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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
“If you are to escape unhurt out of your present business,” Stevenson wrote back, “you must be very careful and you must find in your heart much constancy. The swiftly done work of the journalist and the cheap finish and ready made methods to which it leads, you must try to counteract in private by writing with the most considerate slowness and on the most ambitious models. And when I say ‘writing’—O, believe me, it is rewriting that I have chiefly in mind. If you will do this I hope to hear of you some day.”
Davis treasured the advice, the more so because he had already been following it. But in selecting his themes, Davis largely ignored the deep tides of social distress that had gathered in the land. The age of realism, for which his mother had been too early, had arrived. Poets like Sidney Lanier had decried “these cold, merchantable days.’ Mark Twain, in The Gilded Age, and Henry Adams, in Democracy, had struck out against corruption in high places. Edward Bellamy was proposing, in Looking Backward, a socialist utopia as the remedy for society’s ills. And just ahead were Stephen Crane’s Maggie: A Girl of the Streets and Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie.
Davis was not unaware of distress. He used it often as pictorial background, and whenever he encountered it personally, he invariably emptied his pockets. But both in his personal life and in his novels he lived above it all, his social consciousness apparently molded by the spirit of McGuffey’s Fifth Eclectic Reader. That spirit was, in the words of Henry Steele Commager:
Does the widow starve? It is not her fault, to be sure, but neither is it the fault of society, and if she bears up, charity will take care of her. Are orphans bereft? Society has no responsibility for them, but there is always some great hearted man who will come to their rescue or some kind woman who will adopt them. Does the laborer lose an arm or a leg in a factory? The kind employer will reward him. Is the upright man out of work? This is one of the hardships of fate, but, if he is willing to turn his hand to anything, some one will surely recognize his virtue and give him work. Life is full of hardships, but be of good cheer: God watches over his own, most men are kindly and generous and in the end virtue will he rewarded.
Whenever he had a night or an afternoon off, Davis retired to his rooms to write short stories, groping for the protagonist who would capture the popular imagination and win him fame. Days, he hedged his bets, fulfilling the obligations of routine and haunting the wires and the city desk, lusting for the big event that also could win him fame. For fame was the quarry.
In the meantime life, he felt, need not be without adventure. Philadelphia was experiencing a wave of burglaries, and the Press was goading the police to action. When the police invited the Press to try its hand at crime solution, the paper accepted the challenge and chose Davis as its detective. Disguised for the part with a slouch cap, rough clothing, a thin, evil-looking cigar stub, and an alias—“Buck Meiley”—Davis studied the argot of the underworld for a week, then wormed his way into the confidence of the yeggmen. The plan he presented for their next job had the stamp of the born plotter. Naturally the police were waiting. Davis was the hero again.
Then suddenly came the big event he was waiting for. On the afternoon of May 31, 1889, the antique earthen dam of a reservoir a few miles above Johnstown. Pennsylvania, burst, spilling twenty million tons of water into the Conemaugh Valley (see “Run for Your Lives!” in the June, 1966, AMERICAN HERITAGE). Davis, who was enjoying a rare day off, hurried to the office and begged to go. No, he was told, enough men had already been sent. Davis devoured the wire copy ticking back. Nearly three thousand dead. Up to twelve million dollars in damage. It was the disaster of the decade. He pleaded—and prevailed. He went—and distinguished himself. Philadelphia could not hold him now. The Press refused to send him to England to cover the cricket matches between Britons and upstart Americans on the playing fields of Eton, Harrow, and Trinity, so Davis wangled a correspondent’s berth with the rival Telegraph. When he returned, flushed with the aroma of good breeding and with his own small successes among the hospitable English aristocracy, his vocational gaze turned toward New York. There, only there, was journalism a high art.
Joseph Pulitzer of the World and William Randolph Hearst of the Journal were waging their circulation wars and tinging them a bright yellow with the first color comic strip, “The Yellow Kid.” James Gordon Bennett, the younger, was revivifying the venerable Herald. There was Whitelaw Reid and the staid Tribune; Charles A. Dana and the lively Sun; Arthur Brisbane and the newer, sprightlier Evening Sun.