David Graham Phillips, the author in question, had just been christened by H. L. Mencken as “the leading American novelist.” Now largely forgotten, he was a star of the first decade of the 20th century, a sort of Progressive Era Tom Wolfe — right down to his white suits that set him apart in the newspaper offices where he first made his mark.
Like Wolfe, Phillips was a biting social critic who used his journalistic renown to mount a successful fiction career, churning out some two dozen page-turning novels that wrapped exposés of the worlds of insurance, finance and politics into tales of romantic love. And like Wolfe, who laid out his complaints in the much debated 1989 essay “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast,” Phillips believed that too many American novels were “largely imitative of ideals and methods that are narrow and that are totally inadequate as a description of life as it is in America today,” and instead set out, as The Saturday Evening Post put it, to “master” America, “to learn her by heart, inspired by the task of expressing and interpreting her.”
As a journalist, Phillips was the quintessential crusader. In 1906, he wrote a famous series of articles on several United States senators who he alleged (in language “longer on adjectives than facts,” Upton Sinclair said) were corrupted by the likes of Rockefeller, Vanderbilt and Carnegie. The series inspired President Theodore Roosevelt to attack Phillips as “The Man With the Muck Rake” in a speech at the Gridiron Club, introducing the term “muckraker” into the language. (In a private letter, Roosevelt went further, calling Phillips a “foul-mouthed coarse blackguard.”) The articles, for which Phillips was paid handsomely by William Randolph Hearst’s Cosmopolitan magazine, helped secure the passage of the 17th Amendment, which, to the lament of some Tea Partiers today, ended the role of state legislatures in selecting senators.
But in Fitzhugh Coyle Goldsborough, Phillips found an enemy even more formidable than Roosevelt. Goldsborough hailed from the gilded aristocracy that Phillips regarded as so destructive to America. The Goldsboroughs of Maryland were venerable. An ancestor was a delegate to the Continental Congress who just missed out being a signer of the Declaration of Independence. Another was a commander in the War of 1812 who later became a senator. Fitzhugh’s father, a doctor and Civil War veteran, relocated the family to Washington, D.C., where Fitzhugh was raised in a home a few blocks from the White House.
Monday, January 17, 2011
David Graham Phillips in the New York Times
I'm updating the David Graham Phillips page to include a link to a (rare) New York Times article on the author. Excerpts: