Author: Doris Kearns Goodwin
Genre: Nonfiction/Biography/U.S. History
Simon & Schuster
Published: November 2013
Number of Pages: 910
This is a multi-person biography which mostly focuses on the lives and presidencies of Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft. However, although Roosevelt and Taft had a famous friendship/falling out, theirs are only parts of the story. Goodwin points out that the effectiveness of both presidencies were influenced heavily by journalists of the day. For this reason, she also details the lives of the premiere muckrakers of the day including S.S. McClure, Ida Tarbell, Ray Standard Baker, Lincoln Steffens, and William Allen White. (I would just like to say that Ida Tarbell is my new hero.)
Author: Mark Helprin
Genre: Literary Fiction/Fantasy
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich
Published: September 1983
Number of Pages: 672
This is a difficult book to describe. On the one hand it basically boils down to a 600 page love letter to New York City, except I wouldn’t say that this book is set in “real” NYC. It’s more of a slightly fantastic, but still sort of realistic version of the city. It takes place in the early 1900s, but it also takes place right before “the new millennium” (A.K.A. 1999) even though the novel was published in 1983. It involves a magic horse, a silver salver, and an orphan raised by Marsh People, monks, and the city itself. All-in-all it is a very dizzying yet diverting read.
The Ties That Bind
So what do these very different books have in common?
Both works chronicle the lives and ambitions of a group of journalists brought together by common goals as well as a generous and eccentric employer.
The real-life muckrakers were staff writers for McClure’s Magazine under founder Samuel McClure. In fact, McClure was among the first to even have such a thing as a “staff writer.” Such employees would be guaranteed a salary and a generous expense account, even if a single piece took several months to write. This radical strategy allowed the magazine to showcase well-researched, high-quality work. The result was several series of ground-breaking exposés on such industrial giants as Standard Oil and the United States Steel Corporation.
More than just a productive work environment, McClure’s Magazine was a supportive community for its members. Kearns Goodwin describes them as spending ample time together both during and after work hours and as supporting each other’s work. Ida Tarbell, the “mother hen” of the group, was a particularly integral piece of this tight-knit community and often helped keep the peace between the brilliant but eccentric Samuel McClure and his staff. How unusual was Samuel McClure? “It was said in the office ‘that Sam had three hundred ideas a minute, but only JSP [his friend and chief editor] knew which one was not crazy’ ” (Kearns Goodwin 179).
The employees of Helprin’s fictional newspaper The New York Evening Sun/The New York Morning Whale (known collectively as “The Sun”) represent a very similar group. The Sun is headed by Harry Penn, who eventually inherited the business from his father. That being said, Harry worked his way up through the company, having started as a copy boy at age 10. Like McClure’s, The Sun provides its employees with a generous salary and throws in a sufficient benefit package to boot. In addition, all profits are shared in the fashion of a whale ship. This means that based on rank, seniority, and merit, all employees receive a portion of the profits from newspaper sales, encouraging everyone to produce high-quality work.
Also like McClure’s, The Sun’s employees are great friends and support each other both during and after work hours. In fact, there is a tendency, when meeting a new friend, to hire him or her to work for the newspaper in some way that utilizes that person’s talents—whether those talents involve writing, drawing, engineering, or even navigating watercraft. The Sun involves itself with politics as well, but you’ll have to read the book if you want details because it would give too much away if I said anything else about it here. As for an eccentric leader, we first meet Harry Penn when he is a still a kid. By the time we catch up with Harry in the late 90’s, he has clearly lived a full life and is somewhere around 100 years old. A certain event takes place late in the novel which brings Harry’s eccentricities out in full force.
The two groups of journalists resemble each other so much, in fact, that I can’t help but wonder if Mark Helprin may have based his fictional writers at least in part on the real-life muckrakers of McClure’s Magazine.
The Kill Order by James Dashner and The Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan