The Americans who read

I was out and about this morning and decided to pick up a newspaper. Surely, what better way is there to enjoy the wintry scene outside one’s window but with a cup of coffee and the morning paper? It goes without saying then that my purchase was more for the company than its frivolous content.  But it’s nice to be in the company of journalism from time to time, though I will admit that it’s not newspapers I enjoy on a regular basis as much as I prefer books. Currently I happen to be reading William Safire’s Scandalmonger which calls itself a novel even though I’ve spent most of my time wondering if it’s a history textbook I’m reading instead.

The story sets off in 1792 with the discovery of a scandal involving the financial speculation of the nation’s first Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton who, in turn, makes an attempt to hide his crime by revealing another one. Namely, he has committed adultery and is being bribed. The novel proceeds from there to describe the life and times and scandals and, at least for me, confusing politics of a very young America.  Interestingly enough, Safire notes that even though it is a novel and thereby fiction, most of it is based on history. “Much of the dialogue”, he says, “is based on contemporary letters, diaries and newspaper accounts.”

The media, like today, was very busy in the midst of political life. If their goal was not always to report the facts to the people then it was certainly to offer them some entertainment.  In one part of the book Thomas Jefferson is recorded as saying:

“At a very early period of my life,” Jefferson said, “I determined never to put a sentence into any newspaper. I have religiously adhered to the resolution through my life, and have great reason to be contented with it. Newspapers are a bear-garden scene into which I will enter on no provocation….”

By the way, there was one part of the story which fascinated me since I am quite accustomed to hearing Serbs bewail the taste of fruit and vegetables in America as opposed to the old country. One of the characters, a political campaign manager by the name of John Beckley, welcomes two new writers, journalists from Europe and one of them, William Cobbett, makes the observation:

“The land is bad; rocky. The houses are wretched, the roads impassable after the least rain. I was a farmer before I was a soldier, and I judge that America has fruit in quantity but not to compare with an apple or peach in England or France.”

Perhaps he was biased since right before that he states:

“This country is good for getting money, provided a person is industrious and enterprising. In every other respect…the country is miserable, exactly the contrary of what I expected.”

But, getting back to newspapers, we find the following exchange:

“I’m curious,” said Beckley…. “what you think of our newspapers.”

“Tupp’ny trash,” Cobbett snorted. “But the Americans who read, read nothing else. The fathers read the newspapers aloud to their children while the mothers are preparing breakfast.”

Well, that’s it from me. I should really be getting back to my coffee and catching up on the latest in the Tiger Woods scandal.

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