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  • The Courtship of Henry Wikoff; or, A Spinster's Apprehensions
  • Caleb Crain (bio)

Why do you express yourself so coarsely? She is not to be subjected to force.

Henry James, The Portrait of a Lady

For the most part, Horace Greeley edited the New York Tribune high-mindedly, but a choice bit of gossip reached New York a few days before the end of 1851, and he ran it as a blind item on page 6. It seems to have been a scoop.

A gentleman who has been somewhat notorious in the literary and theatrical circles of this City is in prison at Geneva . . . It appears that he made proposals of marriage in London to the niece of one of the wealthiest London bankers, largely connected with this country . . . The proposals were declined, and soon after, the lady left for the Continent. She was followed by the enamored swain to Geneva. Here she was one day informed by letter that some formality in regard to her passport required that she should go in person to a certain place . . . Upon entering the house she found only present her London rejected, who immediately locked the door, and producing a pair of pistols, threatened—not to destroy himself if she continued cruel, but to shoot her unless she either married him or divided her fortune with him. . . . Her maid, who had been alarmed at her absence, sought her with some of the police . . . The lady was released, and the unhappy swain, who had loved not wisely nor too well, was sent to cool his ardor in a prison.

(New York Tribune 29 Dec. 1851: 6)

Some readers would have guessed the identity of the frustrated lover, because there were not that many men "somewhat notorious [End Page 659] in the literary and theatrical circles" of New York known to be traveling abroad in 1851. Nonetheless, because of Greeley's discretion, the celebrity value of the gossip was at first ambiguous.

The entertainment value wasn't. A rejected lover was supposed to threaten to kill himself. To point a gun at a beloved exposed hostility not usually legible in narratives of romance. And to ask her for cash—it blew the game up completely. "Your money or your life" was not the proposition by which men were supposed to win fiancées. You were supposed to ask for her money and her life.

Was the story true? It was not told accurately in the Tribune. The story did, however, get better. Eventually, in the hands of the man who perpetrated it, it became a best seller. The course of its improvement reveals something about the balance of power between men and women in 1851 and the stories it was then possible to tell concerning them. It also records the introduction to America of an engaging new style of narrative deceit.

Cheap newspapers, America's first mass medium, delivered novelty and sensation more quickly than accuracy. In the delay before a correction came, a liar could get away with a great deal. When at last correction did come, most readers would have forgotten the circumstances of the lie. There was further cover in the fact that it was impolite to call a gentleman a liar, and still more in the fact that people expect lies that are ad hoc and defensive—not deliberate and strategic. When readers wish to be entertained by news, they are willing to humor a character who intimates by his manner that truth is not his primary concern. If a manipulator is astute enough to identify himself with sentiments that they want to indulge but no longer feel licensed to, they will even feel allied to him. Such sentiments are usually reactionary. These were the materials for a new personality—a man of newsprint rather than a man of letters. Exposure would not overthrow him, any more than a ripple would drown a water strider; he held to the truth too delicately and skated over it too quickly. His type fascinated Herman Melville, and he repays close reading, because he illustrates a creative and dangerous strain of American journalism. We still learn about the world through mass media, and his tactics...


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pp. 659-694
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