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The Brass Check
A Study of American Journalism
By Upton Sinclair
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1919 Upton Sinclair
All rights reserved.
THE STORY OF THE BRASS CHECK
Once upon a time there was a little boy; a nice little boy, whom you would have liked if you had known him — at least, so his mother says. He had been brought up in the traditions of the old South, to which the two most important things in the world were good cooking and good manners. He obeyed his mother and father, and ate his peas with a fork, and never buttered the whole slice of his bread. On Sunday mornings he carefully shined his shoes and brushed his clothes at the window, and got into a pair of tight kid gloves and under a tight little brown derby hat, and walked with his parents to a church on Fifth Avenue. On week-days he studied hard and obeyed his teachers, and in every field of thought and activity he believed what was told him by those in authority. He learned the catechism and thought it was the direct word of God. When he fell sick and the doctor came, he put himself in the doctor's hands with a sense of perfect trust and content; the doctor knew what to do, and would do it, and the little boy would get well.
The boy's grandfather had been a Confederate naval officer, drowned at sea. The boy's father had spent his youth in Virginia during the agonies of the Civil War, thus missing most of his education. After the war the family was ruined, and the father had to enter into competition with Yankee "hustle," handicapped by a Southern gentleman's quaint notions of dignity, and also by a Southern gentleman's weakness for mint-juleps. So the last week's board bill was generally a matter of anxiety to the family. But always, no matter how poor the family might be, the little boy had a clean white collar, and a copy of the "New York Sun" every morning. This paper was beautifully printed, smooth and neat; the little boy knew all its peculiarities of type, and he and his father and his mother accepted every word they read in it, both the news-columns and the editorial page, precisely as they accepted the doctor's pills and the clergyman's sermons, the Bible and the multiplication table and Marian Harland's cook-book.
The "New York Sun" was edited by one of the bitterest cynics that ever lived in America. He had been something of a radical in his early days, and had turned like a fierce wolf upon his young ideals. He had one fixed opinion, which was that everything new in the world should be mocked at and denounced. He had a diabolical wit, and had taught a tradition to his staff, and had infected a good part of American Journalism with the poison of his militant cynicism. Once every twenty-four hours the little boy absorbed this poison, he took it for truth, and made all his ideas of it.
For example, there were women who were trying to be different from what women had always been. There was a thing called "Sorosis." The boy never knew what "Sorosis" was; from the "Sun" he gathered that it was a collection of women who wanted to have brains, and to take part in public affairs — whereas the "Sun" acidly considered that woman's place was the home. And the boy found it easy to agree with this. Did not the boy's grandmother make the best ginger-cakes of any grandmother in the whole city of Baltimore? Did not his mother make the best chocolate-cake and the best "hot short-cake" — that is, whenever the family could escape from boarding-houses and have a little kitchen of its own. The boy was enormously fond of chocolate-cake and short-cake, and of course he didn't want women neglecting their duties for fool things such as "Sorosis."
Also there were the Populists. The little boy had never seen a Populist, he had never been given an opportunity to read a Populist platform, but he knew all about the Populists from the funny editorials of Charles A. Dana. The Populists were long-haired and wild-eyed animals whose habitat was the corn-fields of Kansas. The boy knew the names of a lot of them, or rather the nick-names which Dana gave them; he had a whole portrait-gallery of them in his mind. Once upon a time the "Sun" gave some statistics from Kansas, suggesting that the Populists were going insane; so the little boy took his pen in hand and wrote a letter to the editor of the "Sun," gravely rebuking him. He had never expected to read in the columns of the "Sun" a suggestion that Populists might go insane. And the "Sun" published this feeble product of its own "smartness."
Later on the boy discovered the "New York Evening Post," the beau idealof a gentleman's newspaper, and this became for years his main source of culture. The "Evening Post" was edited by E. L. Godkin, a scholar and a lover of righteousness, but narrow, and with an abusive tongue. From him the boy learned that American politics were rotten, and he learned the cause of the rottenness: First, there was an ignorant mob, composed mainly of foreigners; and second, there were venal politicians who pandered to this mob. Efforts were continually being made by gentlemen of decency and culture to take the government away from these venal politicians, but the mob was too ignorant, and could not be persuaded to support a clean government. Yet the fight must be kept up, because conditions were going from bad to worse. The boy witnessed several "reform campaigns," conducted mainly by the "Evening Post" and other newspapers. These campaigns consisted in the publication of full-page exposures of civic rottenness, with denunciations of the politicians in office. The boy believed every word of the exposures, and it never occurred to him that the newspapers might be selling more copies by means of them; still less did it occur to him that anybody might be finding in these excitements a means of diverting the mind of the public from larger and more respectable forms of "graft."
There was a candidate for district attorney, William Travers Jerome by name; a man with a typical "Evening Post" mind, making an ideal "Evening Post" candidate. He conducted a "whirlwind" campaign, speaking at half a dozen meetings every evening, and stirring his audience to frenzy by his accounts of the corruption of the city's police-force. Men would stand up and shout with indignation, women would faint or weep. The boy would sit with his finger-nails dug into the palms of his hands, while the orator tore away the veils from subjects which were generally kept hidden from little boys.
The orator described the system of prostitution, which was paying its millions every year to the police of the city. He pictured a room in which women displayed their persons, and men walked up and down and inspected them, selecting one as they would select an animal at a fair. The man paid his three dollars, or his five dollars, to a cashier at the window, and received a brass check; then he went upstairs, and paid this check to the woman upon receipt of her favors. And suddenly the orator put his hand into his pocket and drew forth the bit of metal. "Behold!" he cried. "The price of a woman's shame!"
To the lad in the audience this BRASS CHECK was the symbol of the most monstrous wickedness in the world. Night after night he would attend these meetings, and next day he would read about them in the papers. He was a student at college, living in a lodging-house room on four dollars a week, which he earned himself; yet he pitched in to help this orator's campaign, and raised something over a hundred dollars, and took it to the "Evening Post" candidate at his club, interrupting him at dinner, and no doubt putting a strain on his patience. The candidate was swept into office in a tornado of excitement, and did what all "Evening Post" candidates did and always do — that is, nothing. For four long years the lad waited, in bewilderment and disgust, ending in rage. So he learned the grim lesson that there is more than one kind of parasite feeding on human weakness, there is more than one kind of prostitution which may be symbolized by the BRASS CHECK.CHAPTER 2
THE STORY OF A POET
The boy, now become a youth, obtained a letter of introduction from his clergyman to the editor of his beloved "Evening Post," and at the age of sixteen was given a trial as reporter. He worked for a week collecting odd scraps of news, and when the week was over he had earned the generous sum of two dollars and sixty-seven cents. This was his first and last experience as newspaper reporter, and it confirmed his boyish impression of the integrity of the journalistic profession. His work had consisted of compiling obituary notices about leading citizens who had died. "John T. McGurk, senior partner of McGurk and Isaacson, commission-merchants of 679 Desbrosses Street, died yesterday of cirrhosis of the liver at his home, 4331 George Washington Avenue, Hoboken. Mr. McGurk was 69 years of age, and leaves a widow and eleven children. He was a member of the Elks, and president of the North Hoboken Bowling Association." And these facts the "Evening Post" printed exactly as he had written them. In a book which will not have much to say in favor of American Journalism, let this fidelity to truth, and to the memory of the blameless McGurk, have its due meed of praise.
The youth took to writing jokes and jingles, at which he earned twice as much as the "Evening Post" had paid him. Later on he took to writing dime-novels, at which he made truly fabulous sums. He found it puzzling that this cheap and silly writing should be the kind that brought the money. The editors told him it was because the public wanted that kind; but the youth wondered — might not at least part of the blame lie with the editors, who never tried giving anything better? It was the old problem — which comes first, the hen or the egg?
We have spoken jestingly of the traditions of the old South, in which the youth was brought up; but the reader should not get a false impression of them — in many ways they were excellent traditions. For one thing, they taught the youth to despise a lie; also to hate injustice, so that wherever in his life he encountered it, his whole being became a blaze of excitement. Always he was striving in his mind to discover the source of lies and injustice — why should there be so much of them in the world? The newspapers revealed the existence of them, but never seemed to know the causes of them, nor what to do about them, further than to support a reform candidate who did nothing but get elected. This futility in the face of the world's misery and corruption was maddening to the youth.
He had rich relatives who were fond of him, so that he was free to escape from poverty into luxury; he had the opportunity to rise quickly in the world, if he would go into business, and devote his attention thereto. But would he find in business the ideals which he craved? He talked with business men, also he got the flavor of business from the advertisements in the newspapers — and he knew that this was not what he was seeking. He cultivated the friendship of Jesus, Hamlet and Shelley, and fell in love with the young Milton and the young Goethe; in them he found his own craving for truth and beauty. Here, through the medium of art, life might be ennobled, and lifted from the muck of graft and greed.
So the youth ran away and buried himself in a hut in the wilds of Canada, and wrote what he thought was the great American novel. It was a painfully crude performance, but it had a new moral impulse in it, and the youth really believed that it was to convert the world to ways of love and justice. He took it to the publishers, and one after another they rejected it. They admitted that it had merit, but it would not sell. Incredible as it seemed to the youth, the test by which the publishers judged an embryo book and its right to be born, was not whether it had vision and beauty and a new moral impulse; they judged it as the newspapers judged what they published — would it sell? The youth earned some money and published the book himself, and wrote a preface to tell the world what a wonderful book it was, and how the cruel publishers had rejected it. This preface, together with the book, he sent to the leading newspapers; and thus began the second stage of his journalistic experiences!
Two newspapers paid attention to his communication — the "New York Times," a respectable paper, and the "New York American," a "yellow" paper. The "American" sent a woman reporter, an agreeable and friendly young lady, to whom the author poured out his soul. She asked for his picture, saying that this would enable her to get much more space for the story; so the author gave his picture. She asked for his wife's picture; but here the author was obdurate. He had old-fashioned Southern notions about "newspaper notoriety" for ladies; he did not want his wife's picture in the papers. There stood a little picture of his wife on the table where the interview took place, and after the reporter had left, it was noticed that this picture was missing. Next day the picture was published in the "New York American," and has been published in the "New York American" every year or two since. The author, meantime, has divorced his first wife and married a second wife — a fact of which the newspapers are fully aware; yet they publish this picture of the first wife indifferently as a picture of the first wife and of the second wife. When one of these ladies says or does a certain thing, the other lady may open her paper in the morning and receive a shock!
Both the "New York Times" and the "New York American" published interviews with the young author. It had been his fond hope to interest people in his book and to cause them to read his book, but in this he failed; what both the interviews told about was his personality. The editors had been amused by the naive assumption of a young poet that he might have something of importance to say to the world; they had made a "human interest" story out of it, a journalistic tidbit to tickle the appetites of the jaded and worldly-wise. They said scarcely anything about the contents of the book, and as a result of the two interviews, the hungry young author sold precisely two copies!
Meantime he was existing by hack-work, and exploring the world in which ideas are bought and sold. He was having jokes and plots of stories stolen; he was having agreements broken and promises repudiated; he was trying to write worthwhile material, and being told that it would not sell; he was trying to become a book-reviewer, and finding that the only way to succeed was to be a cheat. The editor of the "Independent" or the "Literary Digest" would give him half a dozen books to read, and he would read them, and write an honest review, saying that there was very little merit in any of them: whereupon, the editor would decide that it was not worth while to review the books, and the author would get nothing for his work. If, on the other hand, he wrote an article about a book, taking it seriously, and describing it as vital and important, the editor would conclude that the book was worth reviewing, and would publish the review, and pay the author three or four dollars for it.
This, you understand, was the "literary world," in which ideas, the most priceless possession of mankind, were made the subject of barter and sale. In every branch of it there were such petty dishonesties, such tricks of the trade. There were always ten times as many people trying to get a living as the trade would support. They were clutching at chances, elbowing each other out of the way; and their efforts were not rewarded according to their love of truth and beauty, but according to quite other factors. They were dressing themselves up and using the "social game," they were posing and pretending, the women were using the sex-lure. And everywhere, when they pretended to care about literature and ideas, they were really caring about money, and "success" because it would bring money. Everywhere, above all things else, they hated and feared the very idea of genius, which put them to shame, and threatened with annihilation their petty gains and securities.
From these things the youth fled into the wilderness again, living in a tent with his young wife, and writing a story in which he poured out his contempt upon the great Metropolis of Mammon. This was "Prince Hagen," and he sent it to the "Atlantic Monthly," and there came a letter from the editor, Professor Bliss Perry, saying that it was a work of merit and that he would publish it. So for weeks the young author walked on the top of the clouds. But then came another letter, saying that the other members of the "Atlantic" staff had read the story, and that Professor Perry had been unable to persuade them to see it as he saw it. "We have," said he, "a very conservative, fastidious and sophisticated constituency." The young author went back to his "pot-boiling." He spent another winter in New York, wrestling with disillusionments and humiliations, and then, fleeing to the wilderness for a third summer, he put his experience into "The Journal of Arthur Stirling," the story of a young poet who is driven to suicide by neglect and despair. The book was given to the world as a genuine document, and relieved the tedium of a literary season. Its genuineness was accepted almost everywhere, and the author sat behind the scenes, feeling quite devilish. When the secret came out, some critics were cross, and one or two of them have not yet forgiven the writer. The "New York Evening Post" is accustomed to mention the matter every once in a while, declaring that the person who played that trick can never receive anyone's confidence. I will not waste space discussing this question, save to point out that the newspaper reviewers had set the rules of the game — that love and beauty in art were heeded only in connection with personalities and sensation; so, in order to project love and beauty upon the world, the young author had provided the personalities and sensation. As for the "Evening Post" and its self-righteousness, before I finish this book I shall tell of things done by that organ of Wall Street which qualify decidedly its right to sit in judgment upon questions of honor.
Excerpted from The Brass Check by Upton Sinclair. Copyright © 1919 Upton Sinclair. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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