Journalism in the History and Theory of Writing
2006 SAMLA Convention
Charlotte, NC
10-12 November

Jennifer Louise Young
Tulane University and University of Montevallo


“This Is Not a Book”:
Fictional Techniques in Lincoln Steffens's Exposé The Shame of the Cities


Do not cite without permission of the author.


In 1904 Lincoln Steffens, a renowned journalist most famous for his exposés of American municipal corruption, collected a number of articles originally published between 1902 and 1903 under the title The Shame of the Cities . In his introduction he asserts, “This is not a book. It is a collection of articles reprinted from McClure's Magazine . Done as journalism, they are journalism still, and no further pretensions are set up for them in their new dress” (Steffens, Shame 3). In his insistence that his book of collected articles is not really a “book,” Steffens reveals a cultural distinction between journalism and books; journalism is purely informative, for the reader's and the public's edification and enlightenment, while books suggest something other than journalism, something more entertaining, more polished, more crafted. In spite of his assertions, we find evidence of literary craft in his journalism.

Phyllis Frus acknowledges the blurred historical relationship between journalism and literature in The Politics and Poetics of Journalistic Narrative , but she resists the consequences of suggesting certain techniques are “literary” while others are not for real political reasons. Nevertheless, these distinctions remain a part of our textual discourse. They also differentiate texts for authors, and such generic characteristics certainly did so for authors during the muckraking era of the early 20 th century. As such, while there are consequences for continuing to rely on formalist generic distinctions, there is a degree to which considering a text in its contexts demands this. Such is true among the muckrakers who wrote in and for a culture that sought to make clear distinctions between fiction and fact, high and low, literature and journalism. When we notice generic hybridity among such texts, in fairness to the authors as authors in a particular moment, we must and should consider how the lines between genres are blurred and what rhetorical impulses prompt this. Further, we must consider what the use of “literary” techniques in journalism suggests about the author's assumptions about his work and his audience.

In his documentary non-fiction journalism, Steffens uses several techniques typically associated with fiction to present his evidence of wide-spread corruption in several American cities. Among the fictional techniques he uses, he makes most frequent use of dialogue to recount information conveyed in conversation, of character development to connect readers to key players in the various cities, and of rising action to build suspense. The result is a text that incorporates both fictional and non-fictional literary techniques, creating a hybrid genre that merits recognition as such. Steffens's unconventional reliance fictional techniques in his non-fiction journalism may indicate his sense of his audience's desire not just for information, but also for entertainment. His disavowal of his text as a “book,” however, indicates his own resistance to the reality that his work—serious and important—must also be marketable in its appeal to a broad readership. Further, he notes in his introduction to the collection that his intention is “to move and to convince” (Steffens, Shame 18) his readership of the severity of the corruption he has witnessed and of the need for change by American citizens to serve their own interests. His investigation is not objective in its direction or intent, and his appeal is emotional. This need to engage his readers emotionally opens the door to the use of literary devices typical of fiction in an otherwise non-fictional documentary text.

Before considering Steffens's text, however, it helps to have a sense of McClure's as a magazine. As Frank Luther Mott notes in A History of American Magazines: 1885-1905 , from its inception in 1893, Samuel S. McClure and his partner John S. Phillips sought to publish a magazine financially available to a large readership. Such “cheap class periodicals” were marked not only by their inexpensive list and subscription prices, but also by copious illustrations. The latter was feasible due to the new development of halftone engravings, and the former was hoped for in part by the wide use of previously published materials. Although the magazine did not succeed entirely in its originally conceived shape during the difficult years of the mid-1890s, McClure's did enjoy increasing success (Mott 589-590). By 1900 it boasted a circulation of 370,000; as a general monthly magazine McClure's was second only to Munsey's (Mott 596). Mott notes that the magazine also enjoyed a reputation for its “fresh and challenging quality: it was alive” (595). This may have been due to the many writers and editors McClure and Phillips culled from the ranks of newspapermen, including Lincoln Steffens, who themselves had a sense of and an attachment to the issues related to the “current scene and ‘the edge of the future'” (Mott 596). McClure sought such freshness as he discovered new writers and new topics for his magazine, though he insisted that McClure's ultimate reputation as a muckraking magazine was incidental. Mott notes that “Sam McClure was no single-minded reformer. He was primarily a magazine-maker” (597), and when he had his writers pursue exposés, he did so “because he thought his readers would be interested in such revelations, and excited by them” (598). With excitement and entertainment as McClure's Magazine 's primary goal, we should not be surprised that literary techniques more associated with fiction find their way into the journalistic prose of the magazine's former newspapermen.

The first article in what would become a series was originally commissioned by Steffens as an article written by St. Louis newspapermen, Claude H. Wetmore, but, according to Steffens's Autobiograph y, he felt that Wetmore, in his need to live and work in the city, had “left out some salient facts […,] had spared some very conspicuous characters […, and] had ‘gone easy' on the boss” (372). Steffens wanted Wetmore to include these facts, so to ease Wetmore's anxiety about the repercussions, Steffens offered to sign the article as co-author (Steffens, Autobiography 373). In his introduction to The Shame of the Cities , Steffens explains the presence of two separate articles on St. Louis in light of his collaboration with Wetmore. In spite of his co-authorship on the first article, the St. Louis story felt incomplete, so while “Tweed Days in St. Louis” presents evidence of extensive boodling (acceptance of bribe money by public officials) in the city and “The Shamelessness of St. Louis” largely repeats the information, Steffens argues that the second article, which he wrote alone, deals not only with the boodlers, but also with the degree to which the citizens of St. Louis are complicit in municipal corruption because of their passive acceptance of it ( Shame 14). Given Steffens's inclusion of “Tweed Days in St. Louis ” in The Shame of the Cities in spite of the co-authorship and the repeated content, we can accept it as his work and as a legitimate part of the complete text.

Although Steffens relies heavily on documentary techniques and long sections of straight-forward reportage, he incorporates brief sections of dialogue in his accounts of corruption in several major American cities. “Tweed Days in St. Louis ” reports the extensive corruption in the Municipal Assembly, the city's two-house government system made up of the Council and the House of Delegates (Steffens, Shame 109). Steffens recounts a conversation about bribery that “[a] newspaper reporter overheard… one evening in the corridor of the City Hall” ( Shame 35). The conversation, written in the format of a dialogue, follows:

“Ah there, my boodler!” said Mr. Delegate.

“Stay there, my grafter!” replied Mr. Councilman. “Can you lend me a hundred for a day or two?”

“Not at present. But I can spare it if the Z--- bill goes through to-night. Meet me at F---‘s later.”

“All right, my jailbird; I'll be there.” (Steffens, Shame 36)

This lively exchange does not implicate the specific city leaders, but it makes great show of their playful recognition of their participation in illicit government affairs. They jokingly call each other boodler and grafter—going terms for those involved in political bribery--and make no secret of their activities with regard to the passage of particular bills. If a certain bill is passed, Mr. Delegate will be able to float a significant personal loan of $100, presumably because when that bill is passed, he will be paid a share of the bribe money associated with the bill. The politicians recognize the illegality of their behavior, but it is a game to them—there is very little risk at this point in the history of St. Louis city politics that they will be held accountable for their acceptance of bribes.

Steffens could have presented this information less directly, simply from the standpoint of one reporter relaying information he'd received from another, perhaps Wetmore himself. But he presents the overheard conversation via a literary technique more typically associated with fiction—dialogue. In doing so he affords the reader a number of opportunities. First, the reader is privy to political dirty laundry because the writer allows the audience to eavesdrop on or overhear the conversation just as the newspaperman did before recounting the story to Steffens. Giving the reader access to a private conversation provides an entertaining experience of salaciousness and shock. And beyond the disdain the reader can and should feel that the people's trust is so abused, there is also a level of humor in the exchange. The reader cannot believe what is said, even as it is “heard” in the text. Second, the dialogue livens up the text by introducing other voices than Steffens's in a text dominated by long paragraphs recounting information culled from his investigations. Finally, the snippet of conversation between the unnamed city leaders not only reveals corruption and varies the textual format, it also suggests a level of verisimilitude. While Steffens's reader does not overhear the banter between the councilman and the delegate, and indeed, neither does Steffens, his incorporation of the information as a dialogue gives a sense of immediacy and reality that today we can equate with dramatizations or recreations of events typical in the “reality” television genre. Each reason helps to explain Steffens's incorporation of the fictional technique of dialogue in his non-fictional text.

In addition to incorporating snippets of dialogue into his journalism, Steffens also frequently uses the literary device of character development in his investigative report. In “ Pittsburg : A City Ashamed,” Steffens spends significant time setting up the nature of the city's corruption by recounting the rise and reign of its original boss, the late Christopher L. Magee. Steffens begins that “'Chris,' as he was called, was a charming character” ( Shame 150). While the expression that Magee was a “character” primarily suggests one possessed of a singular personality, we cannot ignore the term's implications when Steffens follows this comment with what can only be considered a “character development” of Magee in the fictional sense, as a character in Pittsburg's municipal history and as a character in Steffens's narrative account of that city's corruption. After indicating the need to treat Magee's character, in both senses of the word, with care—in spite of his activities, he remains a beloved Pittsburg son (Steffens, Shame 151)—Steffens introduces Magee in light of his pedigree and his embodiment of popular American myths:

Magee was an American. His paternal great-grandfather served in the Revolution, and settled in Pittsburg at the close of the war. Christopher was born on Good Friday, April 14, 1848. He was sent to school till he was fifteen years old. Then his father died, and “Squire” or “Tommy” Steele, his uncle, a boss of that day, gave him his start in life with a place in the City Treasury. When just twenty-one, he made him cashier, and two years later Chris had himself elected City Treasurer […].

[…] Magee was tall, strong, and gracefully built. His hair was dark till it turned gray, then his short mustache and his eyebrows held black, and his face expressed easily sure power and genial, hearty kindness. ( Shame 151-152)

In the space of two paragraphs Steffens conveys Magee's native American pedigree in a nation suspicious of immigrants, his symbolically powerful birth, his relatively common education, his ambition, and his good looks—all traits which speak to his democratic roots and his exceptional talent; Magee is both an American everyman and the picture of American exceptionalism. Steffens paints this portrait and others to engage his readers in the tale's key players. These people are not simply names in a litany of grafters, bosses, and reformers; they are real, living, breathing people. The articles, then, are not simply journalistic narratives of corruption; they are lives woven together by fate in much the way fictional characters' lives are woven together by the writer's craft. Here Steffens crafts “real life” to fit a familiar formula that enables him to connect with his readers intellectually and emotionally. Mott notes an intense interest among readers in the 19 th and early 20 th centuries for biography, and the particular interest that McClure's took in presenting “great personalities” (592-593). Characters like Magee matter to the reader, and Steffens capitalizes on his knowledge of his reader while satisfying his own journalistic goals. What may be most of note in Steffens's development of Chris Magee as a character, however, is that this highly likeable man is in fact a villain in Steffens's story. We can't help but like him, but we are not supposed to root for him.

This, too, is part of Steffens's literary craft in his insistently journalistic text. In the process of developing characters in his reports of corruption in major American cities, Steffens also employs the plot element of rising action to build suspense in the narrative. The corruption in each of the cities is largely a matter of common knowledge and public record (Steffens, Shame 18), yet Steffens creates a sense of drama as he relates the path from corruption to revelation, and to reform or at least the hope thereof. In “Tweed Days in St. Louis ,” Steffens recounts the election of Joseph W. Folk as the Circuit Attorney on the Democratic machine's pseudo-reform ticket. Folk is decidedly uninterested in holding such an office given his own successful legal practice (Steffens, Shame 38). After several refusals on his part he finally agrees to the nomination, but he notes, “[I]f elected, I will do my duty. There must be no attempt to influence my actions when I am called upon to punish lawbreakers” (Steffens, Shame 38). As the situation unfolds in St. Louis , Folk emerges as the people's champion even when the people have no interest in cleaning up City Hall; he accepts his duty and takes it more seriously than any, Democrat or Republican, would have expected or wanted.

Folk, whose name carries such symbolic weight, emerges as Steffens's hero, and Folk's efforts to call the boodlers to justice increase in drama as he faces obstacle after obstacle. His character is his most powerful weapon. When Folk initially has difficulty tracing evidence of corruption to specific individuals, Steffens comments that “he says he saw here and there puffs of smoke and he determined to find the fire. It was not an easy job. […] Mr. Folk began with nothing but courage and a strong personal conviction” ( Shame 41). Folk's conviction is put to the test as he surmounts the obstacles blocking his indictments and trials of important and powerful city businessmen, including ultimately the boss himself, Colonel Edward R. Butler. Steffens describes Folk's steady preparation for his cases: “Mr. Folk is a man of remarkable equanimity. When he has laid a course, he steers by it truly, and nothing can excite or divert him. He had said he would ‘do his duty,' not that he would expose corruptions or reform St. Louis ; and beyond watching developments, he did nothing for a year to answer the public challenge. But he was making preparations” ( Shame 122-123). This patient preparation gives the reader further insight into Folk's character, but it also gives the reader a sense of the conflict brewing. With Folk portrayed in such noble, steady terms, the reader views Folk not only as a hero, but as the figure for whom we ought to cheer, even when faced with other appealing “characters” among the bosses and boodlers.

Steffens heightens the sense of rising action not only with the inclusion of repeated comments on the hero's steady determination, whether in St. Louis or any of the other cities, but also with punctuating crisis moments leading up to the ultimate showdown. As such, Folk's strength and heroism is again illustrated when he convinces two of the lesser St. Louis boodlers to turn state's evidence. After receiving a summons from Folk that leads him to believe that “the boodlers had ‘squealed,'” Philip H. Stock, a leading businessman, “fainted” (Steffens, Shame 124). Using this response as a strong suggestion of “weakness and guilt” on Stock's part and that of Charles H. Turner, another suspect and important businessman, Folk meets with their lawyer and “boldly [gives] him the choice for his clients of being witnesses or defendants” (Steffens, Shame 124). To the lawyer's surprise, his clients choose to be witnesses, furthering Folk's large scale offensive against both politicians and businessmen for their roles in a boodling scheme related to street railway contracts.

While Steffens could have simply stated that Folk convinces the men to turn state's evidence, instead he opts to intensify the scene, painting it in detail and making his reader wait for the conclusion just as Folk and the suspects' attorney wait. By building the reader's anticipation and heightening the suspense of the moment, Steffens employs a literary technique more common in fictional texts than in non-fiction journalism. Steffens engages his reader by employing devices that at once excite and entertain his readers while still serving his journalistic purpose to report the facts—that Folk successfully turns two suspects to serve the people's legal purposes.

When Lincoln Steffens introduces The Shame of the Cities , he insists that his text is not a “book” but is “journalism still.” His insistence of a distinction suggests several things, including his own distinction between the genres of fiction (a book) and non-fiction (journalism). Of course, The Shame of the Cities is literally a book, so Steffens's remark calls for further consideration, especially when the reader identifies several techniques more typically associated with fiction than with non-fiction, particularly the incorporation of snippets of dialogue in otherwise straight-forward reportage, the development of character to paint portraits of key players, both heroes and villains, and the generation of suspense as the histories of corruption reach points of accountability. Even when Steffens's reader knows the outcome of a situation because Steffens has already revealed it, the reader is drawn in by the literary devices typically associated with fiction that Steffens employs as he reports the details of each city's shame. Steffens's decision to employ these techniques illuminate his stated intent “to move and to convince” his readers not that American civil government and business is corrupt, but that Americans must take action against such corruption in order to serve their own interests rather than allowing the politicians and businessmen to profit at the American citizen's expense. By relying on fictional literary devices, Steffens engages his readers not only intellectually, but also emotionally; this is how he means to move them. Further, his use of fictional literary devices indicates a recognition of or acquiescence to the reality that his work must be marketable, and as such it must entertain as well as inform. Although he views himself first and best as a journalist, Steffens also needs to sell copy; he's got to make the reader want to keep reading. By sprinkling his documentary prose with more “lively” literary devices intentionally or unconsciously, he achieves this, reaching a wider audience that helps to sustain the magazine and his own career.

Steffens is not unique among the writers known collectively as muckrakers in blurring the traditional generic lines between journalism and fiction. His contemporary journalists writing non-fiction, like Ida Tarbell, Jacob Riis, and Ray Stannard Baker, and novelists writing fiction, like Upton Sinclair and Theodore Dreiser, share Steffens's generic blurring as well as his lack of awareness of the generic hybridity of his work. The journalists employ many of the techniques that Steffens incorporates into The Shame of the Cities . The novelists, however, incorporate techniques in their fictional texts that are more typical of documentary non-fiction, like references to actual laws and the inclusion of real people and events. The result is a collection of texts that bears further consideration across the lines of conventional generic distinctions and that reveals cultural concerns among writers and readers during the muckraking era and beyond.

Works Cited


Frus, Phyllis. The Politics and Poetics of Journalistic Narrative . Cambridge : Cambridge UP, 1994.

Mott, Frank Luther. A History of American Magazines, 1885-1905 . Cambridge : Harvard UP, 1957.

Steffens, Lincoln. The Autobiography of Lincoln Steffens . New York : Harcourt, Brace, 1931.

---. The Shame of the Cities . New York : McClure, Phillips, 1904.