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Around The World With Swash And Buckle
Newspaperman, novelist, playwright, adventurer, Richard Harding Davis was a legend in his own lifetime.
August 1967 | Volume 18, Issue 5
He was, Davis wrote home, “a sort of special object of ridicule on account of the hat and cane, walk and so on.” “So on” included a twice-around foulard, a waistcoat, and an ulster. But he wouldn’t be hazed. He announced to the sophomores who waylaid him on a street in Bethlehem, “There’s not enough men here to haze me, but there’s enough to thrash me, and I’d rather [be] thrashed than hazed. …” As a sympathetic crowd of mill-workers gathered, the sophomores moved in to do the thrashing. When the police arrived, Davis was on his feet (though he’d been knocked down once), facing his tormentors and demanding three times (like Sir Gareth beating on a shield) that they produce a champion whom he could engage in single combat. The sophomores slunk away and Davis, having given a friend beer money for the millworkers, was borne off by admirers to his reward—a beefsteak for his blackened eye. It was a typically incredible performance. Had the sophomores seen the letter he wrote home, they might have come back for another try. “I am now the hero of the hour,” Davis wrote. ”… One gets taken care of in this world if you do the right thing.”
The faculty at Lehigh were impressed, too, but not so much that they could ever see their way to giving him a passing average. He left after three years, Lehigh’s most popular flunk. He tried an academic comeback at Johns Hopkins the following year but left without winning a degree, telling his influential father he was ready for the world. He had published a few minor short stories, and he was armed with his experience on the Lehigh Burr and a certain limited fame as the only Lehigh halfback to score a touchdown in the school’s disastrous opening season. Surely that was enough for a start.
It wasn’t. City Editor James Chambers of the Philadelphia Record was pained by Davis’ raiment, unawed by his literary accomplishments, and not interested in sports. He offered only “chance” work. Davis lasted three months.
At the Philadelphia Press, where he next appeared, Davis told City Editor A. H. Hoeckley that “Jim Chambers gave me nineteen assignments at $7 a week—and I don’t think he liked my [yellow] gloves.” Hoeckley hired him anyway and Davis returned the compliment by putting away the gloves and getting down to work. Pleased, the Press brought him along quickly. In a short story modestly titled “The Reporter Who Made Himself King,” Davis later wrote gratefully of this kind of training:
The Old Time Journalist will tell you that the best reporter is the one who works his way up. … That is the way he was trained, and that is why at the age of sixty he is still a reporter.… And he will only do what he is paid to do.
Now, you cannot pay a good reporter for what he does, because he does not work for pay. He works for his paper. He gives his time, his health, his brains, his sleeping hours, and his eating hours, and sometimes his life, to get news for it. He thinks the sun rises only that men may have light by which to read it. But if he has been in a newspaper office from his youth up. he finds out before he becomes a reporter that this is not so and loses his real value. He should come right out of the University where he has been doing “campus notes” for the college weekly, and be pitchforked out into city work without knowing whether the Battery is at Harlem or Hunter’s Point, and with the idea that he is a Moulder of Public Opinion and that the Power of the Press is greater than the Power of Money, and that the few lines he writes are of more value in the Editor’s eyes than is the column of advertising on the last page, which they are not.
After three years—it is sometimes longer, sometimes not so long—he finds out that he has given his nerves and his youth and his enthusiasm in exchange for a general fund of miscellaneous knowledge, the opportunity of personal encounter with all the greatest and most remarkable men and events that have risen in those three years, and a great fund of resource and patience. He will find that he has crowded the experiences of the lifetime of the ordinary young business man, doctor, or lawyer, or man about town, into three short years; that he has learned to think and to act quickly, to be patient and unmoved when every one else has lost his head, actually or figuratively speaking; to write as fast as another man can talk, and to be able to talk with authority on matters which other men do not venture even to think until they have read what he has written with a copy-boy at his elbow on the night previous.
Reading this, young college men who might have become doctors or lawyers or businessmen, or even men about town, began queuing up before doors labelled “Editor” to wager their three years.
Well into his own apprenticeship, Davis used his familiarity with the theatre to win interviews with Helena Modjeska, the Polish-born star of the English and American stage, and Sarah Bernhardt. Another time, he talked the boss into sending him to interview Walt Whitman. Whitman, who usually avoided reporters, was disarmed by Rebecca Harding’s presentable young son, but Davis was not all that pleased with Whitman: his fingernails were dirty. Davis was satisfied enough with the interview to send it, with some other clippings, to his idol, Robert Louis Stevenson.