century, self-publication, socialism, social reform, Lincoln Steffens, Ida Mae Tarbell, Ray Stannard Baker, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Theodore Roosevelt

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