Henry James Predicted TMZ

Reading between the lines.
May 3 2013 11:50 AM

Henry James Predicted TMZ

His 1888 novel of newspapermen and socialites at war reads like a prophecy.

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Newspapers were (and are?) a great business, but they were always desperate to get a leg up. When the New York Times began in 1851, already hundreds upon hundreds of New York newspapers had risen and died—and William Randolph Hearst only bought his first New York newspaper in 1895. In the battle to stay ahead, publications competed—for example, to see who could obtain the fastest boat, so as to get the news quickest from the ships arriving from Europe and scurry it back to the typesetter. In this competition, New York papers were engineering what was seen as a war on society.

“Instantaneous photographs and newspaper enterprise have invaded the sacred precincts of private and domestic life; and numerous mechanical devices threaten to make good the prediction that ‘what is whispered in the closet shall be proclaimed from the house-tops,’ ” wrote Samuel Warren and Louis Brandeis in the Harvard Law Review in 1890, in a rather overwrought attack on the press in an age when “personal gossip attains the dignity of print.” This is what Henry James saw as the new “devouring publicity of life, the extinction of all sense between public and private.”

While America was beginning this slide into celebrity tabloidism, and the first New York Social Register—a European import done up in a truly American style—came into being in 1886, it was also the case that in both America and England compulsory education had begun to spread literacy further among the nonrich. So staunch advocacy journalism about the “lower classes” was being put forward at the same time that these growing audiences of women and nonrich people were discovered to be opportunities for new journalism products. Tit-Bits, a silly blog of a thing, was founded in 1881; the idea for a publication filled with small news and notes and humor for ladies came about, recounts Margaret Beetham in A Magazine of Her Own? (1996), because a bigwig newspaper editor read items from the real, big-boy paper to his wife, and she just enjoyed it ever so much.

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This all sounds like a great deal of amazing fun, but when Hearst burst onto the market in 1895 with his New York Journal, the papers promptly became louder, bolder, more crime-obsessed, more graphic, and of course more tabloid—tabloid in a manner nearly identical to the one we know today. Unfortunately, at the same time, the papers also became far less true. What James and others feared certainly came to pass. For better—the media now, for instance, does not necessarily solely serve to protect the interests of the rich—and for worse, but mostly for capitalism, we absolutely discarded many of the old notions of privacy.

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Reviews of The Reverberator were all over the map. The New York Times gave it a pretty solid and dismissive pan. Robert Bridges in Time came a bit later, noted these bad reviews, and suggested a reason: “Perhaps the severe criticisms of the press were not a little prompted by the prickings of the editorial conscience, which in its rare moments of introspection discovers how hard it is for the man of best intentions to publish a wide-awake newspaper and not violate some of the conventions by ‘invading the sanctities of the home.’ ”

As for the rest of us, the young girls in search of high society and the greedy journalists and the terrible rich people who own newspapers, not much has really changed. Certainly in New York City, it all seems to come around again and again. On the front page of the same New York World that contained poor May McClellan’s charming Italian diary, there ran a story with the hysterical headline “ARE THE RICH GROWING POORER?” “There is great poverty and much unseen suffering in New York, beyond doubt,” it noted. “But it is a city imperial in wealth and luxury.” The story went on, about the art, the jewels, the newly rich, the “waters studded with pleasure yachts, floating palaces.” In the end, the answer to the headline, as it is to almost every question in a headline, turned out to be “no.” But wouldn’t it fit just perfectly on the front of the Times’ Style section today?

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The Reverberator by Henry James. Melville House.

Choire Sicha is a co-founder of the Awl and the author of Very Recent History.