The Pull of the Printed Word


ONE of the public delusions is that the printed word is particularly dynamic and that a thought expressed in type may start forces in motion that may eventually alter the direction of civilization.

Those who are unaccustomed to having their thoughts expressed in print usually await the release of their brain child with all the terror that a youngster awaits the explosion of a giant cracker after he has ignited the fuse. The cracker does create a terrific noise, but the printed word, in 999,999 cases out of a million, makes about as much noise as a fat goldfish in a glass bowl.

There are exceptions, of course. Several years ago a salesman asked me to buy a series of fifty-two posters for my shop. These posters were printed in many colors, with bold illustrations. They were supposed to teach thrift, safety, loyalty to the employer, opposition to the labor racketeers, and ‘all that stuff,’ as Amos ’n’ Andy would say. I told the man that I was n’t interested, because I was trying to make a living by doing the same thing in a different way.

He became confidential and told me that the objection which he had to meet oftenest was that the employees would n’t pay any attention to the posters. ‘They won’t read the stuff we put on the bulletin boards,’ said the employers.

The salesman showed me how he met this objection. He offered to bet the employer any sum up to one hundred dollars that he could produce three posters, smaller than his regular posters and printed in a single color, which, if placed on the most inconspicuous board in the plant, would be seen and read by every employee before the end of the day. Not only would the posters be read, asserted the salesman, but the employees would probably send a delegation to the office of the management.

One of these posters stated that the American workman was a bum, a loafer, and a no-good, and cited evidence. The other two posters were equally outspoken. The employer was prompt to admit that such posters would be read, but that he would be afraid to display them. The point I am trying to make is that people are fiendishly alert in ferreting out anything that hits them where it hurts.

I have been writing the copy for a group of house organs for nearly twenty years, during most of which time they have had a monthly circulation of about 200,000. They must be read by some people, or those who pay me would not keep on sending them out. But what is it in them that prompts people to write to me or the users? Occasionally an item is reprinted in a more important publication and readers frequently send complimentary letters. I find that what gets under the hide of people is not the more or less profound material that represents serious thought, but such cases as the following: —

Dogs probably come ahead of everything else. Love a dog and the world will love you. The formula is so easy that a self-respecting author refuses to use it except in an extremity.

‘Knock’ some group or special interest. One time I referred to a certain type of female as a gum-chewer. The expression was not original, but it was used with precision. At once the maker of a popular chewing gum sat down and ponderously wrote my customer that if he expected to continue to do business with his company he must stop referring to its clients in derisive terms.

At another time I made a remark about tearooms, explaining that I did not like the food, the decorations, or the atmosphere of the places. This prompted the owners of a chain of tearooms in New York City to protest indignantly.

Last year I described a supper that my wife prepared in our kitchen on the cook’s night out. We had a casserole in which were blended a piece of meat and fifteen different fresh vegetables, all purchased that day at market. The dish was delicious and my description of it evidently made the occasion seem important, because the owner of a siring of restaurants in Eastern cities complained that such articles interfered with the patronage of their business. Why, they asked, should they buy from anyone who described the delights of dining at home?

Generally speaking, a writer can knock farmers, Protestants, politicians, plutocrats, university presidents, professors in non-denominational schools, Wall Street, bankers, authors of books, college undergraduates, Great Britain, or symphonic music without annoying the kind of people who write nasty letters. On the other hand, it is dangerous to knock chiropractors, osteopaths, insurance companies, Jews, Catholics, Christian Scientists, newspapers, or women. These groups seem to be on the defensive, and will not only write letters but, unless you are sufficiently humble in your apologies, attempt to put you out of business.

I have had correspondence from each of the groups mentioned except the Jews, Catholics, and Scientists, but I know that I have escaped their wrath only because I have never had occasion to criticize them in print.

Several years ago I had the opportunity to make an unusual test of reader response to the written word, and it confirms everything in this argument. The editor of a daily newspaper in a large city asked me to start something in the Letters-to-the-Editor column. He wanted to take the minds of the people off Higher Things and get them back to Fundamentals. Shortly thereafter I was walking through the City Square with a friend who would n’t intentionally harm a sparrow. In a sadistic and facetious mood, he said that the pigeons in the Square ought to be shot and their bodies given to the poor.

So that day I wrote to the paper and, under the initials B. F., proposed this humane undertaking, explaining that enough corn was fed to the pigeons by sentimental fools in the course of a week to keep several children from dying of starvation.

The response was instant and devastating. Nothing I have ever written in my career as a writer has equaled it. Whenever the correspondence died down, it could be fanned into a flame by another brief note, pointing out that the pigeons merely amused loafers who ought to be at work and that they fouled public buildings. The cruelty of war seems to leave people fairly cold, but individual cruelty, whether to an animal or a Negro, arouses their wrath.

Note the wide reading of such books as Beautiful Joe, Black Beauty, and Uncle Tom’s Cabin.


At this point I should like to take up the other side of this subject. Every editor is frequently in receipt of letters from readers who have written something with the notation ‘I dare you to print this.’ If the communication contains no obscene words — which is rare — and is not illiterate, the editor often obliges. As an editor, I amused myself recently by doing this, and thus got rid of a man who had bored me biweekly for a year. He claimed that what he had written would rock the town. I printed it just as he composed it, with the observation that I was willing to take a chance. Nothing happened, of course, and, short of libel and obscenity, seldom does anything happen.

When I concluded my term as foreman of the Cuyahoga County grand jury two years ago I published the jury’s report and sent copies to fifteen hundred people. One copy reached the desk of the editorial writer of a newspaper with a large circulation, one of many published by the owner. His editorial on the report occupied the entire upper half of the editorial page. Over it was an eight-column headline. That was as big a splash of publicity as I ever expect to get in a newspaper. The owner saw this editorial and, as is his custom when he likes something, ordered it published in every one of his other newspapers. Altogether this piece appeared in big type where it could be seen by several million people. What was the reader response?

I was in New York four days after it was published in that city. I saw perhaps a dozen people during my visit and, much to my chagrin and surprise, not a single one mentioned it. From various parts of the country I received from friends five clippings of the article, but to this day those are the only readers who to my certain knowledge saw the article, and I am not sure that even they read it.

More interesting, however, is the reader response to a daily piece I have written for ten years for a newspaper in an Eastern city. For three thousand days without interruption this feature has appeared. Perhaps in that time I have received as many as five hundred letters. With a circulation of more than 250,000, the newspaper must have half a million readers. Until the depression came upon us, my feature, which was syndicated, had a daily circulation of more than a million, but even the extra 750,000 produced only one or two extra letters per week.

It may seem from all this that I am a pitiful example of a writing profession, but that is not the case at all. It happens that people don’t write letters to writers like me, nor, I suspect, do they write letters to writers like Lippmann, Brisbane, Hearst, or Bruce Barton, at least not in quantities that make the correspondence a burden. They are more likely to write to the conductor of the column on astrology or love. Men are far more likely to write to the sports or financial editor than to the editorial director. Ninetynine and forty-four hundredths per cent of all people are indisposed to write at all.

At the risk of being accused of conceit, I should like to state that, in my own experience as a professional writer for more than twenty-five years, favorable comment on anything I have done has come from people of exceptional critical judgment. One would naturally remember such comment, but the point is that the person whom one would expect to be too busy to say a word of encouragement is actually the one who takes the time to do so. Whether the mass of people have any reactions at all to the kind of material I write, or to half of what is in the newspapers or magazines, I am unable to say, but I suspect that their reactions are pretty feeble.

Editors get deeply discouraged over the situation. They risk the lifelong enmity of crooks and politicians by publishing leaders designed to serve the public welfare, and the result is two letters of approval and six of disapproval. A month later, the makeup man fails to include the usual daily installment of Andy Gump in the comic section and for three hours the office is unable to transact any business because the telephone board is jammed with excess calls from irate subscribers.

The problem of reader response, however, is not so difficult as it seems. I have contended for a long time that the serious writer who wants reader response and action can get better results by confining his output to such magazines as the Atlantic Monthly, Harpers, and the American Mercury than he can from the Saturday Evening Post, Collier’s, or Liberty, with their tenfold circulation. It is likewise true, in my opinion, that a well-written timely letter in the Herald Tribune or in the New York Times creates more stir among people who count than a fullpage blast in a whole chain of newspapers.

Believe it or not, there are only about 250,000 people in the whole United States whose opinion is important in matters of grave concern. As these people go, so go the others. The thinking of these people starts the ball rolling. It never rolls until they start it.

The mass of people read exclusively for entertainment. They read the vituperative outbursts of Hearst in the same frame of mind that they read Dorothy Dix. They will read nothing that is n’t easy to read or entertaining. Their reactions are those of an oyster unless one of their deep prejudices is offended — such as a religious or class matter, a job, a pension, a privilege, or a racket.

These are the perennial themes of politicians: religion, class, jobs, pensions, privileges, rackets. Such vague things as personal liberty, sanitation, police protection, sound finance, tax rates, honesty in government, or economic liberty are forgotten immediately if the issue can be switched to religion or pensions. As is well known, of course, the public is also interested in crime, sex, food, and money. But these are matters for the news columns, whereas I am trying to confine this paper to subjects which lend themselves to editorial discussion where there is a chance for detached observation.


In any discussion of response to the printed word there must be included something about advertising, for without advertising the output of the printed word would be cut down at least nine tenths. With the exception of books, almost everything printed in the United States is subsidized by advertising, and without advertising few publications could exist.

Successful advertisers talk a language that the masses can understand, although it may leave the 250,000 intelligent people cold. Aside from a headline or two on the front page and ‘The Confessions of a Wife’ and ‘Little Orphan Annie,’ millions of women read nothing but the advertisements in a newspaper. With sufficient volume and pressure, literally thousands of women can be so aroused by printed advertising that they will leave their households and present themselves at the doors of the department stores at 9 A. M. Such numbers can be aroused to action by no other appeal. More women undoubtedly attend the important sales in some cities than vote at any election.

I suspect that the prospect of buying a dollar pair of sheer silk stockings for 83 cents interests more women than an utterance of Roosevelt, Coughlin, Townsend, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Walter Lippmann, or Sinclair Lewis.

The point of all this is that the response to the printed word is meagre and uncertain, and that what is beautiful and true is rescued from oblivion and cherished for the future by a pitifully small group. Never at any time in all the world are there more than a few thousand people who are interested in anything as remote from their daily existence as a poem, a fine bit of prose, a new law of money, or a new Einstein formula.

The complete destruction of the Congressional Library or the British Museum would cause less genuine dismay and conversation throughout the socalled civilized world than the death of one of the quintuplets. God must be at the bottom of this. He works in mysterious ways, as we know.

Nonetheless, I deny that writing which fails to reach the eyes and brains of the mass of people is useless and might as well never have been written. Let me give you the life history of an idea as it was outlined to me by an economist who was also an amateur reformer.

A city in Massachusetts had an alarming deficit, and the thoughtful people of the community were deeply concerned about it. The members of the city council, it was decided, had to be put out of office. It was announced that the deficit was a million dollars. This had no effect on the newspapers of the community or the voters. It did startle the large taxpayers, however.

The reformers, being resourceful, then dug up some dirt. They knew that the fifteen members of the council were in the habit of dining at city expense before the weekly council meetings. The per capita expense of one of these meetings was $73. The leading reformer got a photostat of this bill, which included dozens of boxes of cigars, candy, and several cases of whiskey. The plunder was probably delivered to the respective homes of the city officials in a truck. At an expense of $1200 to himself, the clean-up man distributed several thousand copies of this expense item. The metropolitan newspapers gave it big display and it seemed as though the crooks were sunk.

But the reaction was quite different. The common people refused to believe that anybody could spend $73 for a dinner. They contended that something was wrong, and that this was just a fight between two sets of crooks. The exposure, however, did have the effect of causing the councilmen to reduce their per capita charge for dinner to $2.50. You can buy a pretty good meal for that sum, but among people who might be vitally concerned with a million-dollar deficit the figure is not exciting.

The reformer, however, decided to make the most of this second expense account, and at last he got the reaction he wanted. To his delight and amazement, hoi polloi were outraged. Those who were accustomed to feeding their families for three days on $2.50 were infuriated to learn that the louts who represented them in public office squandered $2.50 on a single meal. The whole lot were promptly kicked out of office.

The man responsible recently said that you might as well talk to the moon as talk to the people of the United States about inflation. As an economic term or terror it means nothing to them. However, pork chops at forty cents a pound, or whatever they now cost, does mean something. According to him, the Administration is more concerned about the price of pork chops than it is about the unbalanced budget and the annual deficit. As a voting proposition, fifteen cents more per pound for pork chops means more to the ordinary voter than a three-billion excess of expense over receipts.

Again let me recall the famous episode of Governor Vic Donahey and the baked potato. Donahey had been elected to the highest office in Ohio by making his appeal to the farmers. He condemned high taxes and extravagance, and presented himself as a simple illiterate yokel. After he had taken office, a bill came through the auditor’s department that included an item of fifty cents for one baked potato. Donahey seized his opportunity. With tremendous indignation he denounced this charge, refused to allow it to be paid, and told the farmers that never would he O.K. an expense of fifty cents for one baked potato so long as the men who raised the potatoes were forced to sell them at fifty cents a bushel. Mr. Donahey is now the junior United States Senator from Ohio, and he can without doubt enjoy any office within the power of the Ohio people to give him so long as he lives.

Let us now move over to another city, where a woman is employed as a writer on the woman’s page of a newspaper. This woman wrote about sex, marriage, household problems, and all the stuff that intellectuals regard as drivel. The editor of the paper also thought it was drivel, but necessary, much as the vital statistics about the Polacks and Hunyaks are drivel to many of us.

This woman announced in her page one day that she would give a free party in one of the big halls of the city. As I understand it, the event received no publicity outside of her page. On the day of the party, she asked the editor of the paper to come as her guest. A hundred thousand people tried to attend that party and the editor had to fight his way in, assisted by six policemen. No vital economic issue could have attracted a hundredth of that crowd to a public meeting.


Recently I had an interesting experience in connection with the Townsend Plan. I read in a Cleveland paper an article by the promoter of the Townsend Clubs and, without waiting an instant, I telephoned the editor of the newspaper at his home and asked him if he would give the same space to the opposition that he had given to the advocates. He said he would be delighted to do this and I told him that I would supply three articles the following day.

This was one of the few times in my life when I wrote only to please myself. I was n’t being paid for the articles and I did n’t particularly care whether they were published or not. So I decided to make an experiment. I reasoned that it was no use to try to be logical or reasonable about the Townsend Plan.

I decided that my attack would be just as brutal and savage as I could make it. In the first draft I not only called the Plan cockeyed, but the followers, too. The editor turned white when he read the denunciation and asked for time out while he went into a huddle with his staff. The upshot of this was that he asked me please not to call the followers fools, but he gave me full permission to call the leaders all the names I pleased.

And so I had the satisfaction of a clinical test. I was certain the animals would be aroused, and I was not mistaken. I had attacked a privilege which the elderly people expect to enjoy. Dozens of letters came to me and the paper. I might have written ‘hundreds of letters,’ but that would probably be untrue. Rarely do hundreds of people write on any subject. When columnists and others write of ‘hundreds of letters,’ they mean they received six or eight letters.

Those of us who admit that we aren’t burdened with letters console ourselves with the reflection that it is n’t how many letters we get that counts but the kind of people from whom we get our letters. Reader response from a man of power is worth a thousand responses from ordinary people — if you want to get things done. Fortunately, if you have ideas, these powerful people are not hard to reach. They know what’s going on, and what they don’t know is reported to them by their agents. They are the hope of civilization. Short of chopping off their heads, they can’t be put down. W hen real danger lies ahead, they see it or are quick to receive the alarm from those who do see it.

In my brief solemn moments the contemplation of the whole situation is a source of grave uneasiness, because I think that the mass of people should be more concerned with personal liberty and the vitality of the Bill of Rights than they are with the price of pork, silk stockings, or gasoline. I think that Thoreau, although ignored for a long time, had as many important things to say as anyone who has ever written in this country, but then I reflect that he was n’t a married man, and I tell myself that if he had been maybe the family budget would have bothered him more than the infringement of his civil liberties.

The fact may be that some of us take ourselves too seriously. Or it may be that as writers we are just plain dull. Whatever may be the explanation of the indifference of the ordinary man to problems that excite a few of us, we know that he is decidedly alive when any issue takes a form that disturbs his dignity, or threatens his pocketbook. It may be just as well that the printed word does n’t lead him to prompt action. Some group might be marching on to Washington every hour of the day!