E.B. White on Harold Ross: “A Ferocity of Independence”

About a hundred and fifty years ago, Tocqueville wrote: “The journalists of the United States are generally in a very humble position, with a scanty education and a vulgar turn of mind.” Today, we chuckle at this antique characterization. But about fifty years ago, when I was a young journalist, I had the good fortune to encounter an editor who fitted the description quite closely. Harold Ross, who founded the New Yorker, was deficient in education and had—at least to all outward appearances—a vulgar turn of mind. What he did possess, though, was the ferocity of independence.

He was having a tough time finding money to keep his floundering little sheet alive, yet he was determined that neither money nor influence would ever corrupt his dream or deflower his text. His boiling point was so low as to be comical. The faintest suggestions of the shadow of advertising in his news and editorial columns would cause him to erupt. He would explode in anger, the building would reverberate with his wrath, and his terrible swift sword would go flashing up and down the corridors.

For a young man, it was an impressive sight and a memorable one. Fifty years have not dimmed for me either the spectacle of Ross’s ferocity and my own early convictions—which were identical to his.

From the HarperCollins book, On Democracy, by E. B. White, with an introduction by Jon Meacham.

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