What Would Charles Dickens and Reed Whittemore Say About Politics and Journalism Today?

From an essay by Reed Whittemore in the book The Poet as Journalist: Life at The New Republic about Charles Dickens and the role journalism played in the political destruction of  Thomas Eagleton in 1972:


A 1972 media target.

Charles Dickens visited our country in 1842 and was impressed by our jails and hospitals but distressed by our newspapers and politics: “You [Americans] carry jealousy and distrust into every transaction of public life. By repelling worthy men from your legislative assemblies it has bred up a class of candidates for the suffrage who…disgrace your institutions and your people’s choice….For you no sooner set up an idol firmly that you are sure to pull it down and dash it into fragments….

Any man who attains a high place among you, from the president downward, may date his downfall from that moment: for any printed lie that any notorious villain pens…appeals at once to your distrust and is believed.…Is this well, think you, or likely to elevate the character of governors or the governed among you?”

Dickens found a few good journals amidst the “licentious press,” but he felt they were helpless against “the moral poison of the bad.” The bad he described as a “monster of depravity” against which no “private excellence” was safe from attack. He added that the “press has its evil eye in every house, and its black hand in every appointment in the state.”

We do not, I think, have the bad will around us that Dickens attributed to journalists in the 1840s, but if journalists should in the future continue to have the rope to run things as they ran Eagleton, they may well produce the bad will. Then Dickens loaded words below may come to seem thoroughly appropriate again:

“It is the game of these men and of their profligate organs to make the strife of politics so fierce and brutal, and so destructive of all self-respect in worthy men, that sensitive and delicate-minded persons should be kept aloof…and thus the lowest of all scrambling fights goes on, and they who in other countries would, from their intelligence and station, most aspire to make the laws, do here recoil the furthest from that degradation.”
Reed Whittemore, poet, biographer, literary journalist and college professor, died in 2012 at the age of 92. In 2007, Dryad Press published his memoir, Against The Grain: The Literary Life of a Poet, with an introduction by Garrison Keillor.


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