The writings of Richard Kluger
SEEN EVEN FROM THE REAR, his is the most conspicuous figure in Broadway’s midday throng as, swaying and rocking at high velocity, the twin tails of his very long, very loose, very worn white coat flying out behind him, he proceeds like a bent hoop, appearing to occupy both sides of the street at the same time. The footwear propelling him is not fashionable. Large, heavy, and coarse, his boots are mud-spattered like the trouser bottoms that have worked their way out of hiding and now bunch atop the boots. At a glance one might take him for an elder rustic, come to the city to sell a load of turnips and cabbage.
Inspected from the front, he is larger and younger than his stoop and gait suggest, but not a whit more stylish. The suit, rumpled beyond redemption, nevertheless reveals itself as untattered, essentially clean, and of good quality. Like its owner’s cravat, it seems to have been donned by inadvertence and almost certainly without reference to a mirror. Standing still and upright, this paragon of disarray would measure an inch or two below six feet and carry perhaps 145 pounds on his long legs. But he has rarely stood still in his entire forty years of life; his stoop is less a product of age than of occupation. For a quarter of a century, he has bent over a printer’s stone or typecase or editor’s desk, and whatever pliancy his backbone may have possessed at birth has long since eroded. There is, too, the weight it has had to bear of that enormous head, covered at the moment with a wilted white hat. The head is twenty-three and one-half inches in circumference, and phrenologists who have studied it say the brain within is very large, and in all the right places. The face this head wears is round and pale, the bottom half rimmed with an absurd fringe of whisker, flaxen once but whitening now like the sprigs of hair that steal out from beneath the hat and straggle down his neck. It is the deep-set blue eyes, though, beaming and beneficent, that lend the countenance its look of youthful good humor. Behind the round, full forehead, rising into a high and stately dome, he contemplates this evening’s principal labor: an editorial that first honors and then dismembers the archbishop for his latest volley on public education.
His person is as heavily freighted as his mind. Scraps fill his pockets, notes to himself after a morning at home with the newspapers and his correspondence. One arm bears a bundle of material to dispatch, letters written, books and manuscripts to return, implements to exchange; the other arm wields a fat umbrella. If Horace Greeley did not most emphatically exist, Charles Dickens, his almost exact contemporary, would have had to invent him. Indeed, Greeley on the go resembles no one so much as Cruikshank’s rendering of Mr. Pickwick. Mr. Greeley you would perhaps not take for a gentleman, but you would never mistake him for a common man. In fact, he is at this very instant among the most celebrated and influential of his countrymen and, arguably, the most widely and fervently read writer in the land.
The City Hall clock says 12:17 as he lurches past it across the little park. His destination is just to the east – a squat, five-story, dry-goods box occupying the south end of the triangular block bounded by Park Row, Nassau Street, and Spruce. Its label is in five-foot-high letters placarded above the roofline, proclaiming that here is published the T R I B U N E. He had not chosen the name idly. Like the tribunes of ancient Rome, he would serve the common people in the defense and promulgation of their rights. No other newspaper in the city seemed so disposed. Its great, clattering, six-mouthed press in the low-ceilinged basement is now disgorging nearly 20,000 copies of the Tribune every evening but Saturday. Its eight densely packed pages, arranged in six wide columns of small but neat and elegant type, contain enough reading matter to fill an amply margined book of 400 pages. The press is run by steam, of course, in the best modern manner – a far cry from the hand-cranked model he had operated in his Vermont apprenticeship; that one produced hardly 200 sheets an hour, each impression requiring nine separate operations and wearying his young bones. The type is still set by hand – an entire generation will pass before machines assume that most exacting of the printer’s functions – and the paper is folded the same way. The folders, though, are so adept it is hard to conceive of a machine that will beat them; each copy requires six folds, and the fastest men can do thirty copies a minute. The Weekly Tribune run is approaching 50,000 copies, making it probably the most widely circulated journal in America. It has surpassed the unspeakable Bennett’s weekly edition, though Bennett’s daily Herald is still running well ahead of the Tribune. But Bennett, after all, had a six-year head start, and much of the material on which he has built his circulation was aimed, as the Tribune had never been, at arousing the lowest instincts of the masses. Will the Tribune lose that advantage in appealing to the educated when little Raymond’s mannerly entry, The New-York Daily Times, with a lush bankroll of more than $100,000 behind it, appears shortly? Is there enough business for them all – the six-penny papers catering to the countinghouses; the low-minded but readable Sun, at a penny still the largest seller in town, and now a Times directed to conservative readers who thought Bennett’s sheet had no principles and his own too many of the wrong sort?
He is, by nature, an optimist, so the prospect of intensified rivalry does not daunt Greeley as he turns the corner onto Nassau and rolls into his headquarters like a fleet admiral taking the deck of his flagship. New York is booming as never before. Its population now, in the first year of the second half of the nineteenth century, has passed half a million, by a wide margin the largest in the Western Hemisphere, and shows no signs of letting up. The Croton aqueduct that he has so ardently championed is at last fully functional, measurably improving public health conditions, and the underground sewer system will shortly become a reality, along with Central Park, another vital civic amenity he has passionately urged while there was still time and room. The harbor has never been more crowded, and the Erie Railroad’s steel tendrils are now adding hundreds of new miles of feeder lines into and out of the city annually. In the twenty years since his arrival, New York has become the grand emporium of the New World – one of the busiest bazaars on earth. Destiny, Horace Greeley has long been sure, favors America, and New York, which he partially adjudges a Sodom-by-the-sea, is just as surely fate’s darling.
For all his interest in public sanitation, he is oblivious to the condition of the Tribune’s staircase, rated by connoisseurs of filth as among the dirtiest in creation. The dingy door to the third floor, inscribed “Editorial Rooms of the New York Tribune, H. Greeley,” is no more inviting, but the usual assemblage of unsolicited visitors awaits him within. He navigates the narrow entrance passageway and pauses at the first of the two small closed rooms to his left, from which emerges the soft, rapid sibilance of a proofreading team, one member reciting aloud from the original penned copy to his silently scrutinizing partner. There were two spelling errors in that morning’s edition, The Editor advises, thrusting open the door and filing his charge in a high, soft, but distinctly querulous voice. One of the errors was a misspelled name, and nothing depresses him more than getting a name wrong; it undermines confidence in everything else in the paper. An excuse is tendered – the culprit was a new man, working late, and the offending piece was one of the last to be set. The explanation is not acceptable. The Editor marches on.
The main editorial room, a long but skinny apartment, is lightly inhabited at this hour. Only the shipping news editor and his staff are astir, compiling tomorrow’s list of two hundred sailings and arrivals, to be supplemented by excerpts from no fewer than two dozen ships’ logs. Over there at his desk against the wall is the round, imperturbable Ripley, whom The Editor greets with a nod and a “Ripley” – Greeley, the consummate democrat, is not much of one for “Mistering.” He has just approved raising Ripley’s salary to twenty-five a week, not much, some would say, for drudging through the mountain of new books, journals, and miscellaneous literary fare from both sides of the Atlantic that rises fresh each morning on his desk top. But George Ripley, forty-nine, of Harvard College (1823), of Harvard Divinity School (1826), of the Brook Farm Association, of the Boston transcendentalists’ Dial magazine, is now in the fourth year of the thirty-one he will spend as literary editor of the Tribune, and he does not view his occupation as drudgery. He is, incomparably, the most knowledgeable and skillful critic of any employed by an American daily journal. He does not merely fashion book notices; he produces a large quantity of meaty reviews, serious yet popularly accessible evaluations of an astonishing variety of contemporary works. Highly learned, he presides in splendid vigilance over the dignity of the language and its use, but he is not a pedant; his gravest fault, if any, is a tendency to be too lenient on his subjects. Unofficially, he is the office watchdog over the Tribune’s standard of prose; a misused word discovered by him has been known to cost the malefactor a week’s suspension from the staff.
The Editor’s carpeted private office just off the main room is anything but; it is not even his alone. Within, a vast bookshelf filled with reference works serves as the paper’s library, open to the staff day and night. Of the two desks, his is plainly the unoccupied one near the window with its splendid view of City Hall. Its green felt surface, shelving, drawers, and cubbyholes might appear to a stranger as a monument to confusion; but in the spillage of manuscripts, proof sheets, exchange papers, books, journals, letters, circulars, scraps bearing messages, and a pair of scissors tied to a strap so it will not be swallowed up forever in the rummage, Greeley sees only genial disorder: the very aspect he himself presents to the world. Atop the highest shelf of all sits a bronze bust, garlanded in dust, of Henry Clay, the noblest politician of his time, in The Editor’s estimate. In addition to all the paper summonses, he is awaited by the usual assortment of callers without appointment. He will see and dispose of them all in his fashion, some attentively, some with a yawn, some while studying his mail and messages. Among them are an inventor wishing publicity for a device he has lately perfected; a Cincinnati litterateur wishing him to appear at the lecture series there on his tour next winter (for the usual share of the house); an upstate minister wishing to make his acquaintance and to seek his advice on their mutual crusade for temperance; a councilman wishing to take issue with him on the matter of awarding streetcar franchises; an admirer wishing to borrow money (and unaware that Greeley’s days as the softest touch in town are long past); a scholar with a suggestion for improving The Whig Almanac, shortly to be renamed The Tribune Almanac, nonpartisanship being thought likely to improve its salability.
Across the room sits the Tribune’s second-in-command, his desk in perfect order, conducting real business in brisk, marginally civil tones; Charles A. Dana is a managing editor who manages. His flowing beard adds massiveness to his authoritative manner. In the interstices of the afternoon, he edits the foreign correspondence. Just now he is examining the latest offering from the new London correspondent, a chap Dana himself has recruited; with magisterial contempt, Karl Marx, an exiled German editor opposed to the Prussian regime, writes of the benightedness of tsarist Russia and the hardly less lamentable imperialism of Her Majesty’s government in Parliament. A witness to and sympathizer with the crushed continental revolutions of ‘48, Dana reads with approval. Mr. Marx will remain more or less a Tribune regular for the rest of the decade.
By four o’clock The Editor has dealt with the preliminaries of the day and disappears for a vegetarian dinner at Windust’s, a few doors away from the Tribune building. By the time he returns, the editorial rooms are bathed in gaslight and the pace of activity has noticeably quickened. His is a nocturnal business: 70 percent of the paper’s contents will be set between nightfall and midnight. Seven reporters, all shirtsleeved and mustached, scribble away at their little desks, fifty or so words to a page, and penmanship counts. All are paid at space rates, so the editors must guard against a tendency to windiness. This fellow here writes of the day’s session of the Common Council, that one on a gathering of the Tammany sachems, that one over there on a lecture about the great adventure unfolding in California. Inkstands and pastepots are everywhere. Rusty pen points and bits of blotting paper litter the floor. A tin jar of ice water sits in a corner. Pipe smoke sweetens and thickens the air. The copy box rattles every now and then up the wooden pipe, bearing its freshly composed cargo to the fourth-floor composing room, where three dozen printers labor in eerie silence at an average rate of seventy lines an hour (all to be disassembled the same way, letter by letter, and replaced each in its case the next morning). Ottarson, the city editor, who rose to that eminence from devil to apprentice printer to journeyman to reporter, activates a bell up in the shop and grunts a few instructions into the metal speaking tube, specifying the setting order of the copy just transmitted. Visitors, mostly supplicants for precious space in print, come and go. Messengers from the telegraph office arrive more urgently by horse cab. A report on a just concluded debate in the Congress has been wired from Washington; Dana devours it. The downtown apple woman circulates among the desks, peddling her wares unimpeded. All is orderly as the work speeds ahead without excessive displays of energy or verbal outburst.
Bolt upright at his desk, his nearsighted eyes augmented by thick spectacles, The Editor composes the lead editorial. Filled with his sprawling scrawl, all but undecipherable outside the office, leaves of foolscap fly from beneath his beautifully shaped hand, so remarkably white that the ink staining his thumb, index, and middle fingers has become nearly indelible. He writes without pause, seemingly without thought – for he has done all his thinking long before the act of composition. Archbishop Hughes has issued a letter unfavorable to the efficacy of public education upon the souls of Catholic children. Greeley is distressed, especially since, as he acknowledges at the outset of his leader, the cleric holds “a spiritual power among us greater than that of any other living man.” His fiat could remove 50,000 children from the common schools and rekindle the fires of theological rancor, best left to the dead European past. The Editor, knowing the combustible nature of the material at hand, is not shrill; he despises the demagogic. But he will not withhold plain words, forcefully expressed. “Now when the Archbishop charges our system of Republican Liberty with putting ‘God and the Devil, truth and falsehood, on the same level,’” The Editor charges, “he surely misconceives that system.” He marshals his argument point by roman- numeral point, culminating at VIII with:
. . . He would have Religion form a part of every child’s education. Very good – we concur in that view. But it is one thing to assume that each child should be taught Religion, and quite another to maintain that Religious dogmas should be taught in common schools. We desire and intend that our own children shall be taught Religion; we do not desire that it shall be taught them in Common Schools. For this we shall take them to Church, to Sunday School, to Bible Class, or wherever else they may be taught by those who we believe will teach them Divine Truth in its purity.
Intermittently he bounds up the stairs, two at a time when inspiration prods, to make a change or insertion; when the latter, he takes pains to remove as many words as he adds so that an entire section will not have to be laboriously reset to indulge him.
He reads the completed essay. It will do. He titles it “The Archbishop’s Letter” and at the extreme right of the not quite full last line adds “H.G.” In rural areas and settlements along the great western lakes where the weekly edition is the only regularly read newspaper, some folks think “H.G.” authors the Tribune in its entirety. He does not go to great lengths to disabuse them of this notion.
The City Hall clock, illuminated now, shows half past eleven. Dana will linger till the paper locks up at midnight; Ottarson, till three, awaiting any late news and preparing the reporters’ assignments for the morrow. Greeley exchanges final words with his deputy, who, with the pressure of the workday abated, is a charming conversationalist. Dana is respectful but makes no show of veneration. The Editor, for his part, instructs largely by indirection, leaving his full oracular meaning to be intuited. The system works well.
Homeward, his perpetual bundle in place with fresh contents sifted from the desk-top debris for his pre-office attention in the morning, Greeley is only slightly more bent than upon his arrival. A waiting cabbie bears him away to his modest house on Nineteenth Street, between Broadway and Fourth Avenue: Horace Greeley in momentary repose. Greeley, the very embodiment of his countrymen’s collective virtues and hopeless contradictions. He idealizes rural life, which he has abandoned, and excoriates city life, upon which he thrives. In attaining material success and fame, he aspires most of all to righteousness. He believes, that is, not merely in doing well by doing good – he insists upon it. In ideology, he is a radical conservative; no other description will serve. He favors a society based on sound, solid institutions, but they must be made to work humanely as well as profitably. He wishes the laboring man well, wars on his degradation, demands that he be given opportunity to work and rise in the world and practice thrift and form alliances and learn skills and economy – yet Greeley is equally all for the capitalist and his self-aggrandizement in a marketplace free but insulated from foreign marauders. He favors government that spends less and does more than at present. In his almost childlike optimism and inclination to oversimplify, he is certain all problems can be solved by reason, goodwill, hard work, and development of the West. Meanwhile, he bears all the world’s woes and infirmities on his shoulders and ponders how next to instruct it in their alleviation.
©2017 Richard Kluger