Journalism as a Basis for Literature

THE daily paper is the Nazareth of literature. That no good can come out of it is one of the settled convictions of what might be called the gentlemanly literary life. It is not a necessarily thoughtful conviction. It is one of the convictions men have with their slippers on, when they are enjoying their nicer kinds of things and trying to live up to them. People with busts of Dante in their houses are almost obliged to look down on newspapers. It goes with the bust.

It matters not how many of these same papers lie crumpled, of a Sunday morning, on the floor, by our easy-chairs, nor how often the innumerable newsboy, the librarian of this modern world, makes a visit to our doors ; by our busts of Dante, by the Abbey Shakespeare on our shelves and the Rossettis on our walls, we lift our hands, we take our solemn oath of eternal displeasure in the daily press.

Some of us, remembering, as several people have said, that consistency is a jewel, add precaution to principle. We make a stockade around our minds. We make it so close that no newspaper can get in, — not more than fifteen minutes in, — fifteen minutes a day. Whole acres of news from the uttermost parts of the morning lie locked outside our souls when day begins, and the sun sets on our cherished ignorance. We break not our bread with reporters. In every city of the land the newspaper man is an outcast. He knows more people to be a stranger to than any other being in the world. He has no holidays. His Christmas is the record of other men’s joys. His Thanksgiving is a restaurant. Even the Fourth of July and Sunday, servants of the commonest man, refuse him their cheer. The Fourth of July is the day he must be in every place at once, because everything is happening ; and Sunday is the day he must make things up, because nothing is happening. His labors are our pleasures. He gets his vacation by doing another man’s work, and earns his living by watching other people live. The very days and the nights turn their natural backs upon him. The lamp is his sun by night, and the curtain is his night by day, and he eats his supper in the morning. His business is the reflection of life. He is the spirit behind the mirror. What is left to us is right to him, and right is left ; sometimes right side up is upside down. The world is all awry to the newspaper man. It whirls across the hours in columns, now in one edition and now in another, but it heeds him never in return. He is a spectator. The show passes before his face, — a shut-out, unsharing face. He lives as the years go on, a notebook under the stars, and when the notebook is scribbled out he dies.

From the point of view of our having a literature in this present generation, or acquiring one, the fact that Mr. Kipling is not dead is the most significant, the most heroically artistic thing about him. He ought to be. Nine hundred and ninety-nine men out of a thousand who are trying to be reporters and poets both are dead to-day, or are dying, or wish they were dead. Rudyard Kipling is getting more alive every single moment. He thrives on the impossible ; and thriving on the impossible (if one may be allowed to express an opinion) is the hall-mark that is always bound to distinguish the larger kind of man from the small men of great abilities, with whom we are prone to confound him at first. The primary thing in a new artist, from the beginning of the world, has always been the force of him. The one formula for being great is strength. Strength is the first look on the face of all the new beauty the world has learned. To be a great artist is, first, to select the right impossibility to thrive on; second, to thrive on it. Most men fall short of greatness because they leave the impossibilities for other men to select. The impossibility having been once selected, having been won over for the sons of men, stands forth in the eyes of the world as the measure of its last great man. The next great man will select a new impossibility. Kipling’s new impossibility was to be a reporter and a poet, an artist with a journalist’s chance.

The main fact with regard to the present outlook of literature is the fact that the men who were made to write masterpieces for us, owing to the habit of wanting bread and butter that belongs to this mortal life, can hardly be otherwise than swept, in their beginning days at least, into the whirlpool of journalism. We may behold there, almost any time we look, the struggling great men of the world, —

“ Shakespeare was of us, Milton was for us,

Burns, Shelley, were with us, —

They watch from their graves,”&emdash;

men who might be immortal, morning after morning, week after week, year after year, fighting to be allowed to live in the current of a day, reaching in vain for something that lasts longer than a day to hold to, only to go under like all the rest — a few bubbles — a two-inch obituary at the bottom of a column, by the man who is going under next, and the story is told. The man who can furnish quantity and quality at once, who can thrive on the impossible, who can swim in the whirlpool instead of being carried with it, is a man who sums up in himself not only the definition of what our problem is, in literature, but the answer to our problem. The fact that Mr. Kipling is not dead is the most widely significant fact not only about Mr. Kipling, but about ourselves, sitting in our selected libraries, with our busts of Dante, with our Abbey Shakespeare on our shelves and Rossettis on our walls, in this poor, breathless, littered, newspaper newsboy world, longing for a literature once more.

Mr. Kipling has not only fulfilled his own promise, but his success is thepromise of other men, — men who shall yet be born to us ; who shall yet unfold, as the years go on, the self-respect of the press ; who shall establish once for all that literature is not the denying of the newspaper, but the raising of the newspaper to the nth power ; that literature is not the doing of the ideal thing that some one else has done, but the doing of the real thing in an ideal way, — the thing that is given to us to do, — until there shall be new ideals and new men and masters of the earth.

It is the business of the average reporter to put a day down, to make a day last until the night. It is the business of the poet reporter to report a day forever, to make a day last so that no procession of flaming sunsets shall put that day out, — Ulysses’ day when he slays the suitors, Shylock’s day when he claims the pound of flesh, Boccaccio’s ten days that live forever in Italy, the few days’ journey that Chaucer takes, with a world for pilgrims still. The man Shakespeare, once put him in a reporter’s place, would make literature out of anything he was given to write. By applying enough of the universal to the particular, by giving the eternal quality of his mind to the passing show with which he deals, a man like the Hebrew poet Isaiah manages to make undying art out of his Sabbath sermons. The gazetteer of northern Italy, written by Dante Alighieri, known as the Divina Commedia, was the greatest stroke of journalism, the most colossal piece of reporting, of all the mediæval age. Every great personality has immortalized its own little group of fools the way Dante did the little-great men he loved and hated in Florence. There is no far street where the feet of men shall not always tread, and the pilgrims of generations come and go, if heroes have been there ; nor in all space shall there be found a strip of sky or stars that men forget, if Omar Khayyám drank under it, or David watched his sheep under it, or Christ cried to it, — it shall be the trysting place of the souls of men forever. There is not a single thing that is able to exist at all, that is not able to exist always, if great artist men have looked upon it or made use of it, or if great ideas have been linked with it. It shall be saved for us. It shall say, “ Dante loved me. Christ spoke to me.” It shall be enough. The smallest day is great if it can get a great man to live in it, and the littlest event is eternal if it can get a great man to remember it.

The difficulty with journalism is not that it deals with passing things, but that it deals with them in a passing way. Kipling is an artist because he respects the passing thing, because he catches the glimmer of the eternal joy upon it and will not let it pass. It is not in spite of being a reporter that J. M. Barrie is an artist, but it is because he is so much more of a reporter that he can report an out-of-the-way town like Thrums, and make it as famous as London. The world will look through a window anywhere, if it belongs to a man who sees things from it. The real difference between Barrie and the host of journalists to which he belongs is not that he could make Thrums as famous as London, but that he wanted to. No one else would have thought that Thrums would pay. Barrie did not. He delighted in it. Nine reporters out of ten, once finding themselves in Kipling’s place, would have been too clever and worldly-wise to have written as Kipling did. Who would have supposed that the whole civilized world from its great complacent continents would ever come pouring out in crowds to the jungles of India? It was because Kipling delighted in the jungle, could not help writing about it, whether anybody wanted it or not, that we find the whole reading world to-day crowding jungleward across the seas; spending its time in that fever-stricken district, that Indian-haunted, Mulvaneymemoried wilderness, as if it blossomed as the rose. “ Nobody cares about this jungle of yours. Why don’t you write on something that people care about ? ” said the English publisher distinguished for rejecting Mr. Kipling’s work. Mr. Kipling’s secret is that he took hold of something that nobody wanted him to do, and did it better than any one wanted him to do it. He owes his success to the fact that he has never done anything except to please himself, and he holds it because no one can get him not to do it now.

The average reporter asks, “ What do people want ? ” The great reporter asks, “ What do I want them to want ? ” The public flatters the average reporter with prompt success. “ You give us,” it says, “ what we want.” To the great reporter it says, in its slowly awakened, immeasurable, and convincing way : “ What will this man Kipling want next Then we want it.” The average reporter, gadding about for availability instead of cultivating ability, cares more for succeeding as a writer than he does for the thing he writes. That is why he is an average reporter. The power to make men interested in the things they never have learned to like is a power that belongs alone to the disinterested man, the man who is led by some great delight, until the delight has mastered his spirit, given unity to his life, become the habit and companion of his power, led him out into a large place to be a leader of men.

The typical journalist of the more literary sort, writing at a cent a word, or at regular Western Union rates, ten words for a quarter, is much impressed with some of the prices of which he hears. He asks, “ Why does Mr. Kipling receive a dollar a word for a poem ? ” It is because he has been spending ninetynine cents’ worth of work on every word he has written for many years, — in ballads for country newspapers, in tales for out-of-the-way places. It is because he would have paid ninety-nine cents for any word, any day, to make it say what he wanted it to say. It is because the author of The Jungle Book has never been able to consider what he cost himself that we are not able to-day to consider what he costs us. The history of his art is the history of the habit he has always had of throwing himself away. We may be inclined to think that he is not doing it now. We may feel a little aggrieved, some of us, that good ordinary Saxon words that any one could find in a dictionary are worth a dollar apiece because Mr. Kipling selects them. But if we could look over the artist’s shoulder, as he sits at his desk some fine morning, if we could see the hundreds of dollars’ worth of words he is habitually throwing away, it would be food for contemplation. When one considers that Mr. Kipling has to pay for all the words he leaves out, and that one has to pay only for those he puts in, it is obvious that one cannot be an artist for nothing. It may be a sorry sight to see a man sitting down, spending hundreds of dollars a minute crossing out words, but this is only a trifling part of what it costs to be a Kipling, to be a poet and a reporter at the same time.

The essential difficulty with journalism as a basis for the arts is not that it deals with the passing thing, but that the average journalist does better work for ten dollars a column than he does for five. He calculates. He is not interested in the passing thing for what it is, but for what he can get out of it. Which is another way of saying that he does not respect the passing thing, that therefore he is not a good journalist, that therefore he can never be a good artist.

This is not saying that a man who is employed by his ideals will not desire to do better work for these same ideals at a ten-dollar rate than for five. If the truth were known, it would be found that he has such a desire, and that he is incompetent to fulfill it. Probably it is one of the sorest trials of his life, — for a long and trying period, at least, — his chronic inability not to write as well for the Centre County Clarion as for the New York Times. Indeed, the first sentence or so in the Clarion is likely to show more often than not what would be called a fitting degree of self-control, — a disposition not to fall into a ten-dollar rut on a five-dollar page ; but he soon forgets it. He cannot help forgetting it. A five-dollar bill is more abstract to him than an idea.

But the assertion that to be an artist is to be a gigantic journalist, is to be able to do the timely thing with the eternal touch, is sure to meet with the objection from the reporter who is trying to be a poet, “ But where shall a man begin to do the timely thing with the eternal touch ? ” The proprietor of the artist in his beginning days is the newspaper. “ Where is timely eternity being published just now,” he asks, “ in the daily press ? ” “ What we want,” says the Daily Press to the artist, “ is, not the timely thing with the eternal touch, but the timely thing with the timely touch. You shall not write what is as good to read one day as another. Into this particular morning, into this particular edition of this particular morning, it belongs to you to fit the mood of the thing you say and the way you say it. If a man will write a thing that is just as good for the next morning as it is for this, or for the morning after that, or for the next month, or for the next generation, let him wait for the next generation. Let the next generation pay his wages. We have no subscribers among the next generation. Do the unborn advertise ? ” Before he knows it, the journalist who would be an artist, who would do the passing thing in an eternal way, finds himself bound body and soul to the Moment, to what happens in a moment, to the way the Moment looks upon what happens in a moment, and the Moment — “ We are the Moment ! ” cries the voice of the newsboy through a thousand streets, and the sound of it is the sound of the voice of the ruler of the world. The power to silence this voice, to make this voice listen to him for one keen world-wide moment, is the first requisite a man must have who would crowd a masterpiece upon an age that can only hope to attain masterpieces in spite of itself, and by the willfulness and imperiousness of its artists.

To each age, as it comes, the word “masterpiece ” now and always shall be an absolute and literal and matter-of-fact word. The age in which everybody reads, in which all the world has to be mastered, requires a more masterful masterpiece. The present age makes a more extraordinary demand upon the artist than ever has been made before. It demands that unless his work can have something in it that can master newsboys and art critics at the same time, it shall fall short of greatness. Neither of these alone shall be enough. If he holds the art critics, the newsboys, in the midst of their din, will see that he dies before men find out who he is. If he holds the newsboys, no one will care who he is.

It has been true of every great work of art, in every age, that “ Eternity affirms the conception of an hour; ” but in a journalistic age, unless the conception of an hour is affirmed before the hour is up, Eternity will never get a chance to affirm it. While it is true that the newspaper neither creates, modifies, nor affirms immortality, it is most important with regard to the newspaper that, for better or worse, it stands in the gate. It has posted a new rule on the door that leads to Olympus : “ Do the passing thing in an eternal way while it is passing or before it has passed.” Which, being interpreted, means that the success of an artist, under existing conditions, depends upon how much eternity he can crowd into five minutes. Even if he has once succeeded in getting the eternal touch, — doing a thing so that it lasts forever, in five minutes, — he has yet to go forth into the highways and hedges and discover the people, if he can, who are willing to spend as much as five minutes in watching a thing last forever.

The problem reduced to its lowest terms is something like this, for the would-be artist : First, “ Create your eternal touch without taking any time for it.” Second, “ Create the people who can appreciate an eternal touch without taking any time for it.” The most threatening aspect of the daily paper of the average sort is not merely that it is making it impossible for a man to write a masterpiece, but it is making it impossible to find anybody to read it, if he does. It is taking the artist’s public away. It is producing a public that never looks at a book except over the edge of a morning paper ; that looks at everything in this world and the next and through all the nations from over the great High Fence of the Moment, built in the small hours of the night. It is a public that lives one morning paper at a time. It is a great century, this nineteenth century of ours, but it is the most selfcentred century, the most telegraphed to about itself, the most preoccupied with the moments as they pass, that the world has known. It shall be known among the greater centuries that are yet to come as the little century of long ago that first discovered how large a moment was ; the century that made a moment a colossal moment, as moments had never been made before ; the century that, with telephone and telegraph and printing press, discovered the present tense, made all the world a voice on a wire ; that brought the nations of the earth and all the sons of men out of work in their shops, sleep in their beds, ships, dreams, rushing trains, peace, war, sorrow, and pride, out of sunlight and starlight, sea and land, in the twinkling of an eye, wherever they were, — brought them face to face, breath upon breath, man to man, in the Congress of the Printed Page.

The nineteenth century shall be known as the century that made the present moment as vast on paper as all history had been in the thoughts of men before. It shall be known by the first great century of the future as the century that was moment-mad ; that turned all eternity upside down in the present tense; that read about itself in the streets, the cars, in motion and at rest ; that read about itself standing and sitting, eating and drinking and in bed ; that read while it worked ; that had literature in the parlor and the shop, in the bedroom for the invalid, in the kitchen for the cook ; that had the letters of the alphabet in its very soup. It shall be known as the century that read and read, and continued to read, but always about itself, dizzied with its own sunrises and its own sunsets, — and never more than one sunrise or one sunset at a time.

“ Why should I take,” says the modern man, “ one of these splendid, hurrying, jostling nineteenth-century minutes of ours to read a book that lasts forever ? ” With his maze of wood pulp in his hands, and ninety square feet of the present moment spread out before his eyes, why should he read a book that almost anybody could read in almost any century ? — a book that can be read a thousand years from now, when this poor egotistic nineteenth century of ours, with its literature about itself, is hushed forever, remembered only for its steam engines whirling their wheels on the land and walking the waters of the sea, or for its steam hammers sounding on the anvils of the years that once a nineteenth century had lived. “ Some centuries are remembered,” says the voice of History, “ because great men strove to live in them, but could not find room. The art of these centuries is the art of a few immortal rebukes.”

Shut in out of all infinity between the high wall called yesterday and the high wall called to-morrow, this nineteenth century of ours is like some vast Roman circus under the wide heaven, the huge race course of which is drawing strangely now, in hot and eager madness, to its eternal close. Round and round and round we go, droves of us, as fast as we are born, running breathless all our days, trying to catch up, if we only may, to the News that above our dreams flies onward beyond our reach in the darkness of the night. It is a spectacle for gods. Every blessed man of us, on his paper charger mounted, while time flies under his feet, holding on to his last edition with both hands and for dear life, — and why ? Lest we perish, — Heaven help us ! — lest we perish, perchance, for not knowing what was not worth happening while we slept, or be caught in the act of not being intelligent enough to-day to know what to-morrow we shall be intelligent enough to forget.

In these extraordinary conditions, it is bound to be the moral and artistic value of the man who next shall love this age enough to master it, that he will prepare himself to thrive on the two cardinal impossibilities of the literary life in a newspaper day, namely, — crowding eternity into five minutes, getting any one to take five minutes in which to notice eternity.

To be a transfigured reporter, a journalist who is more of an artist than the artists, an artist who is more of a journalist than the journalists, — this is the inevitable destiny of the next great writer who shall succeed in making headway in the public mind. His biography will be an interpretation of that public mind, wresting every day, in its great amorphous life, eternal things out of passing ones. The next great work of art will be this man’s victory over himself, reflecting a world’s victory. The measure of the art in it shall be the measure of his masterfulness. To be a journalist is to be master of the moment by living in it. To be an artist is to be master of the moment by living in it and by living outside of it ; by living where the moments come from and whither they return ; by getting all around a moment, ahead of it, behind it, beneath it, and above it ; by possessing imagination, the faculty of being everywhere, and vitality, the faculty of being here now, focusing heaven upon the earth.

It makes little difference how keen his power of seeing may be, in an age like this, if there be not added to a man persistence and self-assertion and moral courage. These shall make his imagination part of the public furnishing of the world, instead of a merely private luxury, They shall make the man himself, living his victory quietly out in the din and jostle and hurry of our life, — an eternal spectacle.

Gerald Stanley Lee.