II JOURNALISM

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WWI Document Archive > Diaries, Memorials, Personal Reminiscences > Walter H. Page > Chapter II



CHAPTER II


JOURNALISM


I



THE five years from 1878 to 1883 Page spent in various places, engaged, for the larger part of the time, in several kinds of journalistic work. It was his period of struggle and of preparation. Like many American public men he served a brief apprenticeship---in his case, a very brief one---as a pedagogue. In the autumn of 1878 he went to Louisville, Kentucky, and taught English for a year at the Boys' High School. But he presently found an occupation in this progressive city which proved far more absorbing. A few months before his arrival certain energetic spirits had founded a weekly paper, the Age, a journal which, they hoped, would fill the place in the Southern States which the very successful New York Nation, under the editorship of Godkin, was then occupying in the North. Page at once began contributing leading articles on literary and political topics to this publication; the work proved so congenial that he purchased---on notes---a controlling interest in the new venture and became its directing spirit. The Age was in every way a worthy enterprise; in the dignity of its makeup and the high literary standards at which it aimed it imitated the London Spectator. Perhaps Page obtained a thousand dollars' worth of fun out of his investment; if so, that represented his entire profit. He now learned a lesson which was emphasized in his after career as editor and publisher, and that was that the Southern States provided a poor market for books or periodicals. The net result of the proceeding was that, at the age of twenty-three, he found himself out of a job and considerably in debt.



He has himself rapidly sketched his varied activities of the next five years:



"After trying in vain," he writes, "to get work to do on any newspaper in North Carolina, I advertised for a job in journalism---any sort of a job. By a queer accident ---a fortunate one for me---the owner of the St. Joseph, Missouri, Gazelle, answered the advertisement. Why he did it, I never found out. He was in the same sort of desperate need of a newspaper man as I was in desperate need of a job. I knew nothing about him: he knew nothing about me. I knew nothing about newspaper work. I had done nothing since I left the University but teach English in the Louisville, Kentucky, High School for boys one winter and lecture at the summer school at Chapel Hill one summer. I made up my mind to go into journalism. But journalism didn't seem in any hurry to make up its mind to admit me. Not only did all the papers in North Carolina decline my requests for work, but such of them in Baltimore and Louisville as I tried said 'No.' So I borrowed $50 and set out to St. Joe, Missouri, where I didn't know a human being. I became a reporter. At first I reported the price of cattle---went to the stockyards, etc. My salary came near to paying my board and lodging, but it didn't quite do it. But I had a good time in St. Joe for somewhat more than a year. There were interesting people there. I came to know something about Western life. Kansas was across the river. I often went there. I came to know Kansas City, St. Louis---a good deal of the West. After a while I was made editor of the paper. What a rousing political campaign or two we had! Then---I had done that kind of a job as long as I cared to. Every swashbuckling campaign is like every other one. Why do two? Besides, I knew my trade. I had done everything on a daily paper from stockyard reports to political editorials and heavy literary articles. In the meantime I had written several magazine articles and done other such jobs. I got leave of absence for a month or two. I wrote to several of the principal papers in Chicago, New York, and Boston and told them that I was going down South to make political and social studies and that I was going to send them my letters. I hoped they'd publish them.

"That's all I could say. I could make no engagement; they didn't know me. I didn't even ask for an engagement. I told them simply this: that I'd write letters and send them; and I prayed heaven that they'd print them and pay for them. Then off I went with my little money in my pocket---about enough to get to New Orleans. I travelled and I wrote. I went all over the South. I sent letters and letters and letters. All the papers published all that I sent them and I was rolling in wealth I had money in my pocket for the first time in my life. Then I went back to St. Joe and resigned; for the (old) New York World had asked me to go to the Atlanta Exposition as a correspondent. I went. I wrote and kept writing. How kind Henry Grady was to me! But at last the Exposition ended. I was out of a job. I applied to the Constitution. No, they wouldn't have me. I never got a job in my life that I asked for! But all my life better jobs have been given me than I dared ask for. Well---I was at the end of my rope in Atlanta and I was trying to make a living in any honest way I could when one day a telegram came from the New York World (it was the old World, which was one of the best of the dailies in its literary quality) asking me to come to New York. I had never seen a man on the paper---had never been in New York except for a day when I landed there on a return voyage from a European trip that I took during one vacation when I was in the University. Then I went to New York straight and quickly. I had an interesting experience on the old World, writing literary matter chiefly, an editorial now and then, and I was frequently sent as a correspondent on interesting errands. I travelled all over the country with the Tariff Commission. I spent one winter in Washington as a sort of editorial correspondent while the tariff bill was going through Congress. Then, one day, the World was sold to Mr. Pulitzer and all the staff resigned. The character of the paper changed."



What better training could a journalist ask for than this? Page was only twenty-eight when these five years came to an end; but his life had been a comprehensive education in human contact, in the course of which he had picked up many things that were not included in the routine of Johns Hopkins University. From Athens to St. Joe, from the comedies of Aristophanes to the stockyards and political conventions of Kansas City---the transition may possibly have been an abrupt one, but it is not likely that Page so regarded it. For books and the personal relation both appealed to him, in almost equal proportions, as essentials to the fully rounded man. Merely from the standpoint of geography, Page's achievement had been an important one; how many Americans, at the age of twenty-eight, have such an extensive mileage to their credit? Page had spent his childhood---and his childhood only---in North Carolina; he had passed his youth in Virginia and Maryland; before he was twenty-three he had lived several months in Germany, and, on his return voyage, he had sailed by the white cliffs of England, and, from the deck of his steamer, had caught glimpses of that Isle of Wight which then held his youthful favourite Tennyson. He had added to these experiences a winter in Kentucky and a sojourn of nearly two years in Missouri. His Southern trip, to which Page refers in the above, had taken him through Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and Louisiana; he had visited the West again in 1882, spending a considerable time in all the large cities, Chicago, Omaha, Denver, Leadville, Salt Lake, and from the latter point he had travelled extensively through Mormondom. The several months spent in Atlanta had given the young correspondent a glimpse into the new South, for this energetic city embodied a Southern spirit that was several decades removed from the Civil War. After this came nearly two years in New York and Washington, where Page gained his first insight into Federal politics; in particular, as a correspondent attached to the Tariff Commission---an assignment that again started him on his travels to industrial centres---he came into contact, for the first time, with the mechanism of framing the great American tariff. And during this period Page was not only forming a first-hand acquaintance with the passing scene, but also with important actors in it. The mere fact that, on the St. Joseph Gazelle, he succeeded Eugene Field---"a good fellow named Page is going to take my desk," said the careless poet, "I hope he will succeed to my debts too"---always remained a pleasant memory. He entered zealously into the life of this active community; his love of talk and disputation, his interest in politics, his hearty laugh, his vigorous handclasp, his animation of body and of spirit, and his sunny outlook on men and events---these are the traits that his old friends in this town, some of whom still survive, associate with the juvenile editor. In his Southern trip Page called---self invited---upon Jefferson Davis and was cordially received. At Atlanta, as he records above, he made friends with that chivalric champion of a resurrected South, Henry Grady; here also he obtained fugitive glimpses of a struggling and briefless lawyer, who, like Page, was interested more in books and writing than in the humdrum of professional life, and who was then engaged in putting together a brochure on Congressional Government which immediately gave him a national standing. The name of this sympathetic acquaintance was Woodrow Wilson.


Walter H. Page in 1876, when he was a Fellow of Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, Md.


Basil L. Gildersleeve, Professor of Greek, Johns Hopkins University, 1876-1915




Another important event had taken place, for, at St. Louis, on November 15, 1880, Page had married Miss Willia Alice Wilson. Miss Wilson was the daughter of a Scotch physician, Dr. William Wilson, who had settled in Michigan, near Detroit, in 1832. When she was a small child she went with her sister's family---her father had died seven years before---to North Carolina, near Cary; and she and Page had been childhood friends and schoolmates. At the time of the wedding, Page was editor of the St. Joseph Gazelle; the fact that he had attained this position, five months after starting at the bottom, sufficiently discloses his aptitude for journalistic work.



Page had now outgrown any Southern particularism with which he may have started life. He no longer found his country exclusively in the area south of the Potomac; he had made his own the West, the North---New York, Chicago, Denver, as well as Atlanta and Raleigh. It is worth while insisting on this fact, for the cultivation of a wide-sweeping Americanism and a profound faith in democracy became the qualities that will loom most largely in his career from this time forward. It is necessary only to read the newspaper letters which he wrote on his Southern trip in 1881 to understand how early his mind seized this new point of view. Many things which now fell under his observant eye in the Southern States greatly irritated him and with his characteristic impulsiveness he pictured these traits in pungent phrase. The atmosphere of shiftlessness that too generally prevailed in some localities; the gangs of tobacco-chewing loafers assembled around railway stations; the listless Negroes that seemed to overhang the whole country like a black cloud; the plantation mansions in a sad state of disrepair; the old unoccupied slave huts overgrown with weeds; the unpainted and broken-down fences; the rich soil that was crudely and wastefully cultivated with a single crop---the youthful social philosopher found himself comparing these vestigia of a half-moribund civilization with the vibrant cities of the North, the beautiful white and green villages of New England, and the fertile prairie farms of the West. "Even the dogs," he said, "look old-fashioned." Oh, for a change in his beloved South---a change of almost any kind! "Even a heresy, if it be bright and fresh, would be a relief. You feel as if you wished to see some kind of an effort put forth, a discussion, a fight, a runaway, anything to make the blood go faster." Wherever Page saw signs of a new spirit---and he saw many---he recorded them with an eagerness which showed his loyalty to the section of his birth. The splitting up of great plantations into small farms he put down as one of the indications of a new day. A growing tendency to educate, not only the white child, but the Negro, inspired a similar tribute. But he rejoiced most over the decreasing bitterness of the masses over the memories of the Civil War, and discovered, with satisfaction, that any remaining ill-feeling was a heritage left not by the Union soldier, but by the carpetbagger.



And one scene is worth preserving, for it illustrates not only the zeal of Page himself for the common country, but the changing attitude of the Southern people. It was enacted, at Martin, Tennessee, on the evening of July 2, 1881. Page was spending a few hours in the village grocery, discussing things in general with the local yeomanry, when the telegraph operator came from the post office with rather more than his usual expedition and excitement. He was frantically waving a yellow slip which bore the news that President Garfield had been shot. Garfield had been an energetic and a successful general in the war and his subsequent course in Congress, where he had joined the radical Republicans, had not caused the South to look upon him as a friend. But these farmers responded to this shock, not like sectionalists, but like Americans. "Every man of them," Page records, "expressed almost a personal sorrow. Little was said of politics or of parties. Mr. Garfield was President of the United States---that was enough. A dozen voices spoke the great gratification that the assassin was not a Southern man. It was an affecting scene to see weather-beaten old countrymen so profoundly agitated---men who yesterday I should have supposed hardly knew and certainly did not seem to care who was President. The great centres of population, of politicians, and of thought may be profoundly agitated to-night, but no more patriotic sorrow and humiliation is felt anywhere by any men than by these old backwoods ex-Confederates."



Page himself was so stirred by the news that he ascended a cracker barrel, and made a speech to the assembled countrymen, preaching to responsive ears the theme of North and South, now reunited in a common sorrow. Thus, by the time he was twenty-six, Page, at any rate in respect to his Americanism, was a full-grown man.

.

II



A few years afterward Page had an opportunity of discussing this, his favourite topic, with the American whom he most admired. Perhaps the finest thing in the career of Grover Cleveland was the influence which he exerted upon young men. After the sordid political transactions of the reconstruction period and after the orgy of partisanship which had followed the Civil War, this new figure, acceding to the Presidency in 1885, came as an inspiration to millions of zealous and intelligent young college-bred Americans. One of the first to feel the new spell was Walter Page; Mr. Cleveland was perhaps the most important influence in forming his public ideals. Of everything that Cleveland represented---civil service reform; the cleansing of politics, state and national; the reduction in the tariff; a foreign policy which, without degenerating into truculence, manfully upheld the rights of American citizens; a determination to curb the growing pension evil; the doctrine that the Government was something to be served and not something to be plundered---Page became an active and brilliant journalistic advocate. It was therefore a great day in his life when, on a trip to Washington in the autumn of 1885, he had an hour's private conversation with President Cleveland, and it was entirely characteristic of Page that he should make the conversation take the turn of a discussion of the so-called Southern question.



"In the White House at Washington," Page wrote about this visit, "is an honest, plain, strong man, a man of wonderfully broad information and of most uncommon industry. He has always been a Democrat. He is a distinguished lawyer and a scholar on all public questions. He is as frank and patriotic and sincere as any man that ever won the high place he holds. Within less than a year he has done so well and so wisely that he has disappointed his enemies and won their admiration. He is as unselfish as he is great. He is one of the most industrious men in the world. He rises early and works late and does not waste his time---all because his time is now not his own but the Republic's, whose most honoured servant he is. I count it among the most inspiring experiences in my life that I had the privilege, at the suggestion of one of his personal friends, of talking with him one morning about the complete reuniting of the two great sections of our Republic by his election. I told him, and I know I told him the truth, when I said that every young man in the Southern States who, without an opportunity to share either the glory or the defeat of the late Confederacy, had in spite of himself suffered the disadvantages of the poverty and oppression that followed war, took new hope for the full and speedy realization of a complete union, of unparalleled prosperity and of broad thinking and noble living from his elevation to the Presidency. I told him that the men of North Carolina were not only patriotic but ambitious as well; and that they were Democrats and proud citizens of the State and the Republic not because they wanted offices or favours, but because they loved freedom and wished the land that had been impoverished by war to regain more than it had lost. 'I have not called, Mr. President, to ask for an office for myself or for anybody else,' I remarked; 'but to have the pleasure of expressing my gratification, as a citizen of North Carolina, at the complete change in political methods and morals that I believe will date from your Administration.' He answered that he was glad to see all men who came in such a spirit and did not come to beg---especially young men of the South of to-day; and he talked and encouraged me to talk freely as if he had been as small a man as I am, or I as great a man as he is.

"From that day to this it has been my business to watch every public act that he does, to read every public word he speaks, and it has been a pleasure and a benefit to me (like the benefit that a man gets from reading a great history---for he is making a great history) to study the progress of his Administration; and at every step he seems to me to warrant the trust that the great Democratic party put in him."



The period to which Page refers in this letter represented the time when he was making a serious and harassing attempt to establish himself in his chosen profession in his native state. He went south for a short visit after resigning his place on the New York World, and several admirers in Raleigh persuaded him to found a new paper, which should devote itself to preaching the Cleveland ideals, and, above all, to exerting an influence on the development of a new Southern spirit. No task could have been more grateful to Page and there was no place in which he would have better liked to undertake it than in the old state which he loved so well. The result was the Stale Chronicle of Raleigh, practically a new paper, which for a year and a half proved to be the most unconventional and refreshing influence that North Carolina had known in many a year. Necessarily Page found himself in conflict with his environment. He had little interest in the things that then chiefly interested the state, and North Carolina apparently had little interest in the things that chiefly occupied the mind of the youthful journalist. Page was interested in Cleveland, in the reform of the civil service; the Democrats of North Carolina little appreciated their great national leader and were especially hostile to his belief that service to a party did not in itself establish a qualification for public office. Page was interested in uplifting the common people, in helping every farmer to own his own acres, and in teaching the most modern and scientific way of cultivating them; he was interested in giving every boy and girl at least an elementary education, and in giving a university training to such as had the aptitude and the ambition to obtain it; he believed in industrial training ---and in these things the North Carolina of those days had little concern. Page even went so far as to take an open stand for the pitiably neglected black man: he insisted that he should be taught to read and write, and instructed in agriculture and the manual trades. A man who advocated such revolutionary things in those days was accused---and Page was so accused---of attempting to promote the "social equality" of the two races. Page also declaimed in favour of developing the state industrially; he called attention to the absurdity of sending Southern cotton to New England spinning mills, and he pointed out the boundless but unworked natural resources of the state, in minerals, forests, waterpower, and lands.



North Carolina, he informed his astonished compatriots, had once been a great manufacturing colony; why could the state not become one again? But the matter in which the buoyant editor and his constituents found themselves most at variance was the spirit that controlled North Carolina life. It was a spirit that found comfort for its present poverty and lack of progress in a backward look at the greatness of the state in the past and the achievements of its sons in the Civil War. Though Page believed that the Confederacy had been a ghastly error, and though he abhorred the institution of slavery and attributed to it all the woes, economic and social, from which his section suffered, he rendered that homage to the soldiers of the South which is the due of brave, self-sacrificing and conscientious men; yet he taught that progress lay in regarding the four dreadful years of the Civil War as the closed chapter of an unhappy and mistaken history and in hastening the day when the South should resume its place as a living part of the great American democracy. All manifestations of a contrary spirit he ridiculed in language which was extremely readable but which at times outraged the good conservative people whom he was attempting to convert. He did not even spare the one figure which was almost a part of the Southerner's religion, the Confederate general, especially that particular type who used his war record as a stepping stone to public office, and whose oratory, colourful and turgid in its celebrations of the past, Page regarded as somewhat unrelated, in style and matter, to the realities of the present. The image-breaking editor even asserted that the Daughters of the Confederacy were not entirely a helpful influence in Southern regeneration; for they, too, were harping always upon the old times and keeping alive sectional antagonisms and hatreds. This he regarded as an unworthy occupation for high-minded Southern women, and he said so, sometimes in language that made him very unpopular in certain circles.



Altogether it was a piquant period in Page's life. He found that he had suddenly become a "traitor " to his country and that his experiences in the North had completely "Yankeeized" him. Even in more mature days, Page's pen had its javelin-like quality; and in 1884, possessed as he was of all the fury of youth, he never hesitated to return every blow that was rained upon his head. As a matter of fact he had a highly enjoyable time. The State Chronicle during his editorship is one of the most cherished recollections of older North Carolinians to-day. Even those who hurled the liveliest epithets in his direction have long since accepted the ideas for which Page was then contending; "the only trouble with him," they now ruefully admit, "was that he was forty years ahead of his time." They recall with satisfaction the satiric accounts which Page used to publish of Democratic Conventions---solemn, long-winded, frock-coated, white-necktied affairs that displayed little concern for the reform of the tariff or of the civil service, but an energetic interest in pensioning Confederate veterans and erecting monuments to the Southern heroes of the Civil War. One editorial is joyfully recalled, in which Page referred to a public officer who was distinguished for his dignity and his family tree, but not noted for any animated administration of his duties, as "Thothmes II." When this bewildered functionary searched the Encyclopaedia and learned that " Thothmes II " was an Egyptian king of the XVII1th dynasty, whose dessicated mummy had recently been disinterred from the hot sands of the desert, he naturally stopped his subscription to the paper. The metaphor apparently tickled Page, for he used it in a series of articles which have become immortal in the political annals of North Carolina. These have always been known as the "Mummy letters." They furnished a vivid but rather aggravating explanation for the existing backwardness and chauvinism of the commonwealth. All the trouble, it seems, was caused by the "mummies." "It is an awfully discouraging business," Page wrote, "to undertake to prove to a mummy that it is a mummy. You go up to it and say, 'Old fellow, the Egyptian dynasties crumbled several thousand years ago: you are a fish out of water. You have by accident or the Providence of God got a long way out of your time. This is America.' The old thing grins that grin. which death set on its solemn features when the world was young; and your task is so pitiful that even the humour of it is gone. Give it up."



Everything great in North Carolina, Page declared, belonged to a vanished generation. "Our great lawyers, great judges, great editors, are all of the past. . . . In the general intelligence of the people, in intellectual force and in cultivation, we are doing nothing. We are not doing or getting more liberal ideas, a broader view of this world. . . . The presumptuous powers of ignorance, heredity, decayed respectability and stagnation that control public action and public expression are absolutely leading us back intellectually."



But Page did more than berate the mummified aristocracy which, he declared, was driving the best talent and initiative from the state; he was not the only man in Raleigh who expressed these unpopular views; at that time, indeed, he was the centre and inspiration of a group of young progressive spirits who held frequent meetings to devise ways of starting the state on the road to a new existence. Page then, as always, exercised a great fascination over young men. The apparently merciless character of his ridicule might at first convey the idea of intolerance; the fact remains, however, that he was the most tolerant of men; he was almost deferential to the opinions of others, even the shallow and the inexperienced; and nothing delighted him more than an animated discussion. His liveliness of spirits, his mental and physical vitality, the constant sparkle of his talk, the sharp edge of his humour, naturally drew the younger men to his side. The result was the organization of the Wautauga Club, a gathering which held monthly meetings for the discussion of ways and means of improving social and educational conditions in North Carolina. The very name gives the key to its mental outlook. The Wautauga colony was one of the last founded in North Carolina---in the extreme west, on a plateau of the Great Smoky Mountains; it was always famous for the energy and independence of its people. The word "Wautauga" therefore suggested the breaker of tradition; and it provided a stimulating name for Page's group of young spiritual and economic pathfinders. The Wautauga Club had a brief existence of a little more than two years, the period practically covering Page's residence in the state; but its influence is an important fact at the present time. It gave the state ideas that afterward caused something like a revolution in its economic and educational status. The noblest monument to its labours is the State College in Raleigh, an institution which now has more than a thousand students, for the most part studying the mechanic arts and scientific agriculture. To this one college most North Carolinians to-day attribute the fact that their state in appreciable measure is realizing its great economic and industrial opportunities. From it in the last thirty years thousands of young men have gone: in all sections of the commonwealth they have caused the almost barren acres to yield fertile and diversified crops; they have planted everywhere new industries; they have unfolded unsuspected resources and everywhere created wealth and spread enlightenment. This institution is a direct outcome of Page's brief sojourn in his native state nearly forty years ago. The idea originated in his brain; the files of the State Chronicle tell the story of his struggle in its behalf; the activities of the Wautauga Club were largely concentrated upon securing its establishment.



The State College was a great victory for Page, but final success did not come until three years after he had left the state. For a year and a half of hard newspaper work convinced Page that North Carolina really had no permanent place for him. The Chronicle was editorially a success: Page's articles were widely quoted, not only in his own state but in New England and other parts of the Union. He succeeded in stirring up North Carolina and the South generally, but popular support for the Chronicle was not forthcoming in sufficient amount to make the paper a commercial possibility. Reluctantly and sadly Page had to forego his hope of playing an active part in rescuing his state from the disasters of the Civil War. Late in the summer of 1885, he again left for the North, which now became his permanent home.

III



And with this second sojourn in New York Page's opportunity came. The first two years he spent in newspaper work, for the most part with the Evening Post, but, one day in November, 1887, a man whom he had never seen came into his office and unfolded a new opportunity. Two years before a rather miscellaneous group had launched an ambitious literary undertaking. This was a monthly periodical, which, it was hoped, would do for the United States what such publications as the Fortnightly and the Contemporary were doing for England. The magazine was to have the highest literary quality and to be sufficiently dignified to attract the finest minds in America as contributors; its purpose was to exercise a profound influence in politics, literature, science, and art. The projectors had selected for this publication a title that was almost perfection---the Forum---but this, after nearly two years' experimentation, represented about the limit of their achievement. The Forum had hardly made an impression on public thought and had attracted very few readers, although it had lost large sums of money for its progenitors. These public-spirited gentlemen now turned to Page as the man who might rescue them from their dilemma and achieve their purpose. He accepted the engagement, first as manager and presently as editor, and remained the guiding spirit of the Forum for eight years, until the summer of 1895.



That the success of a publication is the success of its editors, and not of its business managers and its "backers," is a truth that ought to be generally apparent; never has this fact been so eloquently illustrated as in the case of the Forum under Page. Before his accession it had had not the slightest importance; for the period of his editorship it is doubtful if any review published in English exercised so great an influence, and certainly none ever obtained so large a circulation. From almost nothing the Forum, in two or three years, attracted 30,000 subscribers---something without precedent for a publication of this character. It had accomplished this great result simply because of the vitality and interest of its contents. The period covered was an important one, in the United States and Europe; it was the time of Cleveland's second administration in this country, and of Gladstone's fourth administration in England; it was a time of great controversy and of a growing interest in science, education, social reform and a better political order. All these great matters were reflected in the pages of the Forum, whose list of contributors contained the most distinguished names in all countries. Its purpose, as Page explained it, was "to provoke discussion about subjects of contemporary interest, in which the magazine is not a partisan, but merely the instrument." In the highest sense, that is, its purpose was journalistic; practically everything that it printed was related to the thought and the action of the time. So insistent was Page on this programme that his pages were not "closed" until a week before the day of issue. Though the Forum dealt constantly in controversial subjects it never did so in a narrow-minded spirit; it was always ready to hear both sides of a question and the magazine "debate," in which opposing writers handled vigorously the same theme, was a constant feature.



Page, indeed, represented a new type of editor. Up to that time this functionary had been a rather solemn, inaccessible high priest; he sat secluded in his sanctuary, and weeded out from the mass of manuscripts dumped upon his desk the particular selections which seemed to be most suited to his purpose. To solicit contributions would have seemed an entirely undignified proceeding; in all cases contributors must come to him. According to Page, however, "an editor must know men and be out among men." His system of "making up" the magazine at first somewhat astounded his associates. A month or two in advance of publication day he would draw up his table of contents. This, in its preliminary stage, amounted to nothing except a list of the main subjects which he aspired to handle in that number. It was a hope, not a performance. The subjects were commonly suggested by the happenings of the time---an especially outrageous lynching, the trial of a clergyman for heresy, a new attack upon the Monroe Doctrine, the discovery of a new substance such as radium, the publication of an epoch-making book. Page would then fix upon the inevitable men who could write most readably and most authoritatively upon these topics, and "go after" them. Sometimes he would write one of his matchless editorial letters; at other times he would make a personal visit; if necessary, he would use any available friends in a wire-pulling campaign. At all odds he must "get" his man; once he had fixed upon a certain contributor nothing could divert him from the chase. Nor did the negotiations cease after he had "landed" his quarry. He had his way of discussing the subject with his proposed writer, and he discussed it from every possible point of view. He would take him to lunch or to dinner; in his quiet way he would draw him out, find whether he really knew much about the subject, learn the attitude that he was likely to take, and delicately slip in suggestions of his own. Not infrequently this preliminary interview would disclose that the much sought writer, despite appearances, was not the one who was destined for that particular job; in this case Page would find some way of shunting him in favour of a more promising candidate. But Page was no mere chaser of names; there was nothing of the literary tuft-hunter about his editorial methods. He liked to see such men as Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, William Graham. Sumner, Charles W. Eliot, Frederic Harrison, Paul Bourget, and the like upon his title page---and here these and many other similarly distinguished authors appeared---but the greatest name could not attain a place there if the letter press that followed were unworthy. Indeed Page's habit of throwing out the contributions of the great, after paying a stiff price for them, caused much perturbation in his counting room. One day he called in one of his associates.



"Do you see that waste basket?" he asked, pointing to a large receptacle filled to overflowing with manuscripts. "All our Cleveland articles are there!"



He had gone to great trouble and expense to obtain a series of six articles from the most prominent publicists and political leaders of the country on the first year of Mr. Cleveland's second administration. It was to be the "feature" of the number then in preparation.



"There isn't one of them," he declared, "who has got the point. I have thrown them all away and I am going to try to write something myself."



And he spent a couple of days turning out an article which aroused great public interest. When Page commissioned an article, he meant simply that he would pay full price for it; whether he would publish it depended entirely upon the quality of the material itself. But Page was just as severe upon his own writings as upon those of other men. He wrote occasionally---always under a nom-de-plume; but he had great difficulty in satisfying his own editorial standards. After finishing an article he would commonly send for one of his friends and read the result.



"That is superb!" this admiring associate would sometimes say.



In response Page would take the manuscript and, holding it aloft in two hands, tear it into several bits, and throw the scraps into the waste basket.



"Oh, I can do better than that," he would laugh and in another minute he was busy rewriting the article, from beginning to end.



Page retired from the editorship of the Forum in 1895. The severance of relations was half a comedy, half a tragedy. The proprietors had only the remotest relation to literature; they had lost much money in the enterprise before Page became editor and only the fortunate accident of securing his services had changed their losing venture into a financial success. In a moment of despair, before the happier period had arrived, they offered to sell the property to Page and his friends. Page quickly assembled a new group to purchase control, when, much to the amazement of the old owners, the Forum began to make money. Instead of having a burden on their hands, the proprietors suddenly discovered that they had a gold mine. They therefore refused to deliver their holdings and an inevitable struggle ensued for control. Page could edit a magazine and turn a shipwrecked enterprise into a profitable one; but, in a tussle of this kind, he was no match for the shrewd business men who owned the property. When the time came for counting noses Page and his friends found themselves in a minority. Of course his resignation as editor necessarily followed this little unpleasantness. And just as inevitably the Forum again began to lose money, and soon sank into an obscurity from which it has never emerged.



The Forum had established Page's reputation as an editor, and the competition for his services was lively. The distinguished Boston publishing house of Houghton, Mifflin & Company immediately invited him to become a part of their organization. When Horace E. Scudder, in 1898, resigned the editorship of the Atlantic Monthly, Page succeeded him. Thus Page became the successor of James Russell Lowell, James T. Fields, William D. Howells, and Thomas Bailey Aldrich as the head of this famous periodical. This meant that he had reached the top of his profession. He was now forty-three years old.



No American publication had ever had so brilliant a history. Founded in 1857, in the most flourishing period of the New England writers, its pages had first published many of the best essays of Emerson, the second series of the Biglow papers as well as many other of Lowell's writings, poems of Longfellow and Whittier, such great successes as Holmes's "Autocrat of the Breakfast Table," Mrs. Howe's "Battle Hymn of the Republic," and the early novels of Henry James. If America had a literature, the Atlantic was certainly its most successful periodical exponent. Yet, in a sense, the Atlantic, by the time Page succeeded to the editorship, had become the victim of its dazzling past. Its recent editors had lived too exclusively in their back numbers. They had conducted the magazine too much for the restricted audience of Boston and New England. There was a time, indeed, when the business office arranged the subscribers in two classes---" Boston" and "foreign"; "Boston" representing their local adherents, and "foreign" the loyal readers who lived in the more benighted parts of the United States. One of its editors had been heard to boast that he never solicited a contribution; it was not his business to be a literary drummer! Let the truth be fairly spoken: when Page made his first appearance in the Atlantic office, the magazine was unquestionably on the decline. Its literary quality was still high; the momentum that its great contributors had given it was still keeping the publication alive; entrance into its columns still represented the ultimate ambition of the aspiring American writer; but it needed a new spirit to insure its future. What it required was the kind of editing that had suddenly made the Forum one of the greatest of English-written reviews. This is the reason why the canny Yankee proprietors had reached over to New York and grasped Page as quickly as the capitalists of the Forum let him slip between their fingers.



Page's sense of humour discovered a certain ironic aspect in his position as the dictator of this famous New England magazine. The fact that his manner was impatiently energetic and somewhat startling to the placid atmosphere of Park Street was not the thing that really signified its break with its past. But here was a Southerner firmly entrenched in a headquarters that had long been sacred to the New England abolitionists. One of the first sights that greeted Page, as he came into the office, was the angular and spectacled countenance of William Lloyd Garrison, gazing down from a steel engraving on the wall. One of Garrison's sons was a colleague, and the anterooms were frequently cluttered with dusky gentlemen patiently waiting for interviews with this benefactor of their race. Page once was careless enough to inform Mr. Garrison that "one of your niggers" was waiting outside for an audience. "I very much regret, Mr. Page," came the answer, "that you should insist on spelling 'Negro' with two 'g's'." Despite the mock solemnity of this rebuke, perennial good-nature and raillery prevailed between the son of Garrison and his disrespectful but ever sympathetic Southern friend. Indeed, one of Page's earliest performances was to introduce a spirit of laughter and genial cooperation into a rather solemn and self-satisfied environment. Mr. Mifflin, the head of the house, even formally thanked Page "for the hearty human way in which you take hold of life." Mr. Ellery Sedgwick, the present editor of the Atlantic, has described the somewhat disconcerting descent of Page upon the editorial sanctuary of James Russell Lowell:



"Were a visitant from another sphere to ask me for the incarnation of those qualities we love to call American, I should turn to a familiar gallery of my memory and point to the living portrait that hangs there of Walter Page. A sort of foursquareness, bluntness, it seemed to some; an uneasy, often explosive energy; a disposition to underrate fine drawn nicenesses of all sorts; ingrained Yankee common sense, checking his vaulting enthusiasm; enormous self-confidence, impatience of failure---all of these were in him; and he was besides affectionate to a fault, devoted to his country, his family, his craft---a strong, bluff, tender man.

"Those were the decorous days of the old tradition, and Page's entrance into the 'atmosphere' of Park Street has taken on the dignity of legend. There were all kinds of signs and portents, as the older denizens will tell you. Strange breezes floated through the office, electric emanations, and a pervasive scent of tobacco, which---so the local historian says---had been unknown in the vicinity since the days of Walter Raleigh, except for the literary aroma of Aldrich's quarantined sanctum upstairs. Page's coming marked the end of small ways. His first requirement was, in lieu of a desk, a table that might have served a family of twelve for Thanksgiving dinner. No one could imagine what that vast, polished tableland could serve for until they watched the editor at work. Then they saw. Order vanished and chaos reigned. Huge piles of papers, letters, articles, reports, books, pamphlets, magazines, congregated themselves as if by magic. To work in such confusion seemed hopeless, but Page eluded the congestion by the simple expedient of moving on. He would light a fresh cigar, give the editorial chair a hitch, and begin his work in front of a fresh expanse of table, with no clutter of the past to disturb the new day's litter.

"The motive power of his work was enthusiasm. Never was more generous welcome given to a newcomer than Page held out to the successful manuscript of an unknown. I remember, though I heard the news second hand at the time, what a day it was in the office when the first manuscript from the future author of 'To Have and To Hold,' came in from an untried Southern girl. He walked up and down, reading paragraphs aloud and slapping the crisp manuscript to enforce his commendation. To take a humbler instance, I recall the words of over generous praise with which he greeted the first paper I ever sent to an editor quite as clearly as I remember the monstrous effort which had brought it into being. Sometimes he would do a favoured manuscript the honour of taking it out to lunch in his coat-pocket, and an associate vividly recalls eggs, coffee, and pie in a near-by restaurant, while, in a voice that could be heard by the remotest lunchers. Page read passages which many of them were too startled to appreciate. He was not given to overrating, but it was not in his nature to understate. 'I tell you,' said he, grumbling over some unfortunate proof-sheets from Manhattan, 'there isn't one man in New York who can write English---not from the Battery to Harlem Heights.' And if the faults were moral rather than literary, his disapproval grew in emphasis. There is more than tradition in the tale of the Negro who, presuming on Page's deep interest in his race, brought to his desk a manuscript copied word for word from a published source. Page recognized the deception, and seizing the rascal's collar with a firm editorial grip, rejected the poem, and ejected the poet, with an energy very invigorating to the ancient serenities of the office.

"Page was always effervescent with ideas. Like an editor who would have made a good fisherman, he used to say that you had to cast a dozen times before you could get a strike. He was forever in those days sending out ideas and suggestions and invitations to write. The result was electric, and the magazine became with a suddenness (of which only an editor can appreciate the wonder) a storehouse of animating thoughts. He avoided the mistake common to our craft of editing a magazine for the immediate satisfaction of his colleagues. 'Don't write for the office,' he would say. 'Write for outside,' and so his magazine became a living thing. His phrase suggests one special gift that Page had, for which his profession should do him especial honour. He was able, quite beyond the powers of any man of my acquaintance, to put compendiously into words the secrets of successful editing. It was capital training just to hear him talk. 'Never save a feature,' he used to say. 'Always work for the next number. Forget the others. Spend everything just on that.' And to those who know, there is divination in the principle. Again he understood instinctively that to write well a man must not only have something to say, but must long to say it. A highly intelligent representative of the coloured race came to him with a philosophic essay, Page would have none of it. 'I know what you are thinking of,' said Page. 'You are thinking of the barriers we set up against you, and the handicap of your lot. If you will write what it feels like to be a Negro, I will print that.' The result was a paper which has seemed to me the most moving expression of the hopeless hope of the race I know of.

"Page was generous in his cooperation. He never drew a rigid line about his share in any enterprise, but gave and took help with each and all. A lover of good English, with an honest passion for things tersely said, Page esteemed good journalism far above any second-rate manifestation of more pretentious forms; but many of us will regret that he was not privileged to find some outlet for his energies in which aspiration for real literature might have played an ampler part. For the literature of the past Page had great respect, but his interest was ever in the present and the future. He was forever fulminating against bad writing, and hated the ignorant and slipshod work of the hack almost as much as he despised the sham of the man who affected letters, the dabbler and the poetaster. His taste was for the roast beef of literature, not for the side dishes and the trimmings, and his appreciation of the substantial work of others was no surer than his instinct for his own performance. He was an admirable writer of exposition, argument, and narrative-solid and thoughtful, but never dull. . . . I came into close relations with him and from him I learned more of my profession than from any one I have ever known. Scores of other men would say the same."



But the fact that a new hand had seized the Atlantic was apparent in other places than in the Atlantic office itself. One of Page's contributors of the Forum days, Mr. Courtney DeKalb, happened to be in St. Louis when the first number of the magazine under its new editor made its appearance. Mr. DeKalb had been out of the country for some time and knew nothing of the change. Happening accidentally to pick up the Atlantic, the table of contents caught his eye. It bore the traces of an unmistakable hand. Only one man, he said to himself, could assemble such a group as that, and above all, only Page could give such an enticing turn of the titles. He therefore sat down and wrote his old friend congratulating him on his accession to the Atlantic Monthly. The change that now took. place was indeed a conspicuous, almost a startling one. The Atlantic retained all its old literary flavour, for to its traditions Page was as much devoted as the highest caste Bostonian; it still gave up much of its space to a high type of fiction, poetry, and reviews of contemporary literature, but every number contained also an assortment of articles which celebrated the prevailing activities of men and women in all worthwhile fields of effort. There were discussions of present-day politics, and these even became personal dissections of presidential candidates; there were articles on the racial characters of the American population: Theodore Roosevelt was permitted to discuss the New York police; Woodrow Wilson to pass in review the several elements that made the Nation; Booker T. Washington to picture the awakening of the Negro; John Muir to enlighten Americans upon a national beauty and wealth of which they had been woefully ignorant, their forests; William Allen White to describe certain aspects of his favourite Kansas; E. L. Godkin to review the dangers and, the hopes of American democracy; Jacob Riis to tell about the Battle with the Slum; and W. G. Frost to reveal for the first time the archaic civilization of the Kentucky mountaineers. The latter article illustrated Page's genius at rewriting titles. Mr. Frost's theme was that these Kentucky mountaineers were really Elizabethan survivals; that their dialect, their ballads, their habits were really a case of arrested development; that by studying them present-day Americans could get a picture of their distant forbears. Page gave vitality to the presentation by changing a commonplace title to this one: "Our Contemporary Ancestors."



There were those who were offended by Page's willingness to seek inspiration on the highways and byways and even in newspapers, for not infrequently he would find hidden away in a corner an idea that would result in valuable magazine matter. On one occasion at least this practice had important literary consequences. One day he happened to read that a Mrs. Robert Hanning had died in Toronto, the account casually mentioning the fact that Mrs. Hanning was the youngest sister of Thomas Carlyle. Page handed this clipping to a young assistant, and told him to take the first train to Canada. The editor could easily divine that a sister of Carlyle, expatriated for forty-six years on this side of the Atlantic, must have received a large number of letters from her brother, and it was safe to assume that they had been carefully preserved. Such proved to be the fact; and a new volume of Carlyle letters, of somewhat more genial character than the other collections, was the outcome of this visit.[1]And another fruit of this journalistic habit was---The Memoirs of a Revolutionist," by Prince Peter Kropotkin. In 1897 the great Russian nihilist was lecturing in Boston. Page met him, learned from his own lips his story, and persuaded him to put it in permanent form. This willingness of Page to admit such a revolutionary person into the pages of the Atlantic caused some excitement in conventional circles. In fact, it did take some courage, but Page never hesitated; the man was of heroic mould, he had a great story to tell, he wielded an engaging pen, and his purposes were high-minded. A great book of memoirs was the result.



Mr. Sedgwick refers above to Page's editorial fervour when Miss Mary Johnston's "Prisoners of Hope" first fell out of the blue sky into his Boston office. Page's joy was not less keen because the young author was a Virginia girl, and because she had discovered that the early period of Virginia history was a field for romance. When, a few months afterward, Page was casting about for an Atlantic serial, Miss Johnston and this Virginia field seemed to be an especially favourable prospect. "Prisoners of Hope" had been published as a book and had made a good success, but Miss Johnston's future still lay ahead of her. With Page to think meant to act, and so, instead of writing a formal letter, he at once jumped on a train for Birmingham, Alabama, where Miss Johnston was then living. "I remember quite distinctly that first meeting," writes Miss Johnston. "The day was rainy. Standing at my window I watched Mr. Page---a characteristic figure, air and walk---approach the house. When a few minutes later I met him he was simplicity and kindliness itself. This was my first personal contact with publishers (my publishers) or with editors of anything so great as the Atlantic. My heart beat! But he was friendly and Southern. I told him what I had done upon a new story. He was going on that night. Might he take the manuscript with him and read it upon the train? It might---he couldn't say positively, of course---but it might have serial possibilities. I was only too glad for him to have the manuscript. I forget just how many chapters I had completed. But it was not quite in order. Could I get it so in a few hours? In that case he would send a messenger for it from the hotel. Yes, I could. Very good! A little further talk and he left with a strong handshake. Three or four hours later he had the manuscript and took it with him from Birmingham that night."



Page's enterprising visit had put into his hands the half-finished manuscript of a story, "To Have and to Hold," which, when printed in the Atlantic, more than doubled its circulation, and which, when made into a book, proved one of the biggest successes since "Uncle Tom's Cabin."



Page's most independent stroke in his Atlantic days came with the outbreak of the Spanish-American War. Boston was then the headquarters of a national mood which has almost passed out of popular remembrance. Its spokesmen called themselves anti-imperialists. The theory back of their protest was that the American declaration of war on Spain was not only the wanton attack of a great bully upon a feeble little country: it was something that was bound to have deplorable consequences. The United States was breaking with its past and engaging in European quarrels; as a consequence of the war it would acquire territories and embark on a career of "imperialism." Page was impatient at this kind of twaddle. He declared that the Spanish War was a "necessary act of surgery for the health of civilization." He did not believe that a nation, simply because it was small, should be permitted to maintain indefinitely a human slaughter house at the door of the United States. The Atlantic for June, 1898, gave the so-called anti-imperialists a thrill of horror. On the cover appeared the defiantly flying American flag; the first article was a vigorous and approving presentation of the American case against Spain; though this was unsigned, its incisive style at once betrayed the author. The Atlantic had printed the American flag on its cover during the Civil War; but certain New Englanders thought that this latest struggle, in its motives and its proportions, was hardly entitled to the distinction. Page declared, however, that the Spanish War marked a new period in history; and he endorsed the McKinley Administration, not only in the war itself, but in its consequences, particularly the annexation of the Philippine Islands.



Page greatly enjoyed life in Boston and Cambridge. The Atlantic was rapidly growing in circulation and in influence, and the new friends that its editor was making were especially to his taste. He now had a family of four children, three boys and one girl---and their bringing up and education, as he said at this time, constituted his real occupation. So far as he could see, in the summer of 1899, he was permanently established in life. But larger events in the publishing world now again pulled him back to New York.




  1. "Letters of Thomas Carlyle to his Youngest Sister." Edited by Charles Townsend Copeland. Houghton, Mifflin & Company, 1899.



WWI Document Archive > Diaries, Memorials, Personal Reminiscences > Walter H. Page > Chapter II


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