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April 14, 1906
Upton Sinclair, John Bunyan
"Comes the Muckrake Man"
by Steve King

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On this day in 1906 President Roosevelt made his famous speech labeling as "muckrakers" the new breed of investigative writers -- Ida Tarbell (Standard Oil), Lincoln Steffens (municipal politics), David Graham Phillips (Senate politics), Ray Stannard Baker (treatment of minorities), Samuel Hopkins Adams (patent medicines), Upton Sinclair (his novel The Jungle condemned the meat industry), and others. In his speech, Roosevelt gave full credit to his inspiration:
    In Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress you may recall the description of the Man with the Muck-rake, the man who could look no way but downward, with the muck-rake in his hand; who was offered a celestial crown for his muck-rake, but who would neither look up nor regard the crown he was offered, but continued to rake himself the filth of the floor.... Now it is very necessary that we should not flinch from seeing what is vile and debasing. There is filth on the floor, and it must be scraped up with the muck-rake: and there are times and places where this service is the most needed of all the services that can be performed. But the man who never does anything else, who never thinks or speaks or writes save of his feats with the muck-rake, speedily becomes, not a help to society, not an incitement to good, but one of the most potent forces for evil.
Many in the group took offense that Roosevelt would dismiss their reformist aims with such an allusion. Sinclair looked upon the label as a compliment, if not the designation a new category of superhero:
    He knows of many things he would like to do and to be, many ways in which he could amuse himself. And yet instead of this, he begins to go about pointing out disagreeable truths to people. He says: "See, we are just like Rome. Our legislatures are corrupt; our politicians are unprincipled; our rich men are ambitious and unscrupulous. Our newspapers have been purchased and gagged...." This has been said in our country for a generation. Abraham Lincoln said it, for one. All earnest students knew it. But the public merely laughed incredulously. And then comes the Muckrake Man....
In The Profits of Religion, Sinclair muckrakes those later Bunyans who had given evangelicalism a bad name, though a good profit. In chapter one we are presented with the endless variants of the Church of Bootstrap-Lifting, which exhorts the believer to better effort while it picks his pocket:
    There are Yogi Bootstrap-lifters with flowing robes of yellow silk; Theosophist Bootstrap-lifters with green and purple auras; Mormon Bootstrap-lifters, Mazdaznan Bootstrap-lifters, Spiritualist and Spirit-Fruit, Millerite and Dowieite, Holy Roller and Holy Jumper, Comd-to-glory Negro, Billy Sunday base-ball and Salvation Army bassdrum Bootstrap-lifters. There are the thousand varieties of "New Thought" Bootstrap-lifters; the mystic and transcendentalist, Swedenborgian and Jacob Boehme Bootstrap- lifters; the Elbert Hubbard high-art Bootstrap-lifters with half a million magazinelets at two bits apiece.... There are the Platonist and Hegelian and Kantian professors of collegiate metaphysical Bootstrap-lifting at several thousand dollars per year each. There are the Nietz-schean Bootstrap-lifters, who lift themselves to the Superman, and the art-for-art's-sake, neo-Pagan Bootstrap-lifters, who lift themselves down to the Ape....
The most celebrated muckraker of the next-generation was Jessica Mitford, most notably for her investigation of funeral scamming and silliness in The American Way of Death. This was written in 1963; when Sinclair died in 1968 he would have had available to him the low-cost "Jessica Mitford Casket," created by one coffin manufacturer-reader in response to Mitford's book.

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Related authors:  H. L. Mencken, John Bunyan, Thomas Cranmer, Upton Sinclair
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