The Pen Is Mightier: The Muckraking Life Of Charles Edward Russell
By Robert Miraldi
Palgrave Macmillan, 352 pages, $35.
* * *
When Robert Miraldi was looking at microfilm at the Tamiment Library at New York University some years ago, he was surprised by what came up on a nearby scholar’s screen: a large photograph of Charles Edward Russell, the Christian muckraker, surrounded by Yiddish headlines. It was the front page of Abraham Cahan’s Forverts, The Jewish Daily Forward.
Miraldi, a journalism professor at the State University of New York at New Paltz, need not have been surprised. Cahan’s paper covered the fiery journalist extensively, especially when Russell came “out from behind the pen” and ran as the Socialist Party candidate for mayor of New York City, for United States Senator from New York and twice for governor. Moreover, Russell, born in 1860, the same year as Cahan, was, like the Forward editor, a pervasive figure in the world of reform and one who deserves to be included in any analysis of social justice, crusading journalism and progressive politics in the first half of the 20th century.
Now Russell finally has his biographer, and a worthy one. Miraldi’s book is the first extensive look at one of the most prolific and controversial of the muckrakers who, along with a number of more famous writers like Ida Tarbell, Lincoln Steffens and Upton Sinclair, practiced exposé journalism in the years before World War I. “The Pen Is Mightier” provides fresh material and perspective on Russell’s successful uncovering of the slum real estate holdings of New York’s Trinity Church, one of the world’s richest religious institutions. There are equally insightful sections on Russell’s attack on the meatpacking monopoly, an attack that helped lead to federal regulation; on his condemnation of the railroad moguls, the steel and oil magnates and other exploitative corporate complicities, which led to demands for reform legislation, and on his key role (along with Jewish progressives Joel and Arthur Spingarn, who go unmentioned by Miraldi) in the founding of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
One of the consistent themes of the book is Russell’s continuous struggle with questions about human nature and whether a system of economic organization that encouraged mutual aid over competition could ameliorate social problems. Russell’s most important concerns, like Ab. Cahan’s, were poverty, “lawless wealth,” social conditions in urban America (especially housing) and the possibilities for a “cooperative commonwealth.” Russell and Cahan not only had similar views, they were friends. One of the few socialists to support the American effort during World War I, Russell traveled to Russia in 1917 as one of President Wilson’s emissaries to convince the new revolutionary leaders to stay in the struggle against Germany. Despite their ambivalence toward the war, Cahan and others –– including Jewish socialist Rose Pastor Stokes — gave Russell letters of introduction to Jews living in Russia.
When frustrated, this scion of Midwestern abolitionists and evangelical Protestant ministers would label anti-war socialists trouble-making “Russian Jews from New York” and refer to those in the Socialist Party who disagreed with him as men “with unpronounceable names and… tangled dialect[s].” But he was the opposite of antisemitic. Indeed, Jewish history and the tribulations of European Jews would be Russell’s last great interest and cause. In 1926 he wrote a biography of Haym Salomon, the young Polish Jew living in America who was active in raising funds for the American Revolution and who narrowly escaped execution at the hands of Tories. In his rise from indigent refugee to esteemed businessman, philanthropist, American patriot and defender of the Jewish people, Salomon was portrayed by Russell as a hero and a role model who fought courageously against oppression and injustice in many forms.
Especially after 1932, Russell also feared for the fate of Jews worldwide. In the early 1930s Russell helped found and became president of the Pro-Palestine League of America, a Christian organization that advocated the establishment of a homeland for Jews in the Middle East. He publicly admonished England for the difficulties it placed on Jews who were trying to enter Palestine to escape German persecution. For his efforts Russell was hailed as “the foremost Christian champion of the Zionist cause” by several Jewish leaders, including Edmund I. Kaufman, chairman of the Kay jewelry store chain and a prominent Jewish philanthropist and fundraiser for the Jewish Diaspora and the yishuv. Nor did it end there. In 1939, paying passionate attention to a problem about which most were unaware or purposely ignorant, he wrote that “Millions of our fellow beings in Central and Eastern Europe are undergoing extermination by the most cruel means of death. What answer is civilization to make?” He urged Americans to “stand and protest” against the inhuman “ferocity” of the Nazis. After all, he noted in one speech, “The Jews are the only world family.”
After the outbreak of World War II, however, it was difficult for Russell to remain hopeful. Thinking of Adolf Hitler, German aggression and the potential annihilation of the Jews of Europe, Russell wrote as part of a poem: “The sadness of the world oppresses me like somber sounding moanings of the sea.” But perhaps the words of Jewish-American novelist Fannie Hurst, in a 1939 letter to Russell, buoyed him some:
Gerald Sorin is director of Jewish studies at the State University of New York at New Paltz. An excerpt from his biography “Irving Howe: A Life of Passionate Dissent” (New York University) appeared in the November 22, 2002, issue of the Forward.