[from Hall Caine My Story]
I HAVE made four visits to America ; but two of them were occupied entirely by business interests, and only the first and second had any real relation to my life as an author. To meet the unknown friends whom my books had won for me across the Atlantic was a joyful, sometimes an embarrassing and occasionally an exacting experience. A malady which might well be known by the name of American hospitality awaits every Englishman who has spoken to the hearts of the people of the United States.
I know nothing like it in any other part of the world, and when I read of the reception of Dickens and Thackeray in America, and see how the cities of the States seemed to stand still in order to give to two writers of great books the welcome which is reserved in other countries for soldiers and statesmen, I am as much perplexed as proud. But I know by personal experience that the hospitality of America is equal to an effort more unaccountable than that, and I remember with gratitude and emotion which will last as long as my life the kindness that was shown to me in the generous country across the Atlantic when the great English nation that is American began to interest itself, through my earlier books, in the little English nation that is Manx.
It would not become me to dwell upon that, farther than to recognise and acknowledge it; but it may perhaps be allowed to me to speak of certain aspects of American life which come within the purview of a man of letters.
How did I find the interviewer in America? just as I have found him everywhere-good, bad, and indifferent. Sometimes the American interviewer is a perfectly honest man who aims only at setting down what you say in all truth and simplicity ; and sometimes he is a pert person who cares a vast deal more about what he says himself. As might be expected, the personal descriptions of the lady interviewers are embarrassingly precise. The colour of your hair and eyes and the pattern of your clothes are facts of the first importance. Hardly any of the interviewers, male or female, write shorthand, and, as a consequence, the visitor is made to talk the idiom of the reporter. In certain interviews I found myself saying, "It makes me tired" and "It tickles me to death."
Several imaginary interviews with me were published during my visits to America. In one of these I was made to give a modest description of my own head, saying the "upper part" resembled Shakespeare and the "lower part" resembled Christ ! Flamboyant fictions like these are, I observe, the tit-bits oftenest quoted in England by journals which most affect to look down on American journalism. But whatever the interviewer may be, it is folly of the Englishman in America to attempt to escape from him. As a general statement, I think it would be true that, whether you allow yourself to be interviewed or refuse to allow yourself to be interviewed, you are equally certain to regret it. But that has been my experience in England also.
During the run of one of my plays in New York there was a sad and terrible incident. A young actress died of heart-disease in the course of a performance. I chanced to be in the theatre at the moment of the death, and I was still suffering from the shock when I returned to the hotel. Between midnight and one in the morning a reporter sent up his card. He must see me at once, if only for a moment. I saw him at the door of my bedroom.
It's about this poor young lady," he said. 'Well?"
"She played Polly Love, didn't she?" She did."
The part is a very exciting one, isn't it?" There are scenes of some excitement." They probably contributed to her death, didn't they?"
"I see no reason to think so, and it would be extremely painful to accept that idea. Besides, heart-disease was hereditary in the lady's family."
"just so! By the way, Mr. Caine, I haven't read your book, but one of my colleagues tells me that Polly Love dies suddenly in the novel. Now, don't you think that is an extraordinary coincidence ? "
"Perhaps it is, but for mercy's sake don't say so, at least for me. The Polly of the novel commits suicide. To bring_ together the real and the fictitious at a solemn and sacred moment like this would be a shocking and shameful outrage. Don't, I beg of you, make me say anything about that."
" Oh, no, no! Good-night ! "
" Good-night! "
Next morning my interviewer's newspaper published a full and particular account of my opinion that the poor lady's death had been due, in great part, to the zeal with which she threw herself into her part, and a detailed comparison of the strange and dramatic coincidence of the sudden and startling deaths of the Polly of the novel and the Polly of the stage.
Another story of the American interviewer. A murderer named Holmes had been tried and condemned in Philadelphia, and was awaiting his execution. One day two journalists from a " yellow " journal called on me at the hotel, bringing a roll of manuscript written by the prisoner.
"This is Holmes's account of his crimes," said one of the men ; "he has sold it to our editor on condition that you review it."
"I won't touch it," I answered.
Don't say that, Mr. Caine. We'll leave it with you, and call for your answer in an hour."
They put the manuscript on a sideboard and went away. Half-an-hour later another man came up. I thought he looked both nervous and audacious.
" Our editor has sent for Holmes's story and to know if you have decided to review it," he said.
" No, there it is still, take it away with you," I answered. Then glancing up quickly I saw the man reaching out his hand for the manuscript. There was a greedy look in his eyes which made me uneasy.
"Wait," I said, " I am an old journalist myself, you know, and I think it would be better form to give the thing back to the men who brought it."
" Well, if you prefer to-" said the fellow, and he edged out. In half-an-hour more the two earlier visitors returned.
" I hope you've decided to do that review," said one of the gentlemen.
"No, I've not," I replied, "and I've told your editor so already by the messenger he sent a little while ago." Then the men looked at me in blank astonishment.
"What messenger?" they asked. I described the man who had come for the manuscript. They stared into each other's faces.
" Good ! It's that fellow on the ---!"
A journalist on a rival " yellow " journal, getting wind of their errand, had tried to "scoop" both the murderer's manuscript and my review.
A story of the journalistic photographer. The interviewer is frequently accompanied by an unattached photographer, whose business it is to take snapshots of his subjects in characteristic, and, if possible, ridiculous attitudes, at unwary moments. One of the photographic " hawks " came aboard the Campania in the Customs boat early on the morning of my arrival at New York. For some time he " mooched " about the ship, without doing anything which attracted my attention. Then as we steamed to the ship's berth his writing confrère came up to me. The sun was shining. We were standing on the promenade deck, under the shade of the hurricane deck, and he drew me to the ship's side, while he pointed out his own lodgings on the fourteenth floor of a lofty sky-scraper. I didn't feel an absorbing interest in his story, and I was rather at a loss to know why he told it to me. A few minutes afterwards I heard him telling the same story to my fellow-passenger Lord Brassey, and a little later to Mr. Godkin, then editor of the Evening Post. It began to strike me as funny that this person should be so zealously circulating such valuable information about himself, when all at once I became aware that the snap-shot man was busy behind him. The promenade deck was in shadow, and this was the piece of collusion by which the artful pair of hawks got their subjects into the sun.
"You did him pretty well," I said to the photographer, when he had finished with Mr. Godkin.
" Oh, he's not the first I've done-see ! " and he showed me the list of his morning's " takings." The fiend had got three separate snapshots of myself !
The worst fault of American journalism-its undue love of sensationalism-is fostered by a bad professional practice, that of employing what are called " space-writers." These persons are unattached journalists, who are paid by space on the copy that is accepted. Their business is to hunt up out-of-the-way facts. The more startling the fact the more acceptable it is, and of two space-writers dealing with the same incident that one is employed who brings in the more astounding story. This is a setting of premium on sensation, on personality, on every form of falseness that can take the colour of fact.
Apparently there is no libel law in America strong enough and swift enough to cope with the doings of the space-writer. When a New York newspaper published a false accusation of myself, and followed it up by a still more false apology, and I contemplated an action at law, Mr. Goldwin Smith said, " You might as well take action against a mosquito."
While I was at Washington I discussed this aspect of the lower American journalism with John Hay, then Secretary of State.
" No libel law, however rigorous, will meet the case," he said. "There's only one thing that will meet it."
"What's that?" I asked.
" A horsewhip," he answered.
It would be quite wrong, however, to talk of the interviewer as if he covered the whole field of American journalism. The extraordinary vigour of the every-day work of the American journalist is what first impresses you. He is always "on the nail." To-day's subject is to-day's need, and whether it is the fate of the Philippines or how to sweep the snow out of the streets, the journalist tackles it for all it is worth. Then the general enterprise of the American press is beyond comparison greater than that of almost every other press in the world. Not even the great London newspapers, with their correspondents in every capital, can surpass the amazing enterprise of the best papers in America. To appreciate this one has only to reflect that by reason of distance the material of the American paper costs incomparably more, and that nearly every day's paper contains columns of cabled news.
Then the Sunday papers of America, whatever we may think of them as literary products, are examples of journalistic enterprise without parallel in the world. Outside London there is nothing published, whether in Paris, Berlin, Vienna, or Rome, which for interest or quality or yet bulk bears a moment's comparison with the best American Sunday papers. The imagination shown in the mapping out and construction of a typical American newspaper, to meet the needs of the largest number of readers, is another striking characteristic. Therefore when we gibe, as it is so easy to do, at the unconscientious and even vulgar aspects of some American journalism, we should remember its good qualities, which are neither few nor hard to find.
One salient fact, however, about the American newspaper is that its first aim is to deserve its name. It is above everything else a paper intended to provide news. A policy it may have, and it may sometimes advocate the interests of a party; but some of the best and most popular American newspapers appear to have neither policy nor party.
" Do you conduct the policy of your paper from Paris?" I said to the proprietor of a wellknown American journal.
" My paper has no policy," the proprietor answered ; "its business is to give the people news, not to tell them what they are to think."
"But isn't that rather opposed to journalistic traditions?" I asked.
"So much the worse for the traditions," was the reply. " I employ a man at two, three, four or five thousand dollars to edit this, that, or the other section of my paper, and I should think it a pretty cheeky thing if he undertook to preside over the policy of the country. His business is to record its doings."
But the attitude of the American public towards the American newspaper would in any case be one of complete independence. On the British side of the ocean we are apt to believe what we see in the journals. On the other side of the ocean they betray no such infirmity. The newspapers are so many, the competition between them is so keen, their methods are so manifest, that nobody regards them with the reverence which the mystery enshrouding the anonymity of English journalism still perpetuates among ourselves.
In like manner, the personalities of American journalism are fenced by the attitude of American readers. They take their spiciest dishes with a proper grain of salt. Hence it is necessary to read the American newspaper with American eyes ; seen in that light the journalism of America is neither so sensational nor so flagrant as English readers suppose. For the rest, it would seem to me that the independence of the American mind towards the press of the country is a most wholesome and hopeful sign. The American public are constantly reversing the verdicts of their professed guides to public opinion. A play or a book which has been the victim of a general onslaught in the newspapers is frequently the idol of the hour.
" In the old days, after a new production," a theatrical manager said to me, " I used to be fool enough to sit up till six in the morning to see what the newspapers had to say."
"And now?" I asked.
"Now, if the audience is right, I go to bed at twelve," he answered.
I went to America on the first occasion partly as the delegate of the English Society of Authors, and partly as the informal representative of the Colonial Office, to prevail upon the Canadian Ministers to withdraw the more objectionable of the provisions of a Copyright Bill which seemed to conflict with the Imperial Act, and this mission brought me into active relations with American publishers and enabled me to realise that the making of American copyright, for which Dickens and Thackeray pleaded in vain, had done more than secure justice for the English author-it had created the American author as a professional man of letters. Literature as a profession was for the first time beginning to live ; and it is no matter of surprise to me that in the few years that have intervened, American books have often ousted English books in the favour of the American people.
But art has no nationality, and I was never made conscious for a moment that a novelist from the United Kingdom was an alien in the United States. On the contrary, I was always made to feel that there is no country in the world so good as America for an Englishman to travel in. Of course I know how much I may be influenced by personal feelings, and how many of my opinions may be affected by the accident of my own reception. If that is so, it is only as it ought to be. On four visits under varying circumstances, America was good to me, and it is right that I should praise the bridge I passed over.
I love America and the Americans. I love America because it is big, and because its bigness is constantly impressing the imagination and stimulating the heart. I love its people because they are free with a freedom which the rest of the world takes as by stealth, and they claim openly as their right. I love them because they are the most industrious, earnest, active, and ingenious people on the earth ; because they are the most moral, religious, and above all, the most sober people in the world ; because, in spite of all shallow judgments of superficial observers, they are the most childlike in their national character, the easiest to move to laughter, the readiest to be touched to tears, the most absolutely true in their impulses, and the most generous in their applause. I love the men of America because their bearing towards the women is the finest chivalry I have yet seen anywhere, and I love the women because they can preserve an unquestioned purity with a frank and natural manner, and a fine independence of sex. I love the Constitution of America, because its freedom is the freest I know of, because it has broken away from all effete superstitions of authority, whether in Church or State, and has left the rest of the world in the pitiful shadows of both follies, to toil after it by more than a hundred years.
And if these are qualities which have their defects, I go the length of loving some of the failings of American life and character as well. I love the brusqueness of speech and the freedom of manners which imply that Jack is as good as his master-and sometimes a good deal better. In this connection I should like to tell a story of a good and loyal, though rather embarrassing friend of mine, who is a conductor on a Broadway electric-car. He is about twenty years of age, and he has a frank, open face, with bright eyes and a laughing mouth. When I met him first he was standing on the tail-board of the car as I was leaping on to it.
" Will this car take me to Fifty-sixth Street?" I asked.
He did not answer, but looked me over from head to foot.
"Will it?" I repeated.
Instead of replying to my question he asked another
Are you Hall Caine ?" Yes. Will it?" I asked.
Again he did not reply, but smiling from ear to ear, and holding out a grimy hand, he said " Shake!"