Thursday, February 9, 2017

Raking Up Muck: Modern Muckrakers

When muckrake came up as the word of the day on my dictionary app, I decided to take a glance at it even though I knew the meaning. What I found got me to thinking more about words and the role they play in our culture and literature.

Call me crazy, but I like to study words, and it is safe to say I am not the only one. In fact, you can even get a degree in linguistics or etymology, the study of words. I am not that diehard, but I do like to study the meaning of words, as well as where they originated, how they evolved, and if they are still in use. It is fascinating when words take on different meanings or are virtually eradicated from discourse. Yet, it is particularly noteworthy when words continue to be prominent in our culture despite the passage of time.

One such example of a word still in fashion is muckrake, which was first used in 1678 with John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress. In this instance, the word was used in the noun form, which is a tool for raking up muck, such as dirt, waste, or waste matter (i.e. manure). Bunyan, however, used the tool as a symbol for the carnal mind, or rather lust. Eventually, the symbol took on the broader concept of the pursuit of wordly gain.

When Upton Sinclair wrote The Jungle in 1906, the term shifted to the verb form, meaning "to search for and expose real or alleged corruption, scandal, or the like, especially in politics" ( As you may recall from studying this piece, "Sinclair's interests were political rather than literary," and thus, Sinclair, and others, were called muckrakers "because by exposing social evils they were raking up muck, or dirt" (Holt et. al 522).

Later in 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt gave his infamous speech "The Man with the Muck-Rake" with the intent to discredit yellow journalism, claiming it ruined the reputation of honest people. However, many in the industry took the muckraker title as a badge of honor and associated it with investigative journalism.

I am fairly certain that by the time John Steinbeck wrote The Grapes of Wrath in 1939, the American populace had grown accustomed to the practice of raking up dirt and publishing it in newspapers, books, etc. Nonetheless, many critics took great umbrage with Steinbeck for exposing corruption and placing him in the ranks with other muckrakers. Though I doubt Steinbeck cared much about this label one way or the other, he remains in the top tier of famous muckrakers in America.

My question for all of you is how is the term muckrake applicable to today, and what evidence can you find of it? In other words, what people or organizations are searching for and exposing real or alleged corruption, scandal, or the like, especially in politics? I don't want you to merely bash a person or organization. Instead, think about the people you know, whether personally or on the public stage, and ask yourself if they would be considered a muckraker and why? What has he/she done to expose social evils by raking up dirt? What does this person have to gain or lose from doing this?

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

History through Literature

Students have heard me say how literature has taught me more about history than any textbook, so I decided to reflect on this statement a bit more.

When I was growing up, I viewed history as boring and something in the past which did not affect me. Part of this might have been because of the history teachers, but a more valid explanation might be my age, a lack of life experiences, and a limited amount of reading. (Yes, even I did not do much reading unless it was assigned, something my friends were reading, or an extremely popular book.)

As I got older, my views about history started to shift, partly because I matured, but also because I encountered literature which made me think about the past. Works like To Kill a Mockingbird and The Grapes of Wrath are only two of many works which have given me glimpses of the past and piqued my curiosity to learn more. I will admit I am still far from a history buff, but if a writer can weave a little history with a good fictional story, then I am "all in."

In fact, my love for historical fiction has expanded to include cultural or global pieces to help me grow and learn about the people and places which make up the world. Reading works like Cry, the Beloved Country or Copper Sun can show readers places they will probably never visit. Seeing these places on television or in a movie might offer some idea of what these places are like, but we all know it doesn't compare to the ability to walk in the person's shoes that reading can offer.

Readers can also learn an awful lot about Nebraska from reading pieces written by authors from here. It could be a fictional piece like My Antonia or a biographical piece like Old Jules. However, the point is if we don't read such things, then how else can we learn about these things? Much of Nebraska history is covered in elementary and middle school while the high school focuses on national or global events. 

For your blog response, I ask you to reflect on your own experiences with learning about the past and other cultures. What role has literature played in helping you grow as a reader, a person, and a learner? How do you think literature will play a role in shaping your views in the coming years and throughout your life?