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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
And there was Davis—cane and gloves retrieved, clippings in hand, confidence at flood—knocking on the door. Of course he was hired. Brisbane, the utopian, spotted a kindred spirit, and Davis was launched scant months before the beginning of the decade in which he was to act out his magnetic legend.
He went through the complicated finger exercises of big-city reporting in short order, and then, voila! fame burst upon him from two directions. The first was the result of a typical Park Row bargain. Brisbane was looking for lively copy to spruce up the back page for the “Saturday slows,” and between them he and Davis dreamed up the fictional Cortlandt Van Bibber, Esq., wealthy young man about town. Davis, in return for Saturdays off, could do the weekly piece on Fridays. It was a grand opportunity to get home to Philadelphia on weekends. Davis and Van Bibber blended their identities to their mutual advantage and, of course, to that of Brisbane as well.
Through Van Bibber’s eyes, Sun readers viewed the ballrooms of the Vanderbilts and Mrs. Astor. Shopgirls earning three dollars a week were transported to the lavish eating establishments of the swells. Seamstresses in their airless cells saw the opera and mingled with the gentry and sympathized with their charities and saw themselves the beneficiaries. Van Bibber was the host, Davis his social secretary. As the character took form, it became difficult to discern who was improving whom. The success of Van Bibber gave Davis further entrées. But to the elegant Cortlandt Van Bibber and the type he represented, Davis gave an appealing humanity.
Alone in a park, Van Bibber is quietly abashed to be caught by his wealthy friends treating three little slum girls to rides on the swan boats. Walking home late at night, Van Bibber captures a burglar. But does he turn the wretch over to the police? He does not. He stakes him to railroad fare for a new start in the West—and has the good sense to wonder later if he has been conned.
The series was hugely popular, and though some critics complained that Van Bibber was an office boy’s idea of a gentleman, he was a common hero on Park Avenue as well as on Sixth. Mass circulation and a collection of the pieces in book form got him around to all—a kind of circuit-riding physician, amusing the patients in hopes that the ills would cure themselves.
Davis’ second burst of fame came with a short story called “Gallegher,” one which he had been writing and rewriting for months, improving it with each rejection. A copy boy with a keen nose for news and a rough-and-ready courage, Gallegher was an urchin of parts.
Davis gave him a criminal-in-hiding to find, and he did. He gave him a deadline to beat, and he beat it in a stolen carriage, half frozen with cold. It was Courage Triumphant, Grit Rewarded. The newspaper office as a setting for fiction was fresh then; the poor but plucky youngster was a winning hero. Even though slang in popular fiction was practically anathema, Scribner’s, at Brisbane’s urging, printed the story in August of 1890. It was even more successful than Van Bibber. Collected with other Davis stories into a book, which was later translated into several languages, Gallegher sold more than fifty thousand copies and became world famous. It survived for decades in high-school anthologies.
Davis and the nineties arrived together. Thomas Beer later wrote: “Herewith Davis mounted into celebrity as gracefully as he might have swung his fine body in its handsome dress to the cushion of a waiting cab. … and boys laboring with manuscripts looked up and saw a star.”
Brisbane, who was paying Davis the grand salary of fifty dollars a week, knew that he would soon lose him. Samuel S. McClure showed up one day to offer him the New York editorship of his revolutionary new magazine. Davis, anxious to continue writing, turned him down and bided his time. The prestigious Harper’s Weekly printed another Davis short story and, pleased with the circulation reaction, offered him the managing editorship. With the brass of Gallegher and the charm of Van Bibber, Davis demanded six months’ leave a year in which to travel and write. Harper’s not only consented, but agreed to print the travel articles. The short stories it would have to battle over with Scribner’s and the Century. Davis’ travels took him west, where he chased after Garza, the Mexican revolutionary, with a hard-riding troop of the U.S. Cavalry. Texas Rangers playfully shot his hat around their corral as a mark of affection.
Returning by way of Denver and the Midwest, he was off to England and a wild romp at Balliol, where he joined the undergraduates and helped them plot their escapades. Chicago editor H.J. Whigham, a native Briton, marvelled at the ease with which Davis was accepted. On to London, he drank in the afternoon splendor of a Victorian season, remonstrated with title-hunting American heiresses for their lack of decorum, put on a disguise and hunted Jack the Ripper, and helped an aristocratic young friend win a seat in Parliament.