THE readers of Mr. Frederic Hudson’s entertaining history of Journalism in the United States from 1690 to 1872 — that is, from the birth of Franklin to the death of Greeley — have learned therefrom, long since, what the modern newspaper is, how it originated, and whither it is tending. It is a common saying in England that America is governed by newspapers, — and this by way of sneer, according to the charming fashion of Englishmen. But long ago Jefferson anticipated and met this reproach, when he said, “ I would rather live in a country with newspapers and without a government, than in a country with a government but without newspapers.” The alternative is seldom presented nowadays; indeed, it has been found easier to overthrow a government at Paris, Madrid, Mexico, or Rome, than to stop a well-managed newspaper. The steam-press, the electric telegraph, the enormous development of commerce and industry in the last half-century, accompanied as they have been by the swift growth of democratic ideas and institutions, social as well as political, have given newspapers a position and a responsibility which is but imperfectly understood, even by those who have the most to do with them. Journalism has been called the Fourth Estate (though what the other three are in America, it might puzzle us to tell), and certainly it is somewhat in the attitude of the Third Estate of France, as described by the Abbé Sieyès in his brief catechism: “ What is the Third Estate? Everything. What has it hitherto been? Nothing. What, does it aspire to be? Something.” Journalism in America is something, has been nothing, and aspires to be everything. There are no limits, in the ambition of enterprising editors, to the future power of the American newspaper. It is not only to make and unmake presidents and parties, institutions and reputations; but it must regulate the minutest details of our daily lives, and be school-master, preacher, lawgiver, judge, jury, executioner, and policeman, in one grand combination. We find it intruding and interfering everywhere. It reports everything, has an espionage as universal and active as any despot ever established, and makes its comments with that species of boldness which the undiscriminating call impudence, on all that happens, or is imagined to happen or to be about to happen. It scorns to confine itself to the realm of the past and the present, but deals largely with the future. A German play represents in one of its scenes “Adam crossing the stage on his way to be created;” and much of the news gathered by our dailies is of this anticipative sort; imposing upon these active journals the necessity of contradicting on Tuesday the intelligence they have given on Monday.
Sydney Smith was fond of dating events before or after “ the invention of common-sense;” and certainly the common-sense that contrived the modern newspaper does not go back many centuries. It is traditional to speak of newspapers as first originating in Venice early in the fifteenth century; but this Venetian gazzetta (whence our gazette) was only a monthly government bulletin, and unworthy of the name of newspaper. Dr. Johnson, in his life of Addison, asserts that “ this mode of conveying cheap and easy knowledge began among us in the Civil War,”that is, in Cromwell’s time; but Cleveland, the loyal poet, affirms in his Character of a London Diurnal, that “ the original sinner of this kind was Dutch; Gallo-Belgicus the Protoplas, and the modern Mercuries but Hans en Kelders.” Fabricius, the German contemporary of Addison, gives the date of this Mercurius Gallo-Belgicus as from 1555 to 1632, and mentions that it had been collected into eighteen octavo volumes, and published at Frankfort. Carew’s Survey of Cornwall, published in 1602, quotes some news from this Flemish newspaper. Its title of Mercury was copied by the real founder of English newspapers, Marchamont Nedham, whose Mercurius Britannicus did good service against King Charles and the prelates in the early years of the Long Parliament. As Captain Nedham is not only historically but typically the first representative of the modern “ able editor,” it may be well to speak of him more at length.
Disraeli the elder (whose account of the origin of newspapers, it must be said, is very inaccurate) calls Nedham “ the great patriarch of newspaper writers, a man of versatile talents and more versatile politics; a bold adventurer, and the most successful, because the most profligate, of his tribe.” Some account of his life is given by old Anthony à Wood in his Athenæ; Oxonienses, from which we learn that he was a student of Oxford about the time that Milton was studying at Cambridge; and that, like Milton, he came afterwards to London and was a school-master there. Then he dabbled in law and was an under clerk at Gray’s Inn; afterwards “ studied physic and practised chymestry; ” and finally, he became a soldier and was known as Captain Nedham of Gray’s Inn. By this time we have got to the year 1643, when he began the publication of his weekly “ newsbook,” Mercurius Britannicus. Then, says the Tory Anthony, “ siding with the rout and scum of the people, he made them weekly sport by railing at all that was noble in his Intelligence, called Mercuries Britannicus, wherein his endeavors were to sacrifice the fame of some lord, or any person of quality, and of the king himself, to the beast with many heads.” He soon became popular, and “ whatever be wrote was deemed oracular.” In 1647, however, either because he thought the Presbyterian party were going too far, or for a worse reason, he went on his knees to King Charles, was reconciled to the royalists, and, to quote Wood again, “he soon after wrote Mercurius Pragmaticus, which, being very witty, satirical against the Presbyterians, and full of loyalty, made him known to and admired by the bravadoes and wits of those times.” He began this second newspaper in September, 1647, when the king was intriguing with Cromwell and with the Presbyterian party, to see which would offer him the best terms; he seems to have continued it till the king’s cause became hopeless; when, persuaded by Bradshaw and Speaker Lenthall, as Woods says, “ he changed his style once more in favor of the Independents.” This was early in 1649; and now he again christened his Mercury, and called it Mercuries Politicus, under which name it continued for more than ten years, and through the whole of Cromwell’s reign.
“ He was then the Goliath of the Philistines,” says Wood, “ the great champion of the late usurper; and his pen, in comparison with others, was as a weaver’s beam.” In 1659 the government ceased to make his “ weekly newsbook ” their official organ, and, on the restoration of Charles II. in 1660, Nedham fled to Holland, fearing for his life. After a while he was pardoned by the king and allowed to return, but forbidden to continue his newspaper; and, instead of him, the servile wit, Roger L'Estrange, became the official editor.
The career of Marchamont Nedham has been repeated in every generation since his day, by some able man, in every country where newspapers have flourished. His first successor was De Foe, the novelist, who began to publish his Review in 1704, and continued it through nearly the whole reign of Queen Anne, supporting sometimes one side in politics, and sometimes the other, but always with spirit, and with an eye to the good of his country. His advice to editors, based, as he says, upon his own experience, is as good now as when he wrote it: “ If a writer resolves to venture upon the dangerous precipice of telling unbiased truth, let him proclaim war with mankind, neither to give nor take quarter. If he tells the crimes of great men, they fall upon him with the iron hands of the law; if he tells their virtues (when they have any), then the mob attaek him with slander. But if he regards truth, let him expect martyrdom on both sides, and then he may go on fearless; and this is the course I take myself. ”
If De Foe meant to say that he had been martyred for his truth-telling, he was right, for he began his newspaper, as his contemporary, Bunyan, did his sacred romance, in jail, after he had been set in the pillory by Queen Anne’s government for writing satires on the high church party. He was thrown into Newgate in 1703, and pardoned out by the queen, at the request of Harley and Godolphin, in the latter part of 1704, when his semi-weekly Review had been in course of publication for eight or ten months. In March, 1705, he made it tri-weekly, and it so continued till May, 1713, when he was again imprisoned, fined, and compelled by his misfortunes to suspend the publication of his newspaper. He was a second time pardoned out by the queen, but she died the next year, and he was left with no powerful protector against the malice of his enemies. The persecutions to which he was exposed, along with other causes, now induced De Foe to accept a situation from which most men of honor would have shrunk, and which must be regarded as a blemish on his character, in spite of the arguments used in his behalf by his latest biographer, Mr. Lee. He became connected with the Tory newspaper, Mist’s Journal, and was concerned in its management for several years, during the reign of George I., all the while acting as a spy on its contributors, and in correspondence with the Whig ministry, who were glad to make this use of his services. De Foe’s contributions to this and other newspapers, during the last fifteen years of his life,1 have been culled from them by Mr. Lee and published in two large volumes. They show with what zeal and industry he followed the profession of journalism, at an advanced age, and when he had become a famous and popular author.
As Nedham and De Foe are good examples of public journalists discussing politics, so Addison is the earliest instance of journalistic success, apart from political or religious controversy. The Spectator, though a daily, could hardly be called a newspaper. Its predecessor, the Tatler, had increased its circulation by publishing news from the Continent; but when Steele gave up the Tatler in 1710, and joined his friend, Addison, in beginning the Spectator (March 1, 1711), he ceased to make news any part of his plan, and devoted the new journal solely to literature. At first it was somewhat colored with the liberal politics of its editors, but this was gradually changed, until it became equally popular with all parties. But Steele, who was a warm patriot and partisan, soon grew weary of this neutrality, and in his Guardian (1713), and Englishman (1714), returned to political writing, in consequence of which he was censured and expelled from the House of Commons in 1714. Nor did he take any share in the revived Spectator of 1714, which was managed by Addison alone, without any meddling with politics.
The success of the Spectator was something extraordinary for that period. It was printed on a half sheet “ of the vilest paper of which any specimens have descended to posterity,” says Chalmers, and sold at first for a penny, at which price it had a daily sale of from three to ten thousand. When the stamp duty was first imposed (August 1, 1712) the additional half penny thus exacted reduced the sale one half, for the price was raised to two pence. This tax eventually killed the Spectator, as it did Swift’s Examiner; and no doubt it had something to do with the failure of De Foe’s Review. Occasional issues of the Spectator seem to have sold as many as fourteen thousand copies; a very large number when we consider that the London Morning Post, nearly a hundred years later, was thought to have an enormous circulation when Coleridge’s leading articles and the news of Napoleon’s wars had increased its sale to four thousand five hundred copies; and the London Times was some forty years in reaching a circulation as great as the Spectator acquired in a year.
Before De Foe, or Addison, Steele, Swift, Berkeley, Bolingbroke, or any of their witty contemporaries had engaged in journalism in the mother country, New England, according to the traditions, had seen the first American newspaper, the Publick Occurrences of Benjamin Harris, of which one number was published in Boston, September 25, 1690, “ at the London coffee-house, which Harris kept.” Mr. Hudson reprints this sheet in full; its authenticity has been questioned, but, so far as can be seen, without sufficient cause. De Foe’s kinsman, the bookseller Dunton, gives a brief notice of Harris, who was a printer, and like De Foe, had stood in the London pillory for some publication. His Boston sheet was harmless enough, hut the magistrates of that city saw fit to suppress it, as they afterwards tried to suppress the Courant of the Franklin family, for its strictures on the Mathers and other Boston ministers. Their view of the matter, both then and afterwards, — and it is an opinion still discernible in some parts of Massachusetts, — had been expressed by Roger L’Estrange, when he succeeded Marchamout Nedham as official organ of the English government. “ Supposing the press in order,” says L'Estrange, " the people in their right wits, and news or no news to be the question, a publique Mercury should never have my vote; because it makes the public too familiar with the actions and counsels of their superiors, top pragmatical and censorious; and gives them not only an itch, but a colorable right and license to be meddling with the government.”
in 1722, the Massachusetts General Court took notice of this impertinence of the Franklins in venturing to have a different opinion from the Mathers, and voted that James Franklin should be forbidden to print or publish the New England Courant, or any other pamphlet or paper of the like nature, “ except it be first supervised by the secretary of this province;” as much as “the tendency of said paper is to mock religion, and bring it into contempt; that the Holy Scriptures are therein profanely abused, the reverend and faithful ministers of the gospel are injuriously reflected on, and the peace and good order of His Majesty’s subjects of this province disturbed by the said Courant.” In consequence of this vote, the newspaper was for a while published in the name of Benjamin Franklin, then a youth of sixteen. The rest of the story is well known; the two brothers quarreled, and Benjamin, at the age of seventeen, went to Philadelphia, where a few years later he established the first really good newspaper in America — the Pennsylvania Gazette.
When our Revolution began, a hundred years ago, daily newspapers had become common in England, and were not unknown in America. Dr. Johnson, writing at this period, said in his tumid way, “ Journals are daily multiplied without increase of knowledge. The tale of the morning paper is told in the evening, and the narratives of the evening are bought again in the morning,” a description which may still apply in Boston, if not in London. A few of the London dailies now existing are as ancient as the Worcester Spy, which kept its centennial in 1870, and of which that worthy old printer, Isaiah Thomas, was the founder. The Spy was not a daily, however, for the first seventy-five years, but generally a weekly. In 1794 it had the pedantry, not unusual then, to print its motto — The Liberty of the Press is Essential to the Security of Freedom — in four languages, English, Latin, Greek, and French. At that time it was just about one fourth of its present size; that is to say, its readers received in a week less than a twentieth part of the matter that the readers of the daily Spy now get. But, on the other hand, it cost but a dollar and a half, instead of the eight dollars now paid for the daily Spy, and only a fourth of its space was given to advertising, instead of about three fourths, as now. Its news from Europe, in 1794, was nearly three months old, from Canada and Georgia more than a month old, and from New York a week, instead of coming twice every day from all these and a thousand other places, as it now does. Its editorial writing was almost nothing; and this was true of most American newspapers at that time. If principles were to be discussed or events commented upon, the task was usually left to correspondents, who, under various English and Latin names, maintained one side or the other of political and social questions.
The connection of poets and literary men of the highest rank with the modern newspaper is well known, and need only he alluded to. Had Goethe lived in England, instead of Germany, he would have been a newspaper editor rather than a theatre-manager, as he was at Weimar. In Paris everybody commences by writing for the journals. Sainte-Beuve and George Sand did so from the beginning; Thiers was and remains a journalist; and the Revue des Deux Monde?— the first authority in the world in matters of literature and philosophy— is but an exalted and glorified newspaper. Of this review and its editor, Buloz, George Sand said twenty years ago, “ With perhaps two or three exceptions, all that have preserved a name as publicists, poets, novelists, historians, philosophers, critics, travelers, etc., have passed under the hands of Buloz, that man of sense, who cannot talk, but who has great keenness under his rough exterior. It is very easy, too easy, in fact, to laugh at this capricious and uncivil Genevese; he is even goodnatured enough to let you make sport of him, when he is not cross; but what is not so easy is to avoid being persuaded and controlled by him. I have been urged many times to attack Buloz, but I have always squarely refused; although his critics steadily asserted that I had a great deal of talent so long as I wrote for the Revue, but since my quarrel with it, — alas, alas!” This is an able editor’s portrait, which might almost serve for a type of the class; it is such men who succeed with newspapers and with magazines.
Thoreau’s pungent criticism on the newspapers is not quite so true now as when he made it, twenty years ago. “ I am sure,” says he in Walden, “ that I never read any memorable news in a newspaper. To a philosopher all news, as it is called, is gossip, and they who edit and read it are old women over their tea.” " Read not the Times; read the Eternities.” But even this philosopher admits that he read one newspaper a week, though he feared that was too much, and found that the sun, the clouds, the snow, the trees, did not say so much to him as before he desecrated his mind by letting in idle rumors and trivial incidents. And it is very true that to the serious thinker the murmurs brought by every day’s report of the incessant stir of mankind are chiefly a disturbance and dissipation of his thought. But the journal of to-day is no longer a mere record of daily events; it occupies itself with the thoughts of men, the discoveries of science, the treasures of literature, and the acts of heroes.
There came a time after Thoreau had said these things, when he was driven to the morning paper with as much eagerness as anybody; when, as he says, “I read all the newspapers I could get within a week.” It was when John Brown lay wounded at Harper’s Ferry, and his enemies, thronging about him, drew from him those answers that rang through the country for years, and still thrill the heart as we recall them. It was the everlasting reporter of the New York Herald, who then and there noted down the undying words that might else have been lost, or distorted in the recital of the base men to whom they were spoken. Then it was made manifest for what purpose the Herald had been allowed to exist all these years, — no other paper could have had a reporter there, and without him the conversation must have perished. All this was “ foreordained and freely predetermined; ” and John Brown, lying there on the armory floor, was the final cause of the Herald and its otherwise unaccountable editor. In those days the Times and the Eternities got printed on the same sheet, as they always do when a hero appears.
The triviality for which Thoreau complained of the newspapers, he was no less sensible of in the daily life of his fellow-men. “Nations !” he cries, “ what are nations? Tartars and Huns and Chinamen. Like insects they swarm. The historian strives in vain to make them memorable.” How, then, could he expect the journalist to do it? whose business is to record what he finds, be it trivial or momentous, if it only be significant. And the great struggle of the editor, as of the historian or the essayist, always is to choose the significant fact, the event that really means something, and to give prominence to that. The telegraph and the innumerable newspapers have made the world one enormous ear of Dionysius — a perpetual whispering gallery; and out of the confused mass and rumble of rumors, the poor journalist must snatch and print what he can, for it is quite impossible to give currency to everything. But the best journals now aim to furnish their readers not only the news of the day, but the thought and spirit of the epoch; and to some extent they do so.
Of late, too, there has been a perceptible increase in the courage of our journalists. The same thing has been happening in this country within a dozen years, which an acute Frenchman, Baron d’Haussez, who was one of the ministers of Charles X., and followed him into exile in England, noted as going on in Europe forty years ago. “ For a long time,” he says, “ the English newspapers limited themselves to studying public opinion; to follow in its wake was their sole aim. But lately the English press, following the example of the French journals, has jumped from the tail to the head of popular opinion; it seeks to mark out the course this opinion should follow, and aspires to direct it. The newspapers find fault with, denounce, menace one party and stimulate the other; and public sentiment is no less the slave of journalism in London than at Paris.” Every observer of our American newspapers since the civil war began will see how well these remarks apply to them. Their tone has greatly changed; and though they are not yet models of courage, they are by no means deficient in boldness and confidence. They no longer deem it their highest duty “ to feel round for the average judgment of their readers, and express that,” as Wendell Phillips used to say; no, they have an ambition to lead rather than to follow; and instead of drawing steadily in the traces of party, as political newspapers did in the days of Jackson and Polk, they now try, every now and then, to form new parties, and raise new political issues; and sometimes they succeed. One reason for this change, which all must have noticed, is the vast change in the circumstances of our country and the features of American society. We have passed rapidly from a provincial to an imperial position among the nations, with all the attendants of our prosperous career, — fabulous wealth, increased culture, a prodigious diversity of tastes and interests, and a wide expansion of the horizon of individual ambition. These things stimulate us in all directions, and their influence is nowhere more keenly felt than in the field of journalism, where they are first noted and most frequently registered and compared.
Under the spur of such excitements, a new class of newspaper editors has appeared. In the book of Captain Basil Hall, an English traveler in this country in 1833, occurs this graphic sketch of the editors of that day: “ The conductors of American journals are generally shrewd but uneducated men, extravagant in praise or censure, clear in their judgment of everything connected with their own interests, and exceedingly indifferent to all matters which have no discernible relation to their own pockets or privileges.” How well this describes Thomas Ritchie, Isaac Hill, Thurlow Weed, and men of that stamp, a few of whom still remain at the head of newspapers they have founded or inherited! But the new race of American editors is different. In spite of Mr. Greeley’s bucolic sneer, — “ Of all horned cattle, a college graduate in a newspaper office is the worst,” — nearly all the rising and lately risen journalists in the country are educated men, many of them highly accomplished in scholarship or literature. Such as were not educated at the outset have oftentimes pursued their studies, and taken their degrees in half a dozen newspaper offices, — no mean school for acquhing a liberal culture. They are traveled men, too, familiar with foreign countries, and, what is quite as necessary and less common, with their own; accustomed to meet and deal with people of all sorts, and especially with the able men of their region. Not a few of them, in the late war, enriched their minds with the experiences of army life, either as soldiers or as war correspondents; some are popular lecturers, others are cultivating literature with zeal and success; all, as a class, are alert of mind, with their faculties ready at command, and trained to steady service as much as any professional men in the land.
Moreover, journalism is drawing into its ranks every year more and more of the intellectual ability of the country; clergymen leaving their pulpits, lawyers their briefs, school-masters their desks, and scholars their studies, to ply the pen for the daily and weekly newspaper. Add to these the multitude who, without abandoning their old avocations, are correspondents or occasional contributors for the press, and the number becomes enormous; including, as it does, so many women of genius and culture. When Mrs. Child, that genial grandmother of feminine journalism in America, wrote her Letters from New York, and when Margaret Fuller went to the same city to help Mr. Greeley edit the Tribune, how daring and strange their venture seemed to their country-women! But now their successors may be counted by the thousand; and nothing so much surprises and delights a young editor as to find what rich stores of womanly talent and insight he can draw upon to enrich his columns. Every editor now rejects, for want of room, bushels of manuscripts from feminine hands, that twenty years ago would have been sought out and proudly printed, — only, twenty years ago they did not exist.
And yet, with all this thronging of recruits to the rendezvous of journalism, the number of really able editors is small. Some years ago a journalist in another city was lamenting the poverty of Boston in this respect, and said with real pathos, “ Why, they’ve only got one good journalist in all Boston, and they’re spoiling him in the pulpit!” Of course, things have changed for the better since then, in Boston —but hardly elsewhere. Brilliant and forcible and sensible as so many American journalists are, they seldom develop into marked superiority; each has his foible, his impediment, and does not rise beyond a certain level. Some of them remind us of the compliment paid by a German prince to Wellington’s troopers; he liked the British cavalry, he said; “ there were none better in the world, — if they only knew how to ride.” Mr. Greeley, for example: how magnificently was he equipped for journalistic service! how much he has done, too! And yet, he too often suggested that homely figure of a cow who gives a good pail of milk and then kicks it over — so furious, so ungovernable, were his whims. His great rival, Mr. Raymond, certainly could ride, but he persisted in riding nowhere; he would trot smartly northward, then canter briskly southward, then amble easterly and westerly; but always came back at last to his centre of indifference. Unequaled in the details of journalism, he lacked the steady force and moral purpose that alone accomplish great results. Mr. Dana, who, like Mr. Raymond, was for a while the associate and afterwards the rival of Mr. Greeley, has shown some of the rarest, and most masterly traits of a successful journalist; but in these later years he has wantonly sacrificed the best parts of his reputation by a coarse, sensational, and impudent manner of conducting his newspaper. No other names than these three, — who are, on the whole, the most famous of American journalists,—are needed to remind us how easy it is for editors of rare ability and opportunity to fall short of the lofty ideal of journalism. Had Franklin lived in our day, and devoted himself to the work of a newspaper, as he did in his own century, he perhaps would have come nearer than any other to the true standard; but even of Franklin it was said by Timothy Pickering that “ he was never found in a minority.” Yet the ideal journalist must, like the greatest general, sometimes lead a forlornhope, and often must resist the public for the public good.
Courage, indeed, is the one quality indispensable for journalism of the highest order, and it is what our journalists still lack most. Of courage as an intellectual accomplishment, or a means of winning respect and deference, they have a much better perception than of its moral quality. They are. therefore, often bold and self-confident, audacious to the verge of insolence, and sometimes beyond it; but for that steady courage which accepts certain risks for uncertain advantages, and for that modest courage which dares more than it proclaims, they are not conspicuous. But it must be said that our newspapers, of late years, have one increased inducement and guarantee for a courageous course,—a much greater pecuniary independence than formerly. It grows more and more difficult each year to hire or buy a successful newspaper, because it can afford to hold its price high. Nor do newspapers now depend for success, except indirectly, upon their subscribers. It is advertising that supports them mainly, and a great subscription list is chiefly valuable, pecuniarily, to a great newspaper, as being certain to attract advertisers. This, to be sure, is only changing the burden of servitude, for an editor whose chief aim it is to please his advertisers and retain their “patronage,” as it is called, is but one degree less fettered than he who dodges and shuffles to please his subscribers. And it is important that newspapers should be the property, so far as possible, of those who have the editorial management; for without this security from monetary dictation, a journal may be as venal as if it were purchased outright. Neither is it well for the owners of a newspaper to have much other property actively employed in business; else they will be tempted to use their newspaper columns to promote their private speculations. There is no more common mode of bribing editors and legislators, as we have lately seen illustrated, than by offering them an interest in schemes that depend upon public favor or special legislation for their success. The one excuse for all the annoyances and impertinences of which newspapers are guilty is their devotion to the public good; and a journalist who is detected feathering his own nest, or helping his friends to do so, loses at once his privilege as public benefactor. Need we add that detection makes no difference in the offense? It is the one unpardonable sin against journalism to cloak private gain or personal malice with professions of public virtue.
Great as the temptations of a journalist are to enrich himself by subservient or corrupt courses, they are far less than his temptations to self-conceit, which is the main vice of modern editors, the sin that doth so easily beset us. To err is human; this is a common frailty in all occupations, especially such as are literary or political. We have an amusing instance in a religious poet of the seventeenth century, who had a picture of himself engraved, kneeling before a crucifix with a label from his mouth, “ Lord Jesus, do you love me? ” which was answered by another label proceeding from the mouth of Jesus, “ Yes, most illustrious, most excellent, and most learned Sigerus, poet-laureate of his Imperial Majesty, and most worthy rector of the University of Wittenberg, — yes, I do love you!” The flattery which our journalists devise for themselves is less heavenly-minded than this, but no less gross.
Alcæus and Callimachus are nothing to the titles we bestow on one another, when in good humor; if you will take us at our own valuation you need be under no concern for the future of American literature. As Colonel Diver remarked to Martin Chuzzlewit, when handing him the Rowdy Journal for his perusal, “ You ’ll find Jefferson Brick at his usual post in the van of human civilization and moral purity.” The original Jefferson Brick has departed, no doubt, but he has left a family, and a numerous one, who have divided his mantle between them. Who is not forced to smile, sometimes, in the intervals of admiration, at the airs these gentlemen assume? as if uncreated wisdom had taken bodily form in their persons. They will allow us to know nothing which they have not told us; they give us epitomes of history after Tacitus, sketches of character after Clarendon and Kinglake, and systems of political economy as elaborate as Adam Smith’s. And so positive, too, in all their knowledge! It should be the humble effort of a young student’s life-time to acquire the omniscience of an American journalist under the age of thirty-five. “ I wish I knew anything,” said Lord Melbourne, “as positively as Macaulay knows everything.” Why wonder that our American bishops at the (Ecumenical Council easily agreed to the Pope’s infallibility? Had they not seen an infallible chair in every one of the five thousand newspaper offices in their own country ?
Still, let us be just to these instructors of ours; it is no mean talent that, they possess, nor, on the whole, ill-employed. It is common to laugh at newspaper English, and the knowledge that is derived only from the newspapers. But, except in those masters of style who are above comparison, there is no better English than we find in the newspaper; and we can now fully appreciate what Horace Walpole meant in saying, a hundred years ago, “ Every newspaper is now written in a good style; when I am consulted about style, I often say, ‘ Go to the chandler’s shop for a style,’ ” — that is, read any old newspapers you may pick up. And he adds a strikingly just remark: “Had the authors of the silver age of Rome written just as they Conversed, their works would have vied with those of the golden age. Writers are apt to think they must distinguish themselves by an uncommon style: hence elaborate stiffness and quaint brilliance. What a prodigious labor an author often takes to destroy his own reputation!” It is because a journalist thinks more of his matter than of his manner, and seeks to make himself understood rather than admired, that he writes so well; and how well our best editors and correspondents write one can easily see by writing himself on one of their themes. These men and women are the lineal successors of Hobbes, who said if he had read as many books as the learned, he should have been as ignorant as they ; of De Foe, whose “ low style ” is the admiration of all good critics; of Franklin, who acquired his art of writing, by no means inferior to Addison’s, in a printing-office; of the letter-writers and diarists, whose vocation has almost died out, except as they reappear in newspaper correspondents. Nor is it extravagant to say that the careful reader of a few good newspapers can learn more in a year than most scholars do in their great libraries; while the multitude of men and women are actually instructed so, more rapidly than in any way ever tried before.
At the Same time, every able journalist, and nearly every mediocre one, is tempted to be a smatterer; he must have his say on every topic, and cannot be well informed about all. There was no royal road to geometry in Euclid’s time, nor is there any railroad to universal knowledge now; to acquire it is impossible, and to come within sight of it demands much time and much patience, neither of which our journalists commonly have. The fancied necessity of scribbling something about every event and every intellectual and social manifestation is the plague of an editor’s life, the ruin of his good manners, the cause of delusion, bewilderment, and skepticism in his readers. Couple this with that other superlative folly, the rule never to retract an assertion or correct a mistake, and we have the cause of more than half the impertinence, error, and mischief of which newpapers are guilty.
A great deal is said about the slanderous character of the modern newspaper, and of its entire disregard of privacy and the right of individuals to be respected in their withdrawal from public notice. But in these respects our age is no worse than those before it. We have made error and slander more public by our inventions, but not more common, perhaps, nor more hurtful. In fact, the purely libelous industry of the press is probably less now, in comparison with its whole activity, than at any former time since pamphlets (libelli) began to be printed. This passage occurs in the letters of Prince Pückler-Muskau, written from England in 1826, before the era of railroads, to say nothing of the telegraph and the power-press: —
“ A strange custom in England is the continual intrusion of the newspapers into the affairs of private life. A man of any distinction not only sees the most absurd details concerning him dragged before the public, — such as where he dined, what evening party he attended, and so forth, — but if anything really worth telling happens to him, it is immediately made public without shame or scruple. Personal hostility thus has full scope, as well as the desire of making profitable friends. Many use the newspapers for the publication of articles to their own advantage, which they send themselves. It is easy to see what formidable weapons the press thus furnishes. Fortunately, however, the poison brings its own antidote with it; this consists in the indifference with which the public receives such communications. An article in a newspaper, after which a Continental would not show himself for three months, here excites only a momentary laugh, and the next day is forgotten.”
Would not this pass for a description of the — New York newspapers, we will say? The personalities in which the editor of to-day delights, annoying as they often are, surely are no worse than those here censured, while they fill a much smaller space in the reader’s mind than formerly, partly because the modern journal contains so much besides, and partly for the consoling reason given by the German prince, — that so much publicity defeats its own aim and makes little impression.
It is also true, little as we may think it, that our American newspapers are vastly improved in most respects from what they were thirty years ago, when Dickens saw, felt, and caricatured them. How we all winced under his satire in Martin Chuzzlewit, knowing so much of it to he deserved! How the cries of the New York newsboys made our ears tingle! “ Here’s this morning’s New York Sewer! Here’s this morning’s New York Stabber! Here’s the New York Family Spy! Here’s the New York Private Listener! Here’s the New York Peeper! Here’s the New York Keyhole Reporter! Here’s the Sewer’s article upon the judge that tried him, day afore yesterday, for libel, and the Sewer’s tribute to the independent jury that didn’t convict him, and the Sewer’s account of what they might have expected if they had! ” etc., etc. This satire no longer stings us as it once did, because, notwithstanding the occasional efforts of the New York Sun, Times, and Tribune to rival the scarcely imaginary Sewer and Rowdy Journal of Martin Chuzzlewit’s day,— notwithstanding the recent appearance of the interviewing reporter, that pest of society,— the moral and intellectual standard of our newspapers has risen a great many degrees in thirty years.
Nor is this the only change that has taken place. Since the death of Horace Greeley and the events which preceded and followed it, there is no difficulty in perceiving that we stand at the close of a long era of American journalism, and are entering rapidly upon a new dispensation. The presidential campaign of 1872, and the death of Mr. Greeley, mark the end of partisan journalism in its old form,—that epoch of which the New York Tribune was the product and the survivor. " With the death of the founder of the Tribune,” says Mr. Hudson, “ party journalism pure and simple, managed by accomplished and experienced editors, inaugurated by Jefferson and Hamilton, aided by such writers as Fenno, Bache, Duane, Freneau, Coleman, Cheetham, Ritchie, and Croswell, has ceased to exist, and independent journalism becomes a fact impressed on the minds of the people.” To Mr. Hudson’s mind, loyal as he is to the memory and the traditions of the New York Herald, this event is but a fulfillment of the plans and hopes with which James Gordon Bennett, in 1835, announced the first publication of his great newspaper—the first successful example of an independent journal in the United States. The Herald was disreputable enough in those days, and for many a long year afterwards; it has not yet achieved the best reputation in the world, with all its expeditions and discoveries, but it has been tolerably true to the purpose indicated in the first number. Mr. Bennett expressed himself with coarseness and cynicism, but with much sincerity, when he said, “ In débuts of this kind many talk of principle, political principle, party principle, as a sort of steel-trap to catch the public. We mean to be perfectly understood on this point, and therefore openly disclaim all steel-traps, all principle, as it is called, all party, all politics. Our only guide shall be good, sound, practical common-sense, applicable to the business and bosoms of men engaged in every-day life. We shall support no party, be the organ of no faction or coterie, and care nothing for any election, or any candidate, from president down to a constable. We shall endeavor to record facts on every public and proper subject, stripped of verbiage and coloring, with comments when suitable, just, independent, fearVOL. xxxIV. — NO. 201. 5 less, and good-tempered.” This was not a very lofty ideal of editorial duty, but it was an honest one, and in the line of what the nation needed and the future promised. So far as it adhered to this profession, the Herald succeeded and deserved success; but its notorious faults have long kept its true and important mission from being fully recognized, and the proper credit given therefor. It has been the rude, low-bred, boisterous pioneer, preparing the way for the finer and better race of newspapers that are to follow in its track with nobler aims, a keener sense of decency and responsibility, and a broader culture in the men who conduct them. Nor is it by any means impossible that the Herald itself may eventually become a newspaper of the kind just described.
It requireth courage stout,
Souls above doubt,
Delighting in the great advances now making in American journalism, but not quite satisfied with any of the existing journals, there are a few persons so unreasonable as still to hope for a model newspaper, though they have never seen one, and though the most brilliant instances of journalistic success are generally coupled with grave and incurable faults. Such enthusiasts deem it possible to walk uprightly and deal justly with all mankind in the career of the journalist as much as in any other; that it is inferior to no other in the interests it protects, the need it serves, the high standard of character and performance it exacts.
Not less does it require the deepest purpose, the most active spirit, the broadest thought and culture, the most tolerant heart. Journalism now is what the stage was in Shakespeare’s time; its purpose, as Hamlet says of the “ purpose of playing,” “ both at the first and now, was and is, to hold, as ’t were, the mirror up to nature; to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure.” But literature, of which journalism is now the most alert and prolific form, has even a nobler aim than this, to describe which we must borrow the words, not of the tolerant dramatist, but of the more heroic moral poet, Milton. Its office, like that of poetry, of which it is so apt a vehicle, is also “ to inbreed and cherish in a great people the seeds of virtue and public civility, to allay the perturbations of the mind and set the affections in right tune; to deplore the general relapses of kingdoms and states from justice and God’s true worship; lastly, whatsoever in religion is holy and sublime, in virtue amiable or grave, whatsoever hath passion or admiration in all the changes of that which is called fortune from without, or the wily subtleties and refluxes of man’s thoughts from within; all these things, with a solid and treatable smoothness to paint out and describe.”
To succeed in all this, without doing injustice to the shipping list and the price current, to the last great fire, mammoth squash, Cardiff giant, new novel, or new religion; to discuss, besides, all the social topics, little and large, that have come upon us in the present age for consideration, — this certainly gives scope enough for the greatest activity and the best talent. Moreover, this ideal journalist, like the poet in Rasselas, must “ disregard present laws and opinions, and rise to general and transcendental truths, which will always be the same. He must therefore content himself with the slow progress of his name; contemn the applause of his own time, and commit his claims to the justice of posterity. He must write as the interpreter of nature and the legislator of mankind, and consider himself as presiding over the thoughts and manners of future generations; as a being superior to time and space.” The reader, still subject to these limitations, is doubtless by this time ready to cry with Rasselas, “ Enough, thou hast convinced me that no human being ever can be a journalist. It is so difficult that I will at present hear no more of his labors.”
F. B. Sanborn.
- He died in 1731, at the age of seventy-one. The misfortunes of his last years are believed by Mr. Lee to have been in some way connected withhh his unhandsome behavior towards Mist and the Tories.↩