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The Harvard Man In The Kremlin Wall
February 1960 | Volume 11, Issue 2
The one remembered teacher was “Copey,” who “stimulated me to find color and strength and beauty in books and in the world, and to express it.” Professor Charles Townsend Copeland, in turn, led young Reed back to the tutelage of his father’s old friend and comrade in arms, Lincoln Steffens, who was destined to influence him more deeply than any other man for the rest of his days.
Lincoln Steffens was attracted to younger men and greatly enjoyed the influence he could exercise over them. As a topflight journalist, he was always being made an editor of some magazine or daily, yet he hated a desk and four walls and was no editor at all- except for his uncanny ability to think up assignments for himself and his love of scouting for young writers. He had gone to Harvard to ask Copeland for the names of some promising young men. Copey’s list included Lippmann, whom Steffens put on the staff of Everybody ’s, and the son of his old friend C. J. Reed, whom he got a job on the American Magazine .
Jack’s ambitions were modest: “To make a million dollars … to get married … to write his name in letters of fire against the sky.” When he confided this, “Steffens looked at me with that lovely smile: ‘You can do anything you want to,’ he said … There are two men who give me confidence in myself—Copeland and Steffens … More than any other man, Steff has influenced my mind.”
In 1911, Steffens was at the zenith of his reputation —though the foundations on which it was built were already eroded. For a few years, America had been much taken with crusades against Big Business, and against political corruption. Leading magazines vied with each other to publish exposés. Wrongly regarded as “the inventor of muckraking,” Steffens was surely its most celebrated practitioner. He contributed a unique off-beat note: liking for the crooks and grafters, and dislike for the men of his own class, the reformers to whose crusades his articles contributed.
Publicly Steffens was beginning to affirm that he admired Tammany Boss Richard Croker more than any of his enemies, and thought J. B. Dill, who had framed the New Jersey loophole laws for corporations, “one of the wisest, and, yes, about the Tightest man I ever met.” He offered President Charles William Eliot of Harvard a “course in corruption,” not to teach the young how to avoid it but how to “succeed in their professions,” whereupon President Eliot turned on his heel and walked out of the room.
Steffens was chagrined when editors would not let him turn from muckraking to didactic essays to show that “intelligence was above morality,” that there was no science nor certainty to morals, that if you “threw the grafters out” they were bound to get right back in again. He wanted to explain that it was “the system” that was corrupt, and the cure quite simple: nationalize all industry, and industry will be government, hence no longer be able to corrupt it. His valedictory in the field was fittingly entitled “An Apology for Graft,” its thesis being that “a strong man, however bad, is socially better than a weak man, however good.”
Having no patience for the sobering thought that a good fight has to be fought again and again, Steffens’ cocksure, arrogant mind cast about for a swift and simple solution. He must work out “the scientific laws of revolution” as previously he had worked out “the scientific laws of corruption.” There was a revolution going on in Mexico, but scientists “need more than a single case.” Steffens was delighted when revolution broke out in Russia in 1917, and in Italy in 1922. He made a pilgrimage to each. John Reed followed him to Mexico and Russia, but was no longer able to go on the third.
“I would like to spend the evening of my life,” Steffens wrote, “watching the morning of a new world.” It was a long evening: born twenty-one years before Reed, Steffens died sixteen vears after him. To the end, influencing and propagandizing young people in favor of revolution was his ruling passion.
As he had admired Croker and Dill, so now he admired the strong and ruthless men who were shaping, or misshaping, our age. His admiration for Lenin is too well known to require comment here. No less instructive was his apostrophe to Mussolini: It was as if the Author of all things had looked down upon this little planet of His, and seeing the physical, mental, moral confusion said: “I will have a political thunderstorm, big enough for all men to notice and not too big for them to comprehend, and through it I will shoot a blazing thunderbolt that will strike down all their foolish old principles, burn up their dead ideas, and separate the new light I am creating from the darkness men have made.” And so he formed Mussolini out of the rib of Italy.
After his “study” of three revolutions, Steffens was sure that “it is useless—it is almost wrong—to fight for the right under our system; petty reforms in politics … were impossible, unintelligent, immoral.”