LITERATURE AND JOURNALISM IN ANTEBELLUM AMERICA by Mark Canada, Reviewed by Todd Thompson
 

LITERATURE AND JOURNALISM IN ANTEBELLUM AMERICA
By Mark Canada
(Palgrave Macmillan, 2011) x + 203 pp.
Reviewed by Todd Thompson on 2012-02-19.

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When Emily Dickinson wrote "Tell all the Truth but tell it slant" (Complete Poems [1976] 506), was she actually urging literary over journalistic writing? Mark Canada would have us believe so. He argues that while nineteenth-century American writers were influenced by and published in the newspapers of the day, they waged within their literary works a "war on journalism" (6, 58), attacking newspapers not just for their sensationalism and their inaccuracies but also for the narrowness of their conception of "the truth." In making this argument, Canada--a former journalist himself--disrupts the narrative line of studies that, over the past two decades, have highlighted intersections between American literature and journalism. That is, instead of explaining yet again how nineteenth-century American authors apprenticed or moonlighted as journalists, Canada foregrounds those who, in his readings, "wrote about journalism" (5). Rather than treating literature and journalism as mutually supportive in mid-nineteenth century America, he finds them caught up in "sibling rivalry" (5).

This slim volume is divided into two parts. Part I--which chiefly aims to lay a foundation for Canada's readings of antebellum authors in Part II--does three things. It surveys the connections between the pursuits of literature and journalism; outlines a pantheon of now-canonical antebellum writers' positions as readers, writers, and subjects of journalism; and rehearses antebellum writers' critiques of particular newspapers or the profession of journalism in general. Canada seems to accept the conclusions of scholars like Isabelle Lehuu (Carnival on the Page [2000]) and Shelly Fisher Fishkin (From Fact to Fiction: Journalism & Imaginative Writing in America [1985]), and in recounting the influence of the popular press on creative writing in the nineteenth century, he draws on Karen Roggenkamp's Narrating the News (2005). But while Roggenkamp argues that literature and journalism split in the early twentieth century (Narrating 119), Canada locates this divergence much earlier, in the antebellum era. "As journalism and literature grew," Canada writes, "they grew apart" and thus "emerged in the nineteenth century as two distinct disciplines" (3). At the heart of this rupture were literary authors' suspicions of the truth-value of newspaper stories. For "America's literary class," says Canada , journalism, "[d]espite its promise for educating and civilizing readers,...ultimately did not and could not deliver the sorts of truths that authors thought stories should be telling" (60). Literary authors viewed journalism as dangerous because it provided "newspaper readers with false representations of reality" (58).

In making this argument, Canada consistently looks forward to slippery issues of truth-telling prevalent in modern American journalism and culture. His Introduction and Epilogue both discuss disgraced modern journalists such as Janet Cooke, Stephen Glass, and Jayson Blair, and in between are myriad allusions to modern journalism and cultural treatments of it, such as the television program The Wire (11), a journalism textbook (20), and rocker Don Henley's lyrics about broadcast news (23). Time and again, Canada lays out twentieth-century journalistic standards, notes similarities to standards of nineteenth-century journalism, and then notes nineteenth-century authors' critiques of those standards. This approach risks anachronism, though Canada is careful to consider the evolution of journalistic standards over the last two hundred years.

In Part II Canada turns to specific literary works--specifically Thoreau's Walden (1854), Dickinson's poems, Poe's hoaxes and detective fiction, Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852), and Rebecca Harding Davis's "Life in the Iron-Mills" (1861). These, he argues, self-consciously used methods of truth-telling different from those employed by journalists. Or, as Canada more forcefully puts it, they "sought to replace journalism with 'news of their own'" (6). Aside from needlessly repeating (especially in such a short book) some of what chapter 2 has already told us about the links between journalism and each of these authors, Part II offers a significant scholarly contribution. Canada's steady, dual focus on journalism and literature leads him to freshly historicized, intriguingly oppositional readings of canonical literature that has been treated ad nauseum by critics over the years. In Chapter 4, for instance, he notes that both Thoreau and Dickinson "offered what might be termed 'dispatches from the fringe' as alternatives to a press that they considered misguided or insufficient" (6). In a compelling reading of Walden as Thoreau's "alternative to newspapers, in that it reports the deep truths of nature instead of the superficial gossip of mankind" (85), he shows how Thoreau redeploys journalistic tropes and language. Likewise, he shows how the "timeless" quality of Dickinson's language works against the timeliness of news stories--against the sense of immediacy they strive to convey (104).

Even more fascinating is Canada's reading--in Chapter 6--of the role of newspapers in Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin. Drawing his earlier discussion of this novel into the framework of the book's overarching argument, Canada notes that Stowe's male characters consistently "retreat" behind newspapers in order to avoid being "confronted by their wives with prickly questions about the 'peculiar institution'" (135). In Uncle Tom's Cabin as Canada reads it, "newspapers . . . provide a form of escape, or, worse, act as an agent abetting slavery" (133). It is striking to find journalism--not literature--portrayed as a means of escape from reality, a facade behind which men can hide (given the size of a sheet of newspaper, quite literally) as a defense against female moral suasion. This is a compelling insight, and I plan to refer to Canada's reading of newspaper reading in Uncle Tom's Cabin the next time I teach the novel.

Stowe flays newspapers, Canada argues, not just for giving men a hiding place from their wives, but also for their "shallow treatment of slavery" (131), which sprang from a failure to present "enough of reality" (135). But here Canada risks overstatement. Though he claims that Stowe offered a "clear critique of journalism" and replaced it with her own "investigative fiction" (131), he largely overlooks Stowe's defense of her work (and concomitant attacks on "anti-Tom" novels) in her nonfiction Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin (1853), which Canada mentions but does not analyze. The full title of this work--A Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin; presenting the original facts and documents upon which the story is founded. Together with corroborative statements verifying the truth of the work--would seem to belie Canada's contention that Stowe saw more potential for truth in "investigative fiction" than in documentary fact. In her preface, Stowe defines fiction as a refuge for both writers and readers--a place where they can "find refuge from the hard and terrible, by inventing scenes and characters of a more pleasing nature." But in "a work of fact" like her own Key, she writes, such shelter is impossible (Key, John P. Jewett & Co. [1853] iii). A Key uses newspapers to test the truth of fiction. For instance, in Thornton Randolph's anti-Tom novel Cabin and Parlor (1852), one character claims that slave families are broken up only in novels. Stowe quotes and then contests this claim by displaying several pages of newspaper advertisements for slaves, then comments, "This is not novel-writing--this is fact" (Key 137).

Stowe's comments suggest that in reconstructing the war between authors and journalists, Canada might have listened more closely to the voices of the latter. Besides noting that journalists disdained the too-literary war correspondence of Stephen Crane and others (54-6), Canada barely considers what they thought of literary authors. Presumably this is because the rivalry that Canada recounts appears to have been decidedly one-sided. Throughout the nineteenth century, as he himself notes, newspapers published poetry, fiction, what we now call creative nonfiction, and hoaxes (77), and many editors of newspapers and magazines (Canada cites Poe, Margaret Fuller, Walt Whitman, and William Cullen Bryant) produced journalism and literary work simultaneously. Nevertheless, by insisting that "newspapers were primarily conduits for facts" (77), Canada treats the newspaper as a genre rather than a medium. He also prompts us to ask an awkward question: why did the critiques of the popular press that he analyzes often appear in the popular press, in newsprint columns abutting samples of the very methods of truth-telling that they targeted?

For the most part, Canada understates the role of newspapers in the dissemination of literature. While he notes, for instance, that The Springfield Reporter printed seven of the ten poems Dickinson published in her lifetime (38), he does not weigh this fact in his analysis of her work. Though he reports that Whitman wrote a temperance novel (Franklin Evans: Or the Inebriate [1842]) while editor of the New York Aurora (52), he does not mention that the novel initially appeared as an "extra" edition of the "mammoth" newspaper the New World, which described itself that year as "A Weekly Journal of Popular Literature, Science, Music, and the Arts, Containing the latest works by Distinguished authors, sermons by eminent divines, original and selected tales and poetry, &c." (qtd. in Christopher Castiglia and Glen Hendler, "Introduction" to Franklin Evans [2007] xxv-xxvi). (For Whitman's journalistic work in the Aurora, see the Walt Whitman Archive.) In his apt characterization of Davis's "Life in the Iron-Mills" as another example of "investigative fiction," Canada recalls her career as a journalist and notes that "Life" was first published in The Atlantic, a journal that combined literary works and cultural commentary (143). But in reading the story, he might have considered how Davis's fiction worked in concert and conversation with the other pieces in The Atlantic. Her story, for instance, was sandwiched between an essay called "Cities and Parks: With Special Reference to the New York Central Park" and a polemic on "The Reign of King Cotton." (See Making of America). For Davis, literature and journalism were complementary, almost interchangeable endeavors for professional women. "Increase of population," she wrote, "will compel more of my sex to earn their living, and literature (or journalism) will always be, as now, an easy, respectable way of doing it" (qtd. Canada 51). Canada quotes these words, but he does not adequately explain how they can be reconciled with the claim that Davis somehow took the side of literature against journalism. One more example should suffice: while Canada mentions that Uncle Tom's Cabin originally appeared in The National Era (131), he does not remind us that it was a leading anti-slavery newspaper. Mightn't this fact shed important light on Stowe's use of newspapers within the novel? (See, for example, the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center's in-process re-release of Uncle Tom's Cabin as it appeared in The National Era, complete with links to commentary, sources, and further reading.) What Canada calls an antebellum "war on journalism," therefore, might more accurately be labeled an insurgency, since the authors who are said to have waged that war continued to work within the very media that--as he effectively demonstrates--they critiqued.

Such quibbles are, in the end, evidence of the boldness of Canada's thesis, which refreshingly challenges prevailing wisdom about the relationship between literature and journalism in nineteenth-century America. Especially compelling, and worthy of further inquiry, is his historical conception of the dueling epistemologies of these diverging fields, particularly regarding the production and dissemination of "truth." Not least, Canada's love for literature and knowledge of journalism are on display on every page, and he clearly lays out his case in approachable, jargon-free prose. Though his concentration on what literary authors thought about the fast-changing field of journalism may lead to blind spots such as those enumerated above, this book offers a new way of reading--and thus of re-conceiving--some of the classic literary works of the American Renaissance.

Todd Nathan Thompson is Assistant Professor of English at Indiana University of Pennsylvania


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