Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature: An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891. Vols. VIVIII: Literature of the Republic, Part III., 18351860
The Popular Press
By John Bascom (18271911)
[Born in Genoa, N. Y., 1827. Died in Williamstown, Mass., 1911. Philosophy of English Literature. 1874.]
IT may be said against much that may be urged for the periodical press, that it is in large part instrumental; that it is a great whispering-gallery, carrying light things and scandalous things and wicked things a long way to many ears that might otherwise happily have missed of them; that the press is often but the tell-tale mechanism of disgraceful national gossip, that has nothing whatever to recommend it. Granting freely the truth of this and other accusations, still we must remember that village gossip is better than family gossip, town gossip is better than village gossip, state gossip than town gossip and national gossip than either. Gossip loses something of its banefulness, obscurity, and petty personality and private hate, at every remove, and the country scandal of a low tavern is as much more concentrate, vicious, and unclean than that of a news-room or county paper as its range is more restricted. Simply to get men out of doors, away from the trite, stupid vulgarity of their cronies, is a great gain. A national interest and the air of national intelligence make way for national truth, and these for universal truth.
It may also be urged against the press, that it gives ready circulation to vice. The accusation is most true. Such, however, is not the natural fellowship even of news, much less of popular discussion. Pestilence may fly on the wings of morning, but these more often distil the dewy fragrance of abounding life. Publicity is allied to light, and favors virtue. Vice, as a rule, has more to gain from concealment than exposure. It settles as a miasma in dark and secluded places, rather than on wind-swept slopes under open heavens.
The literary accusation is thought to lie strongly against newspaper influence, that it debauches language, introducing questionable words and street phrases, passing them from one grade of literary recognition to another, till, forgetful of their low extraction, they are able in quiet effrontery to usurp good society. Here, too, there is truth in the statement; but the fact expressed by it has also its compensations, and by no means unimportant ones. Mere formal criticism, a cold conventional pedantry, the literary barrenness that overtakes letters from time to time, encounter resistance in the somewhat coarse yet vigorous popular appetite; and language is kept more flexible, lithe, and nervous than it otherwise would be. The purely literary tendency cannot safely be left to itself. It is too overwrought and finical. If it is wedded to creative power, well; but when this is wanting, its place may be supplied in part by the popular impulse, by the homely, changeable, but always lively service to which language is put in the newspaper world. As a matter of fact, recent years have been characterized by a large number of critical works on the English language. Some of our periodicals assiduously cultivate style, and many works of the present time could be pointed out which show a high popular estimate of pure, simple composition. It remains to be shown that the language has really been injured by the freedom and license of the popular press. Departure at one point from the staidness of ordinary labor no more incapacitates us to return with relish to it at another than does the raciness of conversation unfit us for the formalities of sober speech.
One pronounced tendency, which has been with us through the entire century, is literary criticism, bold, fearless criticism in all departments. This is the fruit of the large and varied audience which the press gives to every leading work. The worlds estimate of it, the discrepancies of opinion which it calls forth, are as instant and inevitable as the sympathetic approval or censure, or the divided feeling that runs through the gathered multitude listening around a political stand. Aside from systematic and direct criticism, aside from that involved in discussion, there are many popular writers who, with open, inquiring eye, arraign topic after topic before them for judgment. Our popular novelists are often of this character, Dickens, George Eliot, George MacDonald; and in more general literature, Carlyle, Ruskin, Emerson. Such men are personified criticism, who search all they see.
The present diffusion of literature, so hopeful a sign to philanthropy, does, indeed, intensify the struggle for literary life. In the tossing of the multitudinous waves, much floats for a little that is of slight value, and works that can ill be spared are occasionally engulfed, overwhelmed by things more trivial but more buoyant. Composite tendencies, the half-unconscious conjoint movement of many minds, interlocked in their life, take the place of individual leadership, and thus the conditions of progress are removed, more and more, from the hands of single men. Some pictorial interest, some individual development, may seem to be lost in this upheaval, this uprising of the masses, this general diffusion and stir of intellectual life; but an organic, social growth, that indicates a conquering force at work freely on many minds, is much the more stable, and, at bottom, much the more stimulating and spiritually interesting development.