- Masculine Rivalry in The Bostonians: Henry James and the Rhetoric of “Newspaper Making”
As local, as American as possible, and as full of Boston: an attempt to show that I can write an American story. There must indispensably be a type of newspaper man—the man whose ideal is the energetic reporter.—Henry James, Complete Notebooks
In 1888, 1893, and 1894 Charles Dana (1819–1897), editor of the New York Sun, delivered three inspirational lectures, later compiled as The Art of Newspaper Making (1895). The 1880s and 1890s were heady times for the popular press, marked by the globetrotting of Richard Harding Davis, the gimlet eye of Jacob Riis, and the Cuban adventures of Stephen Crane. As Thomas Strychacz states in Modernism, Mass Culture, and Professionalism,
Journalism, in fact, obsessed many educated Americans in their thinking about cultural roles. The journalist became something of a cultural hero—tough, uncompromising, at once reporter, investigator, and man of action, and a surprisingly consistent refrain was that the journalist’s role in society demonstrated, by contrast, all that was wrong with the traditional literary life.(15)
Within this context, it is not surprising that the Dana lectures, exhortations to the young journalist, focus on the essential manliness of the journalist’s calling.
In 1884 Henry James first published “The Art of Fiction” in Longman’s Magazine. The piece is no mere defense of poesy. The essay stands as a refutation of the notion that the imaginative author is any less socially relevant, or even [End Page 139] virile, than the war correspondent or the muckraker. Indeed, according to James, the sensationalist reporter is a doomed second to the novelist, the real man of letters. In Henry James and the Mass Market, Marcia Jacobson argues that at this stage in his career, “James presented himself as a rival for public attention, that is, one who could compete in the same field [i.e., the world of popular writing] with the hope of excelling” (15)—unflinchingly facing the beasts in the jungle.
In 1885 James began serializing The Bostonians in Century Magazine. The novel contained disparaging characterizations of the journalist Matthias Pardon, the lawyer-turned-journalist Basil Ransom, and the publicist Selah Tarrant. How to account for this treatment? Here is where an intertextual reading of The Art of Newspaper Making, a quintessential rendering of the 1880s and 1890s idealized image of American journalism, alongside “The Art of Fiction” yields an explanatory narrative.
James and Dana were not engaged in direct debate, but did participate in the same discursive field. 1 Therefore, Dana’s writing can serve as useful representation of the newsman’s world view. Of course, it is not only in The Bostonians that the trope of journalism appears in James’s work. Much of the factual background to his politically charged The Princess Casamassima (1886) was partially gleaned from assiduous reading of The London Times. Further, in The Reverberator (1888) George Flack is an opportunistic and enterprising tabloid reporter whose pursuit of Francie Dosson is arguably both advanced and then sabotaged by an exposé of his upper-class rival. In The Portrait of a Lady (1881), Henrietta Stackpole, as journalist, is a target of caricature; her presentation as a less desirable woman is thinly veiled commentary on James’s assessment of the profession as second-rate. 2
The juxtaposition of “The Art of Fiction” and The Art of Newspaper Making reveals a rivalry for similar terrain, a competition for audience, for readers. And, on a deeper level, the struggle is about more than market share: the consistent themes, images, and charged terms revolve around definitions of true or proper masculinity, while that which is suspect is both feminized and diminished. In The Bostonians, Pardon, Tarrant, and Ransom function as displacements for James’s anxiety about the popular press, while they offer occasions to demonstrate its inferiority. 3 With male subjectivity at stake, this inferiority shows itself in the textual representations of the bodies of Pardon and Tarrant as occasions of homoeroticism or emasculation. Ransom is constructed without the distasteful attributes of the print promoter, but his writings are neither literary nor prolific, and they reveal a fundamental ineffectuality.