Journalism and Literature
THE birds and the beasts having a dispute as to their respective virtues, it was agreed to refer the question to arbitration ; but the choice of an arbitrator raised a more thorny problem than the original, for the beasts refused a bird, and the birds would accept no beast, and they cawed and cackled, and howled and roared through a long summer afternoon without getting nearer an agreement than when they began. As the twilight came on, the bat flittered in, and, excusing herself for not answering the summons earlier in the day on the score of her weak eyes, offered her services. “ I am, you know,” she said, “ the connecting link between you ; my organization leads me to one side and my habit to the other, and as habit is second nature I may fairly put it in one scale and my constitution in the other. Nature meant me for a mouse, but necessity gave me wings, so that, though I can neither fly with the eagle nor run with the horse, I can better appreciate the speed of the one and the daring of the other than a more skillful performer on wing or foot.”The owl thereupon proposed the bat, and the mole seconded the nomination, but I have not a record of the decision. It is likely that it satisfied neither party, and was torn up on report.
The debate between the believers in the virtues of the press (a term which modern journalism has arrogated to itself as if it monopolized the art of printing) and those of literature in the more deliberate, if we may not say the higher form, is like that of my apologue, and the amphibia are not wanting to advocate as well as adjudicate on it. I vote myself to the bench rather than to the bar, and the seconding of the editor is all that in our republic of letters is requisite as credentials ; but if more were needed, I may say that I have flitted through pen-land for forty years, am acquainted with both ends of the critical bludgeon and both sides of journalistic responsibility, have a modest nook on the bookshelves, and have held a place on the staff of more than one great daily ; and my experience may not be without value to the person who stands before the gate of this garden of delight, as he probably imagines it (though there are those who have found in it only desert sands and a lifelong, unquenchable thirst), desiring to enter in, though on the general question of merits and values it may possibly have no more importance to the public than a last year’s editorial of the Times. From this point of view the discussion is and must be purely academical; it is like weighing a file of the London Times against the essays of Matthew Arnold, or Emerson against Horace Greeley ; each man or woman out of the throng holds his or her judgment as infallible as if it were a matter of the menu of a dinner. That, in the severest logic of intimate cause and effect, the daily paper is the most deadly enemy of a noble literature is no argument to the business man, who must be informed every day of what took place the day before in Canton, London, Washington, San Francisco, and has no leisure, when he comes back from his counting-room, to read an essay of Bacon or a poem by Lowell ; you might as well tell him that beefsteak is a better dish for his breakfast than buckwheat cakes. While you prepare to convince him, he has finished his cakes and is away to his office, reading his paper in the railway carriage as he goes, though he might have Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, or Bacon for the reading, or Emerson, Huxley, Holmes, or Hawthorne.
Men are divided broadly into journalists and eternalists, ephemera and immortals, and we can only match the multitude of the first with the permanence of the second. They have gone the way they chose ; constitution or circumstance settled their determinations, and we have not to ponder over what we cannot unravel ; was it fate, was it freewill, or the Zeitgeist? It does not matter ; the ephemera have the immense majority, and until human nature changes are likely to have. I suppose that the mass of those who seek a literary occupation, as of those who have followed one, care more for what constitutes the success of journalism than for the artistic form of thought or for permanent influence, which indeed does not come for the seeking (though the art will if the roots of it are in the student) ; but if there be one who holds art dearer than success, let him look askance at the sanctum, and struggle against any temptation to join in a newspaper controversy. I remember that an artist friend of distinguished intellectual ability, whom I begged to contribute to a periodical devoted to art, for the conduct of which I was once responsible, replied that he had taken a vow never again to write for a newspaper, for the success of one letter he had been induced to write by his interest in the subject woke in him such a momentary fever for such triumphs that he saw at once that to give it its course would be the destruction of his content with art, for he could not serve the two ambitions. He felt that the passion for momentary success, the spring of which is notoriety, would stifle the serener aspiration for the perfection of his work, which is the one indispensable condition of happiness in art, — not always the guarantee of attainment, but ever the consolation for failure, as the only reward for struggle which can surely be depended on, for there are victories which are known only to the victor.
But beside the passion for the perfection of his work which is the characteristic of the true artist, there is another ideal which warns the student away from the excitements of journalistic success, namely, that of adding to the permanent intellectual wealth of humanity. No man says even to himself, “ I will utter immortalities,” but he only has a chance of so doing who turns his back resolutely on ephemeral triumphs, and, living with the immortals, learns to despise quick-caught applause. There is nothing in common, beyond the use of language, between the work that abides and spreads and in its slow conquest permeates all human forms of thought and the ready and superficial glitter or polish the perfection of which is found in French journalism, or the more solid and sober grasp of matters of daily interest which one finds at its best in the great English dailies. In highly cultivated communities there will always be a certain number of readers of the daily paper who thoroughly appreciate the element of culture, and who will therefore make it an important element in the success of the journal which shall attract it, but as a rule it weighs little with that large public which is necessary in this country for the pecuniary success of the journal. We continually hear complaints of the low character of modern journalism, but it is, and always will be, what the public calls for; and the community may always be known by its leading and most successful daily.
It is necessary to distinguish between journals. They divide themselves specifically into three classes: the daily newspaper, the journal of culture (including periodicals other than daily, and incorrectly called journals), and the paper devoted to moral reforms, like The Liberator of William Lloyd Garrison. The last I leave out of consideration, because those whom the passion of humanity seizes have no choice of paths and can make no question of inducements; culture may sharpen their weapons, but a divine conviction alone makes their support and efficiency, and the journal is to them only the accident of form. We have but to take off our hats and Stand silent when they go by; they do not ask our applause and are indifferent to our criticism. In another sense than that in which Dante speaks, —
they are indifferent not only to our opinions of what they do, but to the permanence of their literary work, as a gunner is to the smoke of his gun, thinking only whether he hits his mark or not.
As the journal of culture leads to scholarship and the sounder and broader general education of the public, its work passes under the classification of science and out of journalism proper; it is a branch and continuation of the university. We in the United States of America are proud of our educational system, and it is not an unfrequent boast that we are the best educated people in the world. In fact we are one of the worst. It may be true that in the United States there are more native boys of a given age who can read and write than in any other country, and that we have more colleges and universities than any two other countries combined ; but the number of persons who are profoundly versed in any branch of learning, or who may be said to be really educated, is probably less than in most European countries. In such a question it is not the extent of the primary or secondary education that tells, but that of the superior. Nor is there any validity in the excuse that we are a young nation ; we have all the advantages that heredity can give, and the concentrated results of all the culture the world has known, and the proof that we fully enjoy the advantages of this epoch and past epochs is that here and there an individual amongst us rises to the highest attainments of the culture of the day. But our education in any given branch out of the practical, the pursuit of the material, is extremely superficial, and we are content that it should be so. It is peculiarly and almost exclusively a newspaper education, and responds to the demands of the day, — calls for information, not for knowledge. And it is almost inevitable that it should remain so, at least for a long time, for the newspaper is the readiest of all appliances for cramming, and cramming is the vice not only of our country, but of our race, though eminently of our nation as compared with other nations of our race. America has in fact transformed journalism from what it once was, the periodical expression of the thought of the time, the opportune record of the questions and answers of contemporary life, into an agency for collecting, condensing, and assimilating the trivialities of the entire human existence. In this chase of the day’s accidents we still keep the lead, as in the consequent neglect and oversight of what is permanent and therefore vital in its importance to intellectual character. The effect is disastrous, and affects the whole range of our mental activities ; we develop hurry into a deliberate system, skimming of surfaces into a science, the pursuit of novelties and sensations into the normal business of our lives; our traveling is a competition to see the most in the least time, our learning the collection of the greatest number of facts concerning the greatest number of things, and our pride the multitude of subjects we know something about rather than the soundness and depth of the knowledge we possess of a few. We desire to be glib ; we mistake glitter for luminousness; we force the note in whatever we undertake, for nothing is so repugnant to our standards as the calm of a serene philosophy. The most disastrous consequence of this condition of things is that even those of us who are earnest are driven into materialism in some of its shapes, if we would make an impression on contemporary development, and our lives are little by little deprived of the spiritual leaven that makes their true vitality. We are more proud of this electric - light brilliancy than we are of any of our real virtues, and strain to be sparkling until we hut dimly perceive the difference between being funny and witty, more dimly that between being witty and wise. To sum up all that could be said on this score, we are more anxious to seem than to be. Our art, our literature, our politics, and our social organization are infected with the passion of an ostentation often mendacious, always superficial.
To lay all this to the charge of the daily newspaper would doubtless be unjust, for that is only the microbe that establishes itself in the constitution predisposed to disease, but the tone of our journalism is responsible for the rapid spread of the malady. Nor does it avail to point to individuals engaged in journalism here and there who have attained a high distinction in the finest culture; they are not the result of our system, but the instances of escape from it, — cases of survival from the influence of the surroundings in which the individuality was so strong that it resisted the tendency imposed on it. In the German system of education thoroughness is the end aimed at, and its attainment is the result of the system ; while with us it is the virtue of the individual, which succeeds in spite of a system without definite aim. This is at least the general statement, and is not to be negatived by the local exceptions which may occur under partial influences. We boast of the practical character of our system of education, which means that we educate to enable men to increase their incomes ; and the simplest means of gaining a living by a man who wishes to devote himself to writing is to get a place on a newspaper as soon as he leaves the university.
In time the determined student may find his way out of the wilderness of words into which the profession of journalist leads him, find time to think before writing; and if his scholarly tastes are strong enough, may become a scholar; if original, a thinker. But as long as he is a journalist he almost necessarily learns neither to think dispassionately nor to write nobly ; he prints to-day what everybody will burn to-morrow, and the consciousness of this deprives his work of half its zest. He is only an ephemeral. Who reads now a word of the writing of Horace Greeley, the most successful and in many respects the ablest journalist America has yet produced ? All the prose his paper ever contained is not worth a paragraph of a lecture of Emerson. To feed party passion and support political expedients, — to be Sisyphus, Ixion, or a Danaide filling the public sieve with water, — this is the lot of the journalist.
Admit that he escapes, finds a vein of thought which leads to better things, as one may on the journals of culture, and wanders away into pure literature : how much harder even then to unlearn what journalism has taught him than to learn from the beginning in the proper school! Vices of style, fallacies of thought, speciousnesses of reasoning, and probably a fatal facility of composition are all to be fought against for years, because as a journalist he must be quick even if he is empty, plausible even if he is absolutely in error; he must exert his powers to prove a party case, right or wrong, and support with all the appearance of conviction candidates and policies he may know to be utterly reprehensible. If any one dispute this statement as a fair representation of the condition of American journalism, let him go over the list of the political journals of the country and ascertain how many there are that are independent of party in their judgment and advocacy of public men and public measures ; how many that, being devoted to practical politics, determine their position in party contests by fixed principles of right and wrong; how many in whose columns calm, deliberate elucidation of public duties and public morality prevails over appeals to party interest or personal or local prejudice. How many are there of our more than a thousand political journals that stand ready to support the best man for office and the soundest measures for legislation, in utter disregard of what the party leaders have decided shall be done ? These are the turn-coats,” the mugwumps of our politics, and no bitterer insult can be launched against a journalist than to stigmatize him as a deserter from his party. How shall men whose education in literature has been in the deliberate misstatement of the principles of public morality and sound political economy, or at best in passionate self-delusion, in the earnest study how to make the worse appear the better reason, learn later in life to obey those imperious calls of the higher law written in the conscience, and the habitual violation of which effaces them gradually from the immortal tablet on which they were inscribed by our divine heredity ? But the basis of our political organization, the collocation of our parties, and the law of our political morality are, that in politics there is only expediency, and no wrong or right; the only reason for advocating any measure is its probable success.
A noble literature implies the ambition of immortality, and truth alone is immortal; only that book survives which successive generations recognize as having anticipated its thought; only he finds the truth in its deeper streams who never left the guidance of its tiniest rills. The honesty of the writer may not make him immortal, but his insincerity and the willing sacrifice of the truth will certainly land him in the rubbish heap of the centuries; even the novelist who is willing to paint his passions in stage colors and sacrifice verity to sensational effect leaves to posterity only empty canvases. We pardon the mythology of Homer and the paganism of Dante because we find so intertwined with them the eternal elements of human nature that the fable becomes ennobled by the weaving. There is no literary work of permanent value which is not rendered so by the everlasting truth in it. No fancy, no imagination, that is not fed by essential verities can survive the generation that took it into fashion. And no man finds the way to truth by paltering with expediencies or toying with a lie because it serves the purposes of the day. I am aware of apparent exceptions in men who, in the midst of party rancors and the fury of materializing competition, do maintain the dignity of a personal independence free from partisan refraction of their vision, but they are hardly successful editors according to the present standard. Bryant was one of these, but it may be questioned if he would have been remembered as long as Horace Greeley but for gifts which had nothing to do with journalism; he certainly never wielded a tithe of the contemporary influence that Greeley did. Bryant was a passionate lover of truth as he saw it, but I worked under him long enough to know that even his vision was not free from that partisan refraction which was so conspicuous in Greeley, and which is an important if not essential quality of a party leader.
Nor is it merely in the willingness to look at truth in a distorting mirror that the efficiency of the journalist lies, not only in his readiness to see only so much of it as his partisan needs dictate: in the form he gives his work he must aim low to hit our masses, and the masses make politics. Here we come again to the salient difference between our public and that, for instance, of England or Germany, and find the reaction on our education of the daily papers, the partisan press ; and so the vicious circle is closed. Compare the best known or the most widely circulated American journal with the London Times, which, though it does not print so many copies as some other English papers, still retains the primacy of the London press. In the former, anything beyond a certain standard of culture is wasted, and individuality is rooted out as a weed ; in the latter, for three generations of its proprietorship the highest culture of England has found employment, because a considerable portion of the public of the Times demands a high standard of culture, comprising as it does a great proportion of highly educated men, who in their turn exercise an enormous influence on the opinions of the nation.
If, therefore, I take the Times as the gauge by which I shall measure the relation of journalism to literature, no one can say that I have not taken the highest standard of journalism at my disposal. But what even here are the conditions of intellectual activity ? I beg leave to recall at this point the object with which I set out, — the contrast between the educations which make immortal work possible and ephemeral work successful. It is not to be denied that the ambitions of journalism may be noble, that its uses may be most vital to the political exigencies of the day. Twice since I have been in the habit of following the Times in its daily work has it changed for the better the course of European politics, and possibly on many other occasions which my observation did not reach; and the social power it exercises in England is enough to satisfy the ambitions of most men. But how many of its writers have struggled successfully against the absorption of individuality which its routine imposes ? How many men who have fully succeeded on it have been able to extricate themselves from the fascination of the position or the advantages it offered? The primary condition of good journalistic work is that it shall at a moment’s notice put into fitting form the dictation of the chief whose brain is the motor of the whole organization, and he in his turn obeys the political exigencies of the day. This suppleness of brain, indispensable to effective work in such a system, the dexterity of mental fence which enables a man to hold any assigned ground and make the position good, is of no use in the education of a thinker; on the contrary, it is the destruction of the power of discriminating quest. The fine clues of philosophic thought, the subtle web of induction, and the discriminations of spiritual insight are dispelled like the reflections on water by these intellectual athletes in their plunge into the pool.
But this is only one form of the devastating influence of the daily paper on the mental development; perhaps a worse is the constant devotion of the mind to the mere details of public life, — the accidents and incidents, elections, steamer explosions, wrecks, murders, disasters, sensations, the gratification of curiosities, trivial or morbid, whatever most piques or stimulates our attention. A diligent journalist, especially in the earlier stages of his career, is obliged to devote a large part of his time to skimming and sifting the papers of the day; he acquires a morbid habit of hunting items, news, opinions of men who may be in the public view, keeping always on the alert for trivialities; and the more earnest he is in his devotion to his occupation the more absorbing this passion grows, until he becomes what a diplomatic acquaintance used to distinguish as a “ croque-journal,” devourer of newspapers. To this man the effect of journalism is more disastrous than to the reader of journals, as an indigestion from omnivorousness must be worse than one from occasional indiscretion in the selection of one’s food. This malady is the worst that can befall the mind.
In whatever way we regard journalism, then, a deadly danger to culture in the noble sense threatens the beginner ; and except for those who deliberately choose it as their profession, and are willing to forego the chances of a purely literary success, it is a very Cerberus at the gate of the eternal abode; whatever one’s function, one form of it awaits him. If it were possible to force culture into American journalism, and so make it the means of the higher national education, there would be the consolation of at least sacrificing one’s self to the general good; but I do not believe this attainable in the present state of our social organization and political condition. The prime element in journalistic success in America is a rapid popularity; its great reward, power to-day. If the journalist, even when he has gained the most difficult of all achievements in journalism, a recognized individuality, succeeds in his ambition, he does but write on sands over which the tide flows every day ; only the Garrisons survive through even the weekly paper. In Emerson’s essay on Culture are these pertinent sentences : “ What forests of laurel we bring and the tears of mankind to those who stood firm against the opinion of their contemporaries ! ” “ Let me say here that culture cannot begin too early.” “ The youth must rate at its true mark the inconceivable levity of local opinion.” “ Be willing to go to Coventry sometimes and let the populace bestow on you their coldest contempts.” “ He who should inspire and lead his race must he defended from traveling with the souls of other men; from living, breathing, reading, and writing in the daily, time-worn yoke of their opinions.”
No man has fathomed and measured the depth and extent of American life with such an angel’s rood as Emerson; and in this one sentence, “ Whilst all the world is in pursuit of power, and of wealth as a means of power, culture corrects the theory of success,” he has summed up its condition, its dangers, and its refuge. The fever of power and wealth is drying up the springs of our national life, and the men into whose hands the destinies of the state are given make war on culture as if they considered it the most relentless enemy of their success ; they tax literature and art as if these were to be classified as articles dangerous to the prosperity of the state. The barbarous politician, whose intellectual world lies in his party paper, has no idea that there is a firmament above it. Books, pictures, statues, are the symbols of a life he has no knowledge of or sympathy with; they are odious to him as refinement is odious to a tramp. He has an instinct that there is a danger in them to the régime of political ignorance and corruption in which he thrives and attains power, and, like Caliban, he curses that which every day, and in spite of him, gives the lie to his “theory of success.” His best friend is a partisan press.
Unfortunately or fortunately, as the case may be, for we can dimly discern the uses of wrong, the press, in all the shapes it has taken and some which it may yet take, is indispensable to our public life, almost to our private, and the disease, intellectual or moral, which it propagates must run its course; its excess may bring its remedy, and, by practical demonstration showing the insufficiency of the Sodom-apple harvest, awaken a spirit of reaction and reform. To this end the chief agent must be culture : literature in its unutilitarian forms, art in its purest, and every sort of intellectual activity which cannot be put to the base uses of the day. Whatever shows that a greater happiness is to be found in immaterial things tends to stifle the utilitarianism which is the cause of the growing paralysis of American life ; and nothing more promotes this than education to the finer qualities of literature and art. Nothing in the range of Emerson’s philosophy is better said, though to many of us it seems trite, than this: “ A man is a beggar who only lives to the useful, and, however he may serve as a pin or a rivet in the social machine, cannot be said to have arrived at self-possession.” In another passage of the essay quoted he says, “ I think sculpture and painting have an effect to teach us manners and abolish hurry.”
Our present journalism is the enemy of all these finer things. The telegraph has put out of the field the chief fruit of culture in journalism which remained to our fathers, the cultivated correspondent’s letter; the interviewer has vulgarized and turned into offense what once was the charm of personality. The morning paper, read at breakfast or finished on the train to the city, has given the skimmings of the world’s affairs, and letters and the arts, served to order by the most convenient member of the staff, are crowded into the space that can be spared for them, as things which must be alluded to pro forma, but have an altogether trivial importance, and, having been treated in haste, are regarded with a corresponding indifference ; criticism being considered as the ’prentice work of the office, and given to whoever is not better occupied. In the London Times there still appear masterly literary reviews, and now and then in certain American papers, but the files of the daily papers printed in the language of the Anglo-Saxon race will be searched in vain for criticism of the arts that are worth the reading. For these we must go to the Gaul. The pleasure-loving Frenchman still retains the leisurely tastes which enable him to enjoy æsthetic impressions ; lingering over them as a gourmand over the flavor of his after-dinner wine ; taking his goods as if the gods, and not the devil, sent them. The frantic haste with which we bolt everything we take, seconded by the eager wish of the journalist not to be a day behind his competitor, abolishes deliberation from judgment and sound digestion from our mental constitutions. We have no time to go below surfaces, and as a general thing no disposition. Shall we end this state of things, or will it finally eat out all reality from our national life? Shall culture or journalism enlist our powers, or shall culture finally transform the daily paper, allay the fever of our intellectual and the insanity of our political lives ? These are infinitely graver questions than that which most occupies us, — Which party shall govern the state ?
It is truly a grave question for the young man who desires to follow literature and must work for his daily bread how he shall pay his way. I might say, with Dr. Johnson, that “ I do not see the necessity;” and in fact the greater, far greater part of those who attempt it do not justify the experiment. But I will suppose that the individual in any one case is justified in devoting his life and all its energies to letters; that his calling is irresistible, or at least so strong that he is willing to do all but starve and freeze to be able to follow it. Even then I say, with all the energy of a life’s experience put into ray words, and a knowledge of every honorable phase of journalism to give them weight, Do not go on a daily journal unless the literature of a day’s permanence satisfies your ambition. Now and then, with the possible frequency of being struck by lightning, you may, as a special correspondent, find a noble cause for which you may nobly give your whole soul,— once it has happened to me; but even this is not literature. Better teach school or take to farming, be a blacksmith or a shoemaker (and no trade has furnished more thinkers than that of the shoemaker), and give your leisure to the study you require. Read and digest, get Emerson by heart, carry Bacon’s essays in your pocket and read them when you have to be idle for a moment, earn your daily wages in absolute independence of thought and speech, but never subject yourself to the indignities of reporterism, the waste of life of the special correspondent, or the abdication of freedom of research and individuality of the staff writer, to say nothing of the passions and perversions of partisan politics. That now and then the genius of a man survives all these and escapes above them is not a reason for voluntarily exposing ourselves to the risks of the encounter; and who can tell us how much of the charm of the highest art those successful ones have lost in the experience? For what we get by culture is art, be it on canvas or in letters. Study, fine distinction, the perfection of form, the fittest phrase, the labor limœ and the purgation from immaterialities of ornament or fact, and the putting of what we ought to say in the purest, simplest, and permanent form, — these are what our literature must have, and these are not qualities to be cultivated on the daily press. Of no pursuit can it be said more justly than of literature, that “ culture corrects the theory of success.”
W. J. Stillman.