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  • Charlotte Perkins Gilman and the Yellow Newspaper
  • Sari Edelstein

In November 1909, Charlotte Perkins Gilman began publishing the Forerunner¸ the monthly periodical that she would write and edit for the next seven years. Its mission, as she described it, was to "stimulate thought; to arouse hope, courage and impatience," and to "express ideas which need a special medium" (Forerunner 32). She opened the first issue of the Forerunner with a poem in which she explicitly introduced her project as a response to an increasingly sensational press:

     "Then This" The news-stands bloom with magazines,      They flame, they blaze indeed; So bright the cover-colors glow, So clear the startling stories show, So vivid their pictorial scenes,      That he who runs may read.

Then This: It strives in prose and verse,      Thought, fancy, fact, and fun, To tell the things we ought to know, To point the way we ought to go, So audibly to bless and curse,      That he who reads may run.

In the first verse, Gilman describes the popular press almost exclusively in terms of its visual distinctiveness: the "news-stands bloom" and the "cover-colors [End Page 72] glow." In the second verse, she distinguishes the Forerunner from these eye-catching magazines by emphasizing its artistic and literary substance, not its "startling stories." She hopes her periodical will incite readers to move forward in the "way [they] ought to go" (1).

With the expression of these ambitions, Gilman defines her work against "yellow journalism," the term coined by a newspaper editor in 1897 to describe media practices that exploit, distort, or exaggerate the news.1 With its "vivid . . . pictorial scenes" and salacious stories, yellow journalism transformed the appearance of the nineteenth-century newspaper and intensified reporting practices that emerged with the penny presses of the 1830s. As a journalist and fiction writer, Gilman sought to expose patriarchal ideology and to create a female reading community that stood in staunch opposition to what she considered to be the menacing effects of the yellow press. From the first lines of her publication, it is clear that Gilman's founding of the Forerunner was an attempt to cultivate intellectual journalism at a moment when sensational newspapers and tabloids dominated the print marketplace.

Gilman's disdain for the contemporary newspaper stemmed from her concern with its corruption of print culture as well as from a more personal complaint against those who participated in and promoted the practice of sensational journalism. Several scholars have observed that Gilman took offense at the vicious reporting strategies of the writers of sensational newspapers. Lawrence J. Oliver and Gary Scharnhorst have noted Gilman's contempt for Ambrose Bierce, whose columns in the San Francisco Examiner in the early 1890s frequently included personal attacks on women journalists. According to Oliver and Scharnhorst, "Bierce scorned Gilman's effort to earn a reputation if not a living by her pen" (33). Similarly, Denise D. Knight has provided insight into Gilman's notoriously contentious relationship with newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst, whose reporters repeatedly exploited her as an object of scandal in the gossip columns of his newspapers. According to Knight, Gilman's rigorous commitment to "ethical journalism" arose partly out of the treatment she received from the Hearst newspaper empire (46). On a broader level, Shelley Fisher Fishkin has written about Gilman's "lambast[ing] the press as a whole for managing to consistently miss or belittle the really important news of the day" (234). An advocate for the reformation of the press, Gilman sought to be taken seriously as a female journalist and to keep her private life out of the spectacle of sensationalism.

Given her well-documented personal and professional conflicts with contemporary newspaper culture, it is surprising that so few scholars have read Gilman's fiction in terms of her concerns about the print marketplace. In an effort to close this gap, I will argue here that Gilman's now-canonical short [End Page 73] story "The Yellow Wall-Paper" draws much of its symbolic strength from the imagery and iconography of yellow journalism. Gilman's descriptions of the wallpaper throughout the text distinctly echo those used by the general public in reference to the turn...


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