W. Dale Nelson. Gin before Breakfast: The Dilemma of the Poet in the Newsroom. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2007. 242 pp. $24.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8156-0888-2.
Reviewed by Nirmal Trivedi (Department of English, Boston College)
Published on Jhistory (November, 2007)
In Gin before Breakfast, W. Dale Nelson takes on a topic that is more often the subject of anecdote than scholarly study. In the book's subtitle, Nelson offers a more precise description of his subject: "the dilemma of the poet in the newsroom." This underlying theme of the book suggests a central myth that has occupied the fields of both journalism and literature for many years--the myth that literary creativity and the business of informing the public while making a profit rarely come together, and when they do, the result is either amateurish or incomprehensible. If Nelson's goal is to challenge this myth, he accomplishes that goal even if he often resorts to anecdote himself while making his claims.
Though he notes connections among his subjects, Nelson's book is ultimately a series of thirteen short biographical chapters, each of which can be read independent of the whole. A poet-journalist himself, Nelson admits that he is drawn perpetually to both the "cadences" of poetic speech as well as "the metaphorical uses set into motion" by journalists in reporting on their subjects (p. 181). These dual interests come together as he analyzes the importance of journalism in the careers of writers and poets such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Stephen Crane, Walt Whitman, and Edgar Allen Poe. For others like Carl Sandburg and William Cullen Bryant, another theme predominates--that of the inseparability of these figures' poetic and journalistic careers, one complementing and deepening the other. Often writing in the spirit of these poet-journalists, Nelson occasionally punctuates his observations with poetic flourish all the while remaining focused on the biographical specifics of his subjects.
Beginning with Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the poet best known for his "Rime of the Ancient Mariner" (1798) and his partnership with William Wordsworth in Lyrical Ballads (1798), Nelson reveals that before poetry took hold of him, Coleridge begrudgingly reported on daily events, including the speeches of the long-winded in the House of Commons, for various newspapers like the London Morning Post (1772-1937), aptly subtitled Cheap Morning Advertiser. Additionally, he wrote feature columns and editorials for his own short-lived publication, The Watchman (March-May, 1796). Nelson cleverly assesses the parallels in Coleridge's poetic diction with those of his editorials, which many of his contemporaries lauded for their precise lambasting of famous figures like William Pitt the Younger, Britain's prime minister through the turbulent period from 1783-1801 and again from 1804-06. Describing the politician as a "plant sown and reared in a hot house" (p. 12), Coleridge sounds like a Maureen Dowd of the eighteenth century. Although Coleridge's inclination toward poetry could not compete with his journalism--he chose ultimately "to write for the permanent or none at all" (p. 19)--Nelson's study shows the great variety of publications in the early periods of print journalism. Like Coleridge, Edgar Allen Poe attempted to publish his own publication, Penn, in 1840, renamed Stylus that same year. Poe found it easier to speculate about the business of publishing than to become successful within it: the magazine was never published. Both men fell into a common trap among many of the poet-journalists about whom Nelson writes: they believed their esoteric topics could capture the interest of the public upon which publishers typically depend for their survival.
Not all met journalism with tempered enthusiasm. Walt Whitman claimed to be "ill-suited for newspaper work" (p. 32). Yet, as Nelson suggests, Whitman found his education among the various New York newspapers which he worked for or railed against. Stoked by work for James Gordon Bennett's New York Herald (1835-1924), Whitman's journalistic career was largely directed against the nineteenth-century convention of newspapers as organs of political parties. Establishing his mature poetic voice writing for the Brooklyn Eagle (1841-1955), Whitman used the impermanence of the newspaper as a foil to elaborate on the essence of American-ness at a time when national feeling was seeping into a self-assured sense of international dominance and the question of slavery was shadowing the nation's moral claims. Nelson's analysis of Whitman as a poet who learned from journalism provides a lens through which we can understand Whitman the American icon and American poet as distinct but complementary and inextricably linked identities.
For many of the poet-journalists Nelson covers, including Whitman, there was less a strict dichotomy between poetry and journalism than a cautious respect for each and an honest concern about the feasibility of marrying the two. Rudyard Kipling, the Indian-born British writer, often labeled a quintessential Orientalist, had a talent for journalism yet found his greatest expression in poetry and prose. According to Nelson, his practice of describing events for colonial newspapers like the Civil and Military Gazette (1872-1963) taught him how to translate action in journalistic prose into literary craft. His first entry in bridging the two fields came with Departmental Ditties (1886), light verse originally published in the newspaper. Through Kipling, Nelson makes his point that much common ground exists between poetry and journalism; he also argues that newspapers were a primary venue for poets to showcase their talents at a time when such expression was normally limited to books. Scholars interested in the intersection of literary, historical, and journalistic practice substantiate this point. Alice Fahs in The Imagined Civil War (2001), shows how newspapers in the nineteenth century and especially during the Civil War were a major venue for poetry that attempted to negotiate what she calls the various individual desires with the needs of that nation.
Nelson's treatment of American writer Stephen Crane is particularly noteworthy. In one of his more engaging chapters, Nelson portrays the poet-journalist as making a significant contribution to both literature and journalism by examining the war correspondent's presumptions of reportorial objectivity. Nelson recounts Crane's memorable assessment of newspapers: "A newspaper is a collection of half-injustices / Which, bawled from by boys from mile to mile, / Spreads its curious opinion / To a million merciful and sneering men" (pp. 126-127). Despite Crane's skepticism about journalistic objectivity, he managed to produce some of the most thought-provoking journalism of war to this day, prefiguring the New Journalism by almost half a century. Nelson is in select company in analyzing Crane's journalism-inspired poetry; only Michael Robertson, in Stephen Crane, Journalism, and the Making of Modern American Literature (1997), has devoted similar effort to comparing the American writer's dual passions.
Another important contribution of Nelson's book is his bringing to light some lesser-known writers. Born in Southgate, Middlesex, in 1784, Leigh Hunt is of particular interest for those interested in freedom of expression in England in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Imprisoned by libel for criticizing the Prince of Wales in 1812, Hunt turned more definitively to poetry in jail, using the medium to champion his crusades for free speech. Similarly, American poet John Greenleaf Whittier used journalism as a forum to crusade for moral convictions (p. 91), inflecting editorials with the activist zeal that abolitionism in Massachusetts in the early nineteenth century required. Nelson also sheds new light on known figures like William Cullen Bryant, who had the longest career as a journalist but is ironically seldom discussed among scholars as a poet-journalist.
Despite many important contributions, some limitations do exist with Gin before Breakfast. Nelson does not expand as much as he could on the readership of the poet-journalists or on how these figures might have trained readers to imagine the events of their day differently. What did readers think of Coleridge's leveling of Pitt? How did Whitman's nationalistic, journalistic poetry in the United States Magazine and Democratic Review (1837-59) affect journalism during the American Renaissance? A possibly more important problem is the lack of diversity of subjects in Nelson's book. No women poet-journalists are addressed. To be sure, finding such figures is a challenge given that women often wrote using pseudonyms, if names were even given at all. Nonetheless, attention to the implications of gender in Nelson's study would have added additional nuance to a valuable effort to bridge fields normally thought of as dichotomous.
Overall, however, Gin before Breakfast is a historically grounded understanding of the relationship between literary form and journalistic practice, a relationship that has had its sparks of coverage but that remains largely unexplored.
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