In and 1901, American newspapers and periodicals were full of articles celebrating the ending of one century and the beginning of another. While most of these were self-congratulatory reviews of the material achievements of the United States in the previous century -- in population, area, industry, invention, and finance -- there was also general agreement that advances in art, literature, learning, and law had been equally notable. In the words of one American clergyman, the nineteenth century was a fascinating chapter in the story of "man's upward progress."
However inadequately these effusions depicted the actual conditions of American society, they did, nevertheless, reaffirm an image of American life in the nineteenth century. Millions of European immigrants had come to America attracted by a vision of material pros- perity and individual freedom. Genera- tions of native Americans had lived and worked in the hope that something bet- ter would happen to Americans than had happened to men in any other country. As Herbert Croly wrote in 1909, "An America which was not the land of promise, which was not informed by a prophetic outlook and a more or less constructive ideal, would not be the America bequeathed to us by our forefathers."
The material achievements which were so clearly evident as America entered the
twentieth century seemed to confirm the American's vision of a better future. Yet the growth of their cities and the upbuilding of their industrial centers, in which Americans took so much pride, was accompanied by a startling increase, not only in the aggregate wealth of the country, but in the number of large personal fortunes and, particularly, of very large corporate fortunes. This concentration of economic power, more than any other condition in American economic development, contributed to the feeling of anxiety which lay beneath the surface optimism of the speecbmaking and editorializing which marked the turn of the century. President Theodore Roosevelt, after paying abundant tribute to American business genius in his first message to Congress, acknowledged that "there is a widespread conviction in the minds of the American people that the great corporations known as trusts are in certain of their features and tendencies hurtful to the general welfare."
As a matter of fact, the great burst of self-congratulatory literature which ushered in the twentieth century was quickly followed by an even more impressive outpouring of critical literature which probed the darker phases of American civilization. So prolific was this literature of protest that the first decade of the twentieth century has been labelled "the era of the muckrakers." Such popular magazines as McClure's, Everybodys', Pearsons, Cosmopolitan, and Collier's . . .