The Editor: S.S. McClure

by Lynn McKeown

Sam McClure was a Scotch-Irish whirlwind who hit Knox College in the 1870s and the American publishing world in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In his time he was described as a "genius" who had a revolutionary impact on the country’s newspapers and magazines, and he was a major player in the progressive reform movement of the early 20th century U.S.

Samuel McClure (he added the middle initial later and was usually called "S.S.") was born in northern Ireland in 1857, the oldest son of parents of Scottish and French descent. His father, a carpenter, died in an accident when Sam was eight, and a year later his mother immigrated with her family to America. They lived a poverty-stricken existence on a farm in Indiana, with Sam leaving home to attend high school in Valparaiso. (Some people work their way through college — McClure also had to work his way through high school.) An uncle had attended Knox College and Sam eventually enrolled there in 1874 in the preparatory department.

While at Knox, McClure supported himself with a variety of odd jobs, ate meager meals – at times subsisting on cornmeal mush – and lived for a time in an unheated building. Still, he did well at his studies, thanks to an apparent overwhelming urge to succeed. He once wrote a thesis on "enthusiasm," a quality he apparently exhibited in abundance at this time and later. In what was to be a forecast of his later life, he created the Western College Associated Press, which provided news items for other college publications in the Midwest and was editor of the Knox Student.

During his years at Knox and after graduation, Sam carried on an up-and-down, on-again off-again, seven-year courtship with Harriet Hurd, the brilliant and attractive daughter of Professor Albert Hurd, one of the leading lights of the college and the town. (He started a small library that eventually became the Galesburg Public Library.) Professor Hurd was adamantly opposed to the idea of his daughter marrying McClure, not so much because young Sam was a poor, brash Irishman – though he was that – but rather because the professor had envisaged for his daughter a life as a single woman in scholarly pursuits.

Sam wasn’t one to give up. (After one breakup, Sam had fallen into depression and stopped eating – he never ate much anyway – until someone dragged him off to the college infirmary, where he recovered on a diet of milk toast.) His mother, who also opposed the marriage, took him on a trip back to Ireland, where she hoped he would stay and forget about Harriet, but it didn’t dissuade the irrepressible McClure.

Sam returned to the U.S. and, after many break-ups and reunions, Harriet finally accepted his proposal. Harriet had decided, as she told Sam in a letter, that if she followed her father’s plan she would be "hardly a woman at all" and she preferred being a wife and mother rather than a maiden career woman. Or maybe she suspected that life with S.S. McClure would be more exciting than a scholarly career – and that was surely the case.

The two were married in 1883 at the Hurd home in Galesburg. (Both had graduated by this time, she in 1877 and he in 1882.) The event, and the soap opera romance surrounding it, was a big topic of discussion in the town. Professor Hurd was not happy at all. At the wedding he ignored McClure completely and sat alone in a corner with his slice of wedding cake. (It was many years later before he would even allow Sam back in his house.) The professor was even more unhappy the next day to see that townspeople peeking in the window to see the ceremony had trampled his flower bed.

After his graduation, McClure had moved to the East Coast in search of a job. His first was with a bicycle manufacturer, where he became the editor of a magazine, The Wheelman, which promoted the emerging sport of bicycle riding. With characteristic "hustle" he even approached the eminent poet and essayist Oliver Wendell Holmes for a poem on cycling. When McClure at a later date asked Holmes to be interviewed for one of his journalistic schemes, a magazine feature on "immortality," Holmes wrote in reply, "I will neither be lured nor McClured into anything of the kind!" But he agreed to the interview in the end!

McClure moved from one job to another in the publishing field, never comfortable working for someone else, finally setting out on a venture of his own where his ever-restless ambition could have free reign. This new project was a literary syndicate that provided material for newspapers. At that time newspapers published fiction as well as news. McClure created a service, like some in England but new to the U.S., to provide writing by the likes of Robert Louis Stevenson, Rudyard Kipling, Thomas Hardy, Henry James, Hamlin Garland and Joel Chandler Harris, often in serialized form, to the American public.

McClure’s plans and schemes often outran practicality and fiscal responsibility, but this syndicate proved a success. The result – perhaps inevitably for a man of McClure’s restless temperament – was that he set out on a new scheme, the creation of a magazine. McClure’s Magazine was born in 1892. It became, in the words of biographer Peter Lyon, "the most exciting, the liveliest, the best illustrated, the most handsomely dressed, the most interesting, and the most profitable of an abundance of superior magazines" in the period from 1890 to 1915, "the Golden Age of the American magazine."

At the time, there were poor-quality magazines, which sold for ten cents, and magazines that offered better writers and sold for 25 or 35 cents. McClure’s innovation was to seek out the best established writers, discover talented young unknowns, and publish their writing in a magazine that sold in the lower price range.

McClure enlisted a fellow Knox College grad and best man at his wedding, John Phillips, to be assistant editor, along with another Knox classmate, Albert Brady, who became his business manager. Many former Knox classmates were to work for him over the years, including John Huston Finley, who left the presidency of Knox to join McClure’s and who later became editor-in-chief of the New York Times.

In spite of the economic Panic of 1893, the magazine eventually flourished. Part of the brilliance of McClure and his staff was the discovery of new, young American writing talent. Among these were Booth Tarkington, 0. Henry, Jack London and Frank Norris, while Willa Cather was managing editor for a time.

McClure, who was forever cooking up new schemes, also had friendships with many of the best English writers of the time. Rudyard Kipling, who lived for a while in the U.S., once wrote to McClure’s associate Frank Doubleday describing the editor’s visit to Kipling’s home: "I have a lively recollection of a winter day in Vermont when McClure’s Magazine was just being born: and for eight (or eighteen) consecutive hours that cyclone in a frockcoat whirled round our little shanty explaining, exhorting,... and prophesying. He is a great man but he’d kill me in a week with mere surplus of energy...."

By 1900 McClure’s had become very successful, with a circulation of almost 400,000. With the issue of January, 1903, however, the magazine had set out on a course that made a lasting impact on American journalism and, some might argue, on U.S. history itself. In that issue there was the first of Lincoln Steffens’ articles on corruption in U.S. cities, an installment of Ida Tarbell’s expose of Standard Oil and an article by Ray Stannard Baker on labor union violence. An editorial in the issue by McClure himself described the trio of articles as showing "The American Contempt of Law." Muckraking journalism and an era of progressive reform in America had begun in earnest.

The late nineteen and early twentieth centuries in the U.S. were times of innovative technology, economic prosperity (for some), and a degree of political turmoil. Some elements had great power. With power often comes corruption, and journalists such as Tarbell, Baker and Steffens – through the medium of many publications but most brilliantly in carefully researched McClure’s articles – exposed this corruption to the American public.

The work of the muckrakers, along with that of such "progressive" politicians as Robert LaFollette and Teddy Roosevelt, led to the curbing of the power of the trusts, cleanup of city governments, food safety legislation and other reforms. Baker had a close relationship with President Roosevelt in corruption-fighting efforts, and Steffens and McClure even met with the president at the White House on one occasion to plan what might have been a rather self—serving series on T.R. as reformer, but the articles never materialized.

Later, after some of the muckrakers began attacking U.S. Senators for unethical behavior, Roosevelt became somewhat critical. He was the one who created the term "muckraker," comparing such journalists, somewhat inaccurately, with the downward-looking "Man With a Muck—Rake" character in John Bunyan’s allegorical classic, Pilgrim’s Progess. (He privately assured McClure’s staff he wasn’t referring to them.)

Lincoln Steffens, in his Autobiography, gives a vivid picture of the McClure of this time: "Blond, smiling, enthusiastic, unreliable, he was the receiver of the ideas of his day.... He was rarely in the office. ‘I can’t sit still,’ he shouted. ‘That’s your job. I don’t see how you can do it.’..." And Steffens added that it was the job of the staff to serve as "four—wheel brakes upon the madness of McClure’s genius."

McClure eventually faced a serious problem, however. In 1906, at the height of the magazine’s success, the core of its staff, including Phillips, Baker, Tarbell and Steffens, left McClure’s to form the American Magazine. (Albert Brady had died at a young age in 1900; his brother Curtis, who took his place as business manager of the magazine, stayed with McClure at this time.)

A number of factors seem to have caused the rupture. McClure was sometimes hot—tempered, but besides that, his propensity for constantly setting out on new schemes without much regard for financial practicality, as well as his general erratic behavior, seem to have alienated many of his more down—to—earth staff. (Even his wife Harriet at one time considered committing him to an asylum.) There was also McClure’s propensity to go on extended trips, usually to Europe, leaving the others to deal with practical, financially precarious problems.

After this time, McClure’s Magazine began a gradual decline. Eventually McClure lost financial control and, though the name continued, McClure’s went downhill until its eventual death in 1930. McClure himself continued to be active and involved in a number of projects, including a quixotic voyage on a "Peace Ship" sponsored by Henry Ford in 1915 to try to end World War I in Europe.

McClure wrote several books in later years, but he wasn’t as talented at writing as the gifted people who he published in his magazine. His personal reputation suffered somewhat when, before the U.S. entered the war, he was associated with a newspaper which was pro—German and again later when he wrote giving a favorable impression of Mussolini’s Italy, where, he said, the dictator had brought civil order, and "the trains ran on time." He wasn’t the only one who misjudged the totalitarian regimes coming to power in these years.

Harriet McClure died in 1929 after 53 sometimes difficult years of a marriage in which, according to biographer Lyon, Sam "often treated her shabbily" but "had loved her deeply," and she had felt for him, as reflected in her many surviving letters, "a singularly faithful devotion."

McClure lived on for many years – in later times in a hotel room in New York City, following a daily routine in which he bought a potato and took it to an automat, where it was baked for his lunch. He spent much of his time at the Union League Club, where he pursued research projects. He seems to have lived frugally, partly from habit, partly because his financial resources were strained after many years of supporting impecunious relatives. He finally received some public recognition for his career when he was awarded the Order of Merit of the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1944.

In contrast to his earlier years of frequent transatlantic travel, McClure in later years stayed mostly at home except for some trips to commencements at Knox College, where he was a trustee. He died at the age of 92 in 1949. The Galesburg Daily Register-Mail of March 23, 1949 has a well-written obituary article by an unidentified reporter who showed a good understanding of McClure’s importance.

Sam McClure’s mortal remains were buried alongside those of Harriet in the Hurd family plot in Galesburg’s Hope Cemetery. Nearby is the grave of Professor Hurd, who, by the time of his death in 1906, had mellowed somewhat toward Sam. The McClures’ shared tombstone has Harriet’s name at the top, followed by the line "Daughter of Professor Albert Hurd" and her birth and death dates. Rather squeezed—in below are two lines with the name "Samuel S. McClure" and his dates. There is nothing under his name to indicate that here lies one of the great men of American journalism.

There was, in fact, some excitement in the Galesburg area when S.S. McClure passed away. The time of his funeral in New York and interment in Galesburg was one of extreme weather in the country’s midsection, with tornadoes in some places and torrential rains in Galesburg. Some McClure friends thought it was appropriate for a man who had been a "cyclone" in the America of his time.

The best source for an understanding of S.S. McClure is probably the well-written biography, Success Story, by Peter Lyon (1963). For the story of the magazine, see McClure’s Magazine and the Muckrakers, by Harold S. Wilson (1970). There is also much about McClure and his Knox College associates in Missionaries and Muckrakers, by Hermann Muelder (1984). McClure himself published a book entitled My Autobiography (1914) which was, depending on different accounts, "ghostwritten by" or "dictated to" Willa Cather. Autobiographies by Baker, Steffens and Tarbell, among others, have interesting reflections on McClure, who also provided the basis for fictional characters in novels by Robert Louis Stevenson and William Dean Howells. A new study by Charles Johanningsmeier, "Unmasking Willa Cather’s ‘Mortal Enemy’" (Cather Studies 5, 2003) argues that Sam and Harriet McClure were the basis for characters in a novel by Cather.