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Burton Jesse Hendrick.

The Life and Letters of Walter H. Page, Volume I online

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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 _State 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-neck-tied 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 Encyclopædia and learned that
"Thothmes II" was an Egyptian king of the XVIIIth 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 which, 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,



Online LibraryBurton Jesse HendrickThe Life and Letters of Walter H. Page, Volume I → online text (page 4 of 32)