David Graham PHILLIPS AND THE GREAT A M E R I CA N Insurance Novel
BY DANIEL D. SKWIRE
NOT MANY NOVELISTS HAVE THE COURAGE to set their work in the world of insurance. Mystery writers may use life insurance as a motive for homicide in their fiction, and an occasional writer of serious fiction may select the insurance business as the epitome of a dull and unrewarding profession. Rare is the novel,
however, that truly explores the workings of an insurance company in all its complexity.
Such was not always the case. In the early years of the 20th century, the insurance profession
was involved in scandals of the type that recently have rocked the banking and mortgage busi-nesses. Newspaper headlines trumpeted new outrages seemingly every day—from outlandish
expenses to inappropriate political influence, from extraordinary salaries to glaring nepotism, from
excessive profits to barely disguised theft. By 1906, no small number of investigative journalists had
become experts on the insurance business. And one of them, David Graham Phillips, left behind what
may be the fullest fictional treatment—albeit a harshly critical one—of the life insurance business.
A Hoosier Muckraker
David Graham Phillips was born in Indiana in 1867 and graduated from Princeton in 1887. After college, he began a career as
a journalist, first in Cincinnati and then in New York, where
he became a correspondent for the New York World as well as
a contributor to Harper’s Weekly. He published his first novel,
The Great God Success, in 1901, but ultimately made a name for
himself with investigative journalism exploring corruption in
government and on Wall Street.
In early 1906, Phillips published a series of articles
called “The Treason of the Senate” in
Cosmopolitan (then owned by William Randolph Hearst and
known for sensationalistic investigative journalism).
The articles alleged extensive corruption in the U.S.
Senate and helped spur passage of the 17th Amendment establishing the direct election of senators.
Phillips and his contemporaries, such as Ida Tarbell
and Upton Sinclair, became known as “muckrakers,”