The Literary Aspect of Journalism

IT is a pity that we cannot get on without definitions, but there is too much convenience in them, too much safety. They accoutre us, they marshal us the way that we are going, they help us along the difficult middle path of argument, they comfort our declining periods. Poor relations, to be sure, and not to be made too much of; but, at least, one ought not to be ashamed of them in company. If there are abstract terms which can safely be employed offhand, the terms of literary criticism are hardly among them. What wonder ?

If political economists find it hard to determine the meaning of words like “ money ” and “ property,” how shall critics agree in defining such imponderable objects as genius, art, literature ? Is literature broadly “ the printed word,” the whole body of recorded speech ? Or is it the product of a conscious and regulated, but not inspired, art ? Or is it, with other products of art, due to that expression of personality through craftsmanship which we call genius? To the last put question I should say yes ; confessing faith in personal inspiration as the essential force in literature, and in the relative rather than absolute character of such personal inspiration, or genius. I think of literature not as ceasing to exist beyond the confines of poetry and belles-lettres, but as embracing whatever of the printed word presents, in any degree, a personal interpretation of life. What he is and has, — some touch of genius, some property of wisdom, some hold (however partial and unconscious) upon the principles of literary art, — these things enable a writer for interpretative or “ creative ” work.


From this point of view journalism has, strictly, no literary aspect; it has certain contacts with literature, and that is all. The real business of journalism is to record or to comment, not to create or to interpret. In its exercise of the recording function it is a useful trade, and in its commenting office it takes rank as a profession ; but it is never an art. As a trade it may apply rules, as a profession it may enforce conventions ; it cannot embody principles of universal truth and beauty as art embodies them. It is essentially impersonal, in spirit and in method. A journalist cannot, as a journalist, speak wholly for himself; he would be like the occasional private citizen who nominates himself for office. A creator of literature is his own candidate, his own caucus, his own argument, and his own elector. It is aut Cœsar aut nullus with him, as with the aspirant in any other form of art. This is why an unsuccessful author is so much more conspicuous an object of ridicule than other failures. He has proposed himself for a sort of eminence, and has proved to be no better than a Christian or an ordinary man. He might, perhaps, have been useful in some more practical way, — for instance, in journalism, which offers a respectable maintenance, at least, to the possessor of verbal talent. Its ex parte impersonality affords him a surer foothold at the outset. Pure journalism has no need of genius; it is an enterprise, not an emprise. It records fact, and on the basis of such fact utters the opinion of partisan consensus, of editorial policy, or, at its point of nearest approach to literature, of individual intelligence.

But it happens that pure journalism is hardly more common than pure literature. The “ spark of genius ” is, one must think, more than a metaphor. If it did not often appear in writers whose principal conscious effort is given to the utilization of talent, there would be no question of anything more than contrast between literature and journalism. There is a mood in which every thoughtful reader or writer is sure to sympathize with a favorite speculation of the late Sir Leslie Stephen’s. “ I rather doubt,” he expressed it not long ago in the pages of the Atlantic, “ whether the familiar condemnation of mediocre poetry should not be extended to mediocrity in every branch of literature. . . . The world is the better, no doubt, even for an honest crossing-sweeper. But I often think that the value of second-rate literature is—not small, but — simply zero. ... If one does not profess to be a genius, is it not best to console one’s self with the doctrine that silence is golden, and take, if possible, to the spade or the pickaxe, leaving the pen to one’s betters ? ”

One’s betters, — it is, after all, an indefinite phrase. Are they only the best ? Attempts to establish an accurate ranking of genius have proved idle enough. It is not altogether agreed whether the greatest names can be counted on the fingers of one hand or of two; it is fairly well understood that they are worth all the other names “put together.” But does it follow that all the other names are, therefore, worth nothing ? The foothills have never been quite put to shame by the loftiest summits. I do not see that it is altogether admirable, this instinct which makes men querulous for the best. One may be reasonably credulous as to the average of human ability without perceiving anything mediocre in the next best, or in the next to that. Surely there is nothing trivial in the employment of the least creative faculty, if it does not interfere with more important functions. That primum mobile, the question of the major utility, is an ancient battleground upon which we shall hardly venture to set foot. Here are still fought over the eternal issues between commerce and the arts, science and the classics, the practical and the ideal. It is for us only to skirt the edge of conflict with the admission that a great talent may be more effective, even more permanently effective, than a small genius ; as a Jeffrey has proved to be more effective than a Samuel Rogers. It is, for whatever the fact may be worth, the man of affairs, the man of opinions, rather than the seer or the poet, who determines what the next step of the infant world shall be.

The fact of Sir Leslie Stephen’s career yields a sufficient gloss upon the letter of his theory, — if theory is not too serious a word for his half-ironical speculation. He had, by his own account, no natural impulse toward production in the forms which are commonly called creative. He was prevented from becoming a poet (as he admits with his usual engaging frankness) by his inability to write verse ; and his instinct did not lead him toward fiction. His only path to literature lay through a superior kind of journalism. Among his staff colleagues upon the Saturday Review, the Pall Mall Gazette, and elsewhere, were Mill, Venables, Mark Pattison, Fronde, Freeman, Thackeray, and John Morley. He does not think too highly of the profession in which such men were, at least temporarily, engaged. He records, not without malice, the fact that Jeffrey, a prince among journalists, complained of Carlyle’s being “ so desperately in earnest.” He speaks with admiration of Carlyle’s having himself been successful in resisting “the temptations that most easily beset those who have to make a living by the trade.” He permits himself an ironical comment upon Mill’s comparison of the modern newspaper press and the Hebrew prophets. “ There are not many modern journalists,” he remarks with misleading mildness, “ who impress one by their likeness to a Jeremiah or a John the Baptist. The man who comes to denounce the world is not likely to find favor with the class which lives by pleasing it.” Finally, he thinks it proper to say yet more sharply, “To be on the right side is an irrelevant question in journalism.” Sir Leslie’s personality was not of the subduable kind, and presently found its proper expression in the varied labors of a man of letters. His journalistic experience could be only a temporary phase.


Those who have approached literature through journalism are legion, but they are only indirectly connected with our present theme. More to our purpose are the many writers of power whose permanent and absorbing task is journalism, but whose work is so unmistakably informed with personality, so pure in method and in contour, as to outrank in literary quality the product of many a literary workshop. Such writers may have been capable of attaining a real, though not a great, success in more purely literary forms ; yet their achievement leaves us no room for regret. Their business has been to record and to estimate facts and conditions of the moment; their instinct has led them to offer a personal interpretation of these facts and conditions. Our only cause of embarrassment lies in the resultant character of the given product. It is not a little difficult to reduce to a category such men as Christopher North, Jeffrey, Steevens, or Godkin. Journalism is concerned with immediate phenomena. Talent, for its empirical method of dealing with the data afforded by such phenomena, finds a safeguard in the impersonal or partisan attitude ; it is enabled, at least, to generalize by code to a practical end. A journalist whose impersonal talent, let us say, is unable to subdue his personal genius, feels the inadequacy of this method. He has a hankering for self-expression. He is dissatisfied with this hasty summarizing of facts, this rapid postulating of inferences. He insensibly extends his function, reinforces analysis with insight: and produces literature. He has not been able to confine himself to telling or saying something appropriate to the moment; he has merely taken his cue from the moment, and busied himself with saying what is appropriate to himself and to the truth as he knows it. He has, in short, ceased to be a machine or a mouthpiece, and become a “ creative ” writer.

Of course the same thing happens in other arts, and in other forms of the printed word. In history, in private or public correspondence, in the gravest scientific writing, even, one often perceives a sort of “ literature of inadvertence,” a literature in effect, though not in primary intent. There is, indeed, no form of writing except what baldly records, mechanically compiles, or conventionally comments, which may not give expression, however incidental or imperfect, to personality, to the power of interpretation as contrasted with the power of communication.


We may consider a little in detail the two functions of pure journalism, and note how easily they transform into the literary or interpretative function. It is plain that little distinction can be made between a piece of journalism and a piece of literature on the ground of external subject-matter alone. A squalid slum incident, a fashionable wedding, the escape of a prisoner, the detection of a forgery, may afford material either for

journalism or for the literary art. In one instance the product will be interesting as news, in the other because it bears upon some universal principle or emotion of human life. So it not seldom happens that a reporter develops extra-journalistic skill in the portrayal of experience or character. Writers of fiction are spawned almost daily by the humbler press. The journalistic use of the word “ story ” indicates the ease of a transition which is not a wandering from fact to falsity, but an upward shift from the plane of simple registry to the plane of interpretation. Mr. Kipling happens to be the most conspicuous modern instance of the reporting journalist turned story-writer. It seems that his genius has led him to the instinctive development of an art based upon principles to which he professes a certain indifference. There are an indefinite number of ways of inditing tribal lays, he assures us, and every single one of them is right. The speculation has its merits as a tribute to personality; it has decided demerits in seeming to lay stress upon the virtue of mere oddity or inventive power. Mr. Kipling will eventually rank with a class of writers separated by a whole limbo from the greatest creative spirits ; one need not in the least grudge them their immediate effectiveness. Greater writers than Mr. Kipling have been skeptical as to the value of those lesser forms of art which suggest mere artifice. Carlyle expressed doubt as to the permanent effectiveness of what the Germans call “ Kunst: ” the conscious application of artistic theories or methods to the expression of truth. Indeed, to take it seriously at all, one must take art to be the expression of a personal creative faculty as distinguished from that of an impersonal producing faculty ; the result of a true consciousness of principles, not a mere being aware of them. So far as a record of immediate events manifests such a consciousness, it asserts its right to be considered not as journalism, but as literature.

Nor, further, can any fortune of publication establish a distinction of quality between these two forms of the printed word. Not long ago a popular American writer ventured so far as to advance the theory that it is largely a matter of luck whether a given bit of writing will turn out to be literature or not; unless, indeed, the act of putting it within cloth covers be the final guaranty of its quality. The remark was, we may suppose, not intended to be taken very seriously. It is pathetically true that the quality of minor literature is not determined by the accident of its disappearance or of its preservation in book form. Fortunately, the research of special students and the enthusiasm of amateur explorers do succeed in rescuing much of desert from the diluvial flotsam of the past. Much is undoubtedly lost. Its vitality has proved insufficient, over-shadowed in its own day, perhaps, by superior vitalities. Such is the fate also of canvases, of statues, of beautiful buildings. Works of art are not ephemeral because they fail to live forever; we must not be unreasonable in demanding long life for all that deserves the name of literature. Granted that the literature of the newspaper report has less chance of permanence than the literature of the magazine or of the publisher’s venture: it nevertheless serves its purpose ; and perhaps makes itself felt more than the generality suspect. It may happen that a brief sketch of some apparently trivial scene or incident, printed in an obscure journal, actually excels in pure literary quality the more elaborate structures of fiction, with all the dignity that may attend their publication, whether serially or between covers of their own.

It is evident, moreover, that our definition of journalism applies to several large classes of books. There are, for example, books on exploration, physical or other; on anthropological or sociological experiment; books recording special conditions, or commenting impersonally on special events, of the day. The usefulness of such books is obvious ; they could not well be dispensed with. Yet it is only in the hands of a Carlyle or an Arnold or a Ruskin that this kind of material becomes literature, — an expression of universal truth in terms of present fact. Wherever in a journal personality emerges and fully expresses itself, literature emerges. Wherever in literary forms the occasional, the conventional, the partisan, the indecisive personality, are felt, journalism is present.


There is another modification of the recording function which has assumed great importance in the popular periodicals of the day. The “ special article ” represents a development, rather than a transformation, of the newspaper report as it deals with conditions. A description of proposed buildings for a new World’s Fair ; a sketch of the relations between Japan and Korea before the outbreak of the Russian war; an account of recent movements in municipal or national politics; a study of a commercial trust: with such articles our magazines are filled. They are a legitimate and useful product of journalism ; one should only take care to distinguish them from that personal creative form, the essay. The public demand for such work has given birth to a new race of special reporters, among whom the popular idol appears to be that picturesque adventurer, the war correspondent. Such men do excellent service. They write with vivacity and with a kind of individuality ; but their work is unlikely to possess the qualities which give permanence. It is a brilliant hazard of description and comment; it does all that talent and special aptitude can do with the material in hand. Almost inevitably, it lacks the repose, the finality, the beauty, which may eventually belong to a personal or literary treatment of the same material. This is true even of the product of so vigorous and effective a writer as the late G. W. Steevens. He was somewhat too closely involved in the condition of the moment “ to see life steadily and to see it whole.” Such men are bound to take sides, and are consequently doomed to half-express themselves in wholly uttering a point of view or a phase. Their work will possess individual unction, but hardly the force of personal inspiration. It is naturally overestimated by the public, which is convinced that talent and energy rule the world now, no matter what may be true in the long run ; and that to rule the world now is the most important of possible achievements. But, indeed, the value of such work is not small. One cannot doubt that it is more meritorious for a person of moderate ability to fling himself into the press, and to make sure of doing one kind of man’s work, than to sit down in a corner and murmur, “ Go to: I am about to be a genius.” As a matter of fact, most great writers have been active in affairs, in one way or other. The Divine Comedy, Hamlet, Paradise Lost, Faust, show clear traces of activities far enough from the practice of letters. Nevertheless, Milton’s criticism of life is to be found in his poetry rather than in his controversial prose, and Dante’s in his celebration of Beatrice rather than in his recorded services to Florence. The product of such energy is calculable, the influence of such genius altogether incalculable. Nevertheless, his simple duty remains the same ; all that his office demands of him is official speech. More than talent and conformity belongs to the few who direct the course of journalism ; but even their admitted powers are rather for administration than for expression. A man of this kind is content to embody a theory in an organ or a group of organs, to determine an editorial policy, and to influence public opinion. The genius of a writer like Godkin cannot be denied; it still presides over the admirable journal which owes its prestige to him. But it was a genius allied with a moral sense somewhat too readily moved to indignation. His was a singular instance of the nature which prefers the ardor of prompt service to the ardor of self-utterance. His work lay, accordingly, upon the borger regions between literature and journalism.

Between literature and “ the higher journalism ” the partition is extremely thin. If I understand the term, the higher journalism means the function of impersonal comment employed at its utmost of breadth and dignity. It gives utterance to individual judgment rather than personal interpretation. It aims to inform and to convince rather than to express. It displays real erudition, it urges admirable specifics, it produces, in fact, printed lectures on practical themes addressed to the practical intelligence. One perceives a close analogy between the functions of the higher journalist and those of the preacher, the lawyer, and the politician. An ex parte impersonality is all that can be demanded of any of them, — intellectual independence being a desirable asset, but the thing said being largely determined by a policy, a creed, a precedent, or a platform. In any of these professions will appear from time to time the literary artist, — the man escaping from preoccupation with specific methods or ends, and expressing his personality by some larger interpretation of life. Hence come our Newmans, our Burkes, and our Macaulays.

So from the “ article ” of higher journalism literature frequently emerges. The given composition ceases to be a something “ written up ” for a purpose, and becomes a something written out of the nature of a man. It is not merely an arrangement of data and opinions; it stirs with life, it reaches toward a farther end than immediate utility. Under such conditions the journalist does honor to his craft by proving himself superior to it. He has dedicated his powers to a practical service; but he has not been false to his duty in transcending it.


There seems to be no need of seriously discussing the question of superiority between the two forms of verbal activity. Creation is always superior to production, but that is not a fact which ought to trouble honest producers. A journalist is contemptible only when by some falsetto method he attempts to lead the public into fancying that it is getting literature of him. Otherwise he deserves, no more than the lawyer or the clergyman, to be held in disesteem by men of letters. Some discredit has doubtless been cast upon the profession by the existence of that forlorn army of writers who would have liked to illumine the world, but have to make the best of amusing it, or even to put up with providing it with information. Since journalism is a trade, a person of reasonable endowment may have better hope of achieving moderate success in it than in literature. But one does not fit himself for journalism by failing in literature, any more than one fits himself for literature by failing in journalism. To have one’s weak verse or tolerable fiction printed in a newspaper does not make one a journalist; nor does it turn the newspaper into a literary publication. Literary graces ! There are few articles so unpromising of any good, in the great journalistic department shop on which the numerical world now depends for most of its wants.

The popularity of journalism in America has, we have noted before, reacted upon most of our magazines so strongly that they are distinguished from the better daily journals by exclusion of detail and modification of method rather than by essential contrast in quality. Upon the character of the daily press, that is, depends the character of our entire periodical product; and this means, in large measure, the character of the public taste. To afford a vast miscellaneous population like ours its only chance of contact with literature entails a responsibility which may well appall even the ready and intrepid champions of the daily press. While, however, the night-fear of the yellow journal is disturbing enough to those who watch for the morning, they will have pleasanter visions, even now not altogether unrealized, of a journalism more responsible, more just, more firmly pursuant of that fine enthusiasm for absolute fitness, for the steady application of worthy means to worthy ends, which is the birthright of literature.

H. W. Boynton.