WILLIAM H. RIDEING
Nowadays, it seems, every one reads, also writes. There are few
streets where the callous postman does not occasionally render some
doorstep desolate by the delivery of a rejected manuscript. Fellow
feeling makes us wondrous kind, and the first steps in the career of a
successful man of letters are always interesting. You remember how
Franklin slyly dropped his first contribution through the slit in his
brother's printing-house door; and how the young Charles Dickens crept
softly to the letter-box up a dark court, off a dark alley, near Fleet
In the case of Mr. Rideing, all must admire and be thankful for the
indomitable spirit which disappointments were unable to discourage.
From "Many Celebrities and a Few Others," by William H. Rideing.
Doubleday, Page & Co., 1913.
I do not know to a certainty just how or when the new ambition found
its cranny and sprouted, and I wonder that it did not perish at once,
like others of its kind which never blossoming were torn from the bed
that nourished them and borne afar like balls of thistledown. How and
why it survived the rest, which seemed more feasible, I am not able to
answer fully or satisfactorily to myself, and other people have yet to
show any curiosity about it.
How at this period I watched for the postman! Envelopes of portentous
bulk were put into my hands so often that I became inured to
disappointment, unsurprised and unhurt, like a patient father who has
more faith in the abilities of his children than the stupid and
purblind world which will not employ them.
These rejected essays and tales were my children, and the embarrassing
number of them did not curb my philoprogenitiveness.
Dawn broke unheeded and without reproach to the novice as he sat by
candle-light at his table giving shape and utterance to dreams which
did not foretell penalties, nor allow any intimation to reach him of
the disillusionings sure to come, sharp-edged and poignant, with the
awakening day. The rocky coast of realities, with its shoals and
whirlpools, which encircles the sphere of dreams, is never visible till
the sun is high. You are not awake till you strike it.
Up and dressed, careless of breakfast, he hears the postman's knock.
There is Something for the boy, which at a glance instantly dispels the
clouds of his drowsiness and makes his heart jump: an envelope not
bulky, an envelope whose contents tremble in his hand and grow dim in
his eyes, and have to be read and read again before they can be
believed. One of his stories has at last found a place and will be
printed next month! Life may bestow on us its highest honours, and
wealth beyond the dreams of avarice, the guerdon of a glorious lot, but
it can never transcend or repeat the thrill and ecstasy of the
triumphant apotheosis of such a moment as that.
It was a fairy story, and though nobody could have suspected it, the
fairy queen was Miss Goodall, much diminished in stature, of course,
with all her indubitable excellencies, her nobility of character, and
her beauty of person sublimated to an essence that only a Lilliputian
vessel could hold. Her instincts were domestic, and her domain was the
hearthstone, and there she and her attendants, miniatures of the
charming damsels in Miss McGinty's peachy and strawberry-legged corps
de ballet, rewarded virtue and trampled meanness under their dainty,
twinkling feet. Moreover, the story was to be paid for, a condition of
the greater glory, an irrefragable proof of merit. Only as evidence of
worth was money thought of, and though much needed, it alone was
lightly regarded. The amount turned out to be very small. The editor
handed it out of his trousers pocket—not the golden guinea looked for,
but a few shillings. He must have detected a little disappointment in
the drooping corners of the boy's mouth, for without any remark from
him he said—he was a dingy and inscrutable person—"That is all we
ever pay—four shillings per colyume," pronouncing the second
syllable of that word like the second syllable of "volume."
What did the amount matter to the boy? A paper moist and warm from the
press was in his hands, and as he walked home through sleet and snow
and wind—the weather of the old sea-port was in one of its
tantrums—he stopped time and again to look at his name, his very own
name, shining there in letters as lustrous as the stars of heaven.
When that little story of mine appeared in all the glory of print, Fame
stood at my door, a daughter of the stars in such array that it blinded
one to look at her. She has never come near me since, and I have
changed my opinion of her: a beguiling minx, with little taste or
judgment, and more than her share of feminine lightness and caprice; an
unconscionable flirt, that is all she is.
I came to New York, and peeped into the doors of the Tribune, the
World, the Times, and the Sun with all the reverence that a
Moslem may feel when he beholds Mecca. ...
It was in the August of a bounteous year of fruit. The smell of
peaches and grapes piled in barrows and barrels scented the air, as it
scents the memory still. The odour of a peach brings back to me all
the magic-lantern impressions of a stranger—memories of dazzling,
dancing, tropical light, bustle, babble, and gayety; they made me feel
that I had never been alive before, and the people of the old seaport,
active as I had thought them, became in a bewildered retrospect as slow
and quiet as snails. But far sweeter to me than the fragrance of
peaches were the humid whiffs I breathed from the noisy press rooms in
the Park Row basements, the smell of the printers' ink as it was
received by the warm, moist rolls of paper in the whirring, clattering
presses. There was history in the making, destiny at her loom.
Nothing ever expels it: if once a taste for it is acquired, it ties
itself up with ineffaceable memories and longings, and even in
retirement and changed scenes restores the eagerness and aspirations of
the long-passed hour when it first came over us with a sort of
I had no introduction and no experience and was prudent enough to
foresee the rebuff that would surely follow a climb up the dusky but
alluring editorial stairs and an application for employment in so
exalted a profession by a boy of seventeen. I decided that I could use
more persuasion and gain a point in hiding my youth, which was a menace
to me, by writing letters, and so I plunged through the post on Horace
Greeley, on L. J. Jennings, the brilliant, forgotten Englishman who
then edited the Times, on Mr. Dana, and on the rest. The astonishing
thing of that time, as I look back on it, was my invulnerability to
disappointments; I expected them and was prepared for them, and when
they came they were as spurs and not as arrows nor as any deadly
weapon. They hardly caused a sigh except a sigh of relief from the
chafing uncertainties of waiting, and instead of depressing they
compelled advances in fresh directions which soon became exhilarating,
advances upon which one started with stronger determination and fuller,
not lessened, confidence. O heart of Youth! How unfluttered thy beat!
How invincible thou art in thine own conceit! What gift of heaven or
earth can compare with thy supernal faith! "No matter how small the
cage the bird will sing if it has a voice."
Had my letters been thrown into the wastepaper basket, after an
impatient glance by the recipients, I should not have been surprised or
more than a little nettled; but I received answers not encouraging from
both Horace Greeley and Mr. Dana.
Mr. Greeley was brief and final, but Mr. Dana, writing in his own hand
(how friendly it was of him!), qualified an impulse to encourage with a
tag for self-protection. "Your letter does you credit," he wrote.
Those five words put me on the threshold of my goal. "Your letter does
you credit, and I shall be glad to hear from you again——" A door
opened, and a flood of light and warmth from behind it enveloped me as
in a gown of eiderdown. "I shall be glad to hear from you again three
or four years from now!" The door slammed in my face, the gown slipped
off, and left me with a chill. But I did not accuse Mr. Dana of
deliberately hurting me or think that he surmised how a polite evasion
of that sort may without forethought be more cruel than the coldest and
most abrupt negative.
I went farther afield, despatching my letters to Chicago, Philadelphia,
Boston, and Springfield. In Philadelphia there was a little paper
called the Day, and this is what its editor wrote to me:
"There are several vacancies in the editorial department, but there is
one vacancy still worse on the ground floor, and the cashier is its
much-harried victim. You might come here, but you would starve to
death, and saddle your friends with the expenses of a funeral."
A man with humour enough for that ought to have prospered, and I
rejoiced to learn soon afterward that he (I think his name was Cobb)
had been saved from his straits by an appointment to the United States
His jocularity did not shake my faith in the seriousness of journalism.
I had not done laughing when I opened another letter written in a fine,
crabbed hand like the scratching of a diamond on a window-pane, and as
I slowly deciphered its contents I could hardly believe what I read.
It was from Samuel Bowles the elder, editor of the Springfield
Republican, then as now one of the sanest, most respected, and
influential papers in the country. He wanted a young man to relieve
him of some of his drudgery, and I might come on at once to serve as
his private secretary. He did not doubt that I could be useful to him,
and he was no less sure that he could be useful to me. Moreover, my
idea of salary, he said—it was modest, but forty dollars a
month—"just fitted his." He was one of the great men of his time when
papers were strong or weak, potent in authority or negligible, in
proportion to the personality of the individual controlling them. He
himself was the Republican, as Mr. Greeley was the Tribune, Mr.
Bennett the Herald, Mr. Dana the Sun, Mr. Watterson the
Courier-Journal, and Mr. Murat Halstead the Cincinnati Commercial,
though, of course, like them, he tacitly hid himself behind the sacred
and inviolable screen of anonymity, and none of them exercised greater
power over the affairs of the nation than he, out of the centre, did
from that charming New England town to which he invited me. The
opportunity was worth a premium, such as is paid by apprentices in
England for training in ships and in merchants' and lawyers' offices;
the salary seemed like the gratuity of a too liberal and chivalric
employer, for no fees could procure from any vocational institution so
many advantages as were to be freely had in association with him. He
instructed and inspired, and if he perceived ability and readiness in
his pupil (this was my experience of him), he was as eager to encourage
and improve him as any father could be with a son, looking not for the
most he could take out of him in return for pay, but for the most he
could put into him for his own benefit.
Journalism to him was not the medium of haste, passion, prejudice, and
faction. He fully recognized all its responsibilities, and the need of
meeting them and respecting them by other than casual, haphazard, and
slipshod methods. He was an economist of words, with an abhorrence of
redundance and irrelevance; not only an economist of words, but also an
economist of syllables, choosing always the fewer, and losing nothing
of force or precision by that choice. He had what was not less than a
passion for brevity. "What," he was asked, "makes a journalist?" and
he replied: "A nose for news." But with him the news had to be sifted,
verified, and reduced to an essence, not inflated, distorted and
garnished with all the verbal spoils of the reporter's last scamper
through the dictionary.
How sedate and prosperous Springfield looked to me when I arrived there
on an early spring day! How clean, orderly, leisurely, and respectable
after the untidiness and explosive anarchy of New York! I made for the
river, as I always do wherever a river is, and watched it flowing down
in the silver-gray light and catching bits of the rain-washed blue sky.
The trees had lost the brittleness and sharpness of winter's drawing
and their outlines were softening into greenish velvet. In the
coverts, arbutus crept out with a hawthorn-like fragrance from patches
of lingering snow. The main street leading into the town from the
Massasoit House and the station also had an air of repose and dignity
as if those who had business in it were not preoccupied by the frenzy
for bargains, but had time and the inclination for loitering,
politeness, and sociability. That was in 1870, and I fear that
Springfield must have lost some of its old-world simplicity and
leisureliness since then. I regret that I have never been in it since,
though I have passed through it hundreds of times.
The office of the Republican was in keeping with its environment, an
edifice of stone or brick not more than three or four stories high,
neat, uncrowded, and quiet; very different from the newspaper offices
of Park Row, with their hustle, litter, dust, and noise. I met no one
on my way upstairs to the editorial rooms, and quaked at the oppressive
solemnity and detachment of it. I wondered if people were observing me
from the street and thought how much impressed they would be if they
divined the importance of the person they were looking at, possibly
another Tom Tower. The vanity of youth is in the same measure as its
valour; withdraw one, and the other droops.
"Now," said Mr. Bowles sharply, after a brusque greeting, "we'll see
what you can do."
I was dubious of him in that first encounter. He was crisp and quick
in manner, clear-skinned, very spruce, and clear-eyed; his eyes
appraised you in a glance.
"Take that and see how short you can make it."
He handed me a column from one of the "exchanges," as the copies of
other papers are called. I spent half an hour at it, striking out
repetitions and superfluous adjectives and knitting long sentences into
brief ones. Condensation is a fine thing, as Charles Reade once said,
and to know how to condense judiciously, to get all the juice, without
any of the rind or pulp, is as important to the journalist as a
knowledge of anatomy to the figure painter.
I went over it a second time before I handed it back to him as the best
I could do. I had plucked the fatted column to a lean quarter of that
length, yet I trembled and sweated.
"Bah!" he cried, scoring it with a pencil, which sped as dexterously as
a surgeon's knife. "Read it now. Have I omitted anything essential?"
He had not; only the verbiage had gone. All that was worthy of
preservation remained in what the printer calls a "stickful." That was
my first lesson in journalism.