“Politics and abuse have totally corrupted our tastes,” Horace Walpole complained to a correspondent in 1771. “Nobody thinks of writing a line that is to last beyond the next fortnight.”
Politics in Great Britain in the late 18th century was as agitated as that of America early in the 21st, although the divisions it reflected within British society were scarcely so fundamental and so deep as those that threaten the future of the United States in our own time. From the contemporary standpoint, it seems an exaggeration to claim that, in the age of Johnson, no author wrote but for notoriety and instant effect. Still, comparisons are relative, and Walpole’s words might have been written to describe the state of political commentary today. Indeed, I seem to remember having had something to say on the subject myself. I cannot recall what it was that I said, but perhaps I can refresh my memory by trying to say it over again, in part.
Chesterton thought that journalists were the stupidest men in the world, but he was proud to call himself a “jolly journalist.” Anyone who has looked up his articles for the Illustrated London News in 1906 and 1907 knows why. No work is jollier for a really accomplished musician than improvisation, and Chesterton, as a writer, was a master of the art. The delight he felt in choosing a theme and developing, embellishing, and departing from it in far-ranging flights of fancy and elaboration is palpable always, reminding us of the formalized glee underlying Bach’s improvisations and variations in another art form. Mencken, in the same era and on the opposite side of the Atlantic, though a greatly inferior thinker and artist, conveys the same lusty joy in the trade in which he took pride, while roundly condemning his colleagues as ignorant swine. Partly, the two men’s contempt for journalism and its practitioners was a humorous pose. More importantly, it was the implied expression of their determination to write journalistic articles and essays that made quiet claim to being literature, work that would last beyond the week or month of publication. In such work, both the journalist and his reader can find sophisticated relish and delight. Even in their own time, there were relatively few such writers, and readers. Nowadays, there are scarcely any of either.
I have been a magazine journalist for 38 years now, and I can assure anyone who wants to know that the business has grown steadily less and less jolly, and hence less interesting as well. Thirty years ago, I read or looked at a dozen journals a month. Today, I confine myself pretty much to the magazine you are holding in your hand, which allows me more time to devote to books, chiefly old books. Most newspapers and magazines of political opinion (to say nothing of websites) published today strike me as utterly trivial and boring. There are, I think, two reasons for this. The first is that the writers and editors responsible for them have no appreciation for words, for the sentences that words make, and for the ideas that sentences form. Lacking that appreciation, they cannot relish their own work, only the utilitarian message—a form of direct mail—their work sends to the intellectually undernourished reader. And that message is, almost invariably, either directly partisan or broadly ideological, more likely than not both. The terrible assumption has taken hold in our highly politicized age that politics has become so crucial to our existence that only politics matters, so that writing about politics has itself become a direct political act, like demonstrating or making a political donation. Modern writers, to the extent they strive for effect, do so by including what they conceive to be startling facts, cheap innuendos, and bold accusations in their journalism. The aim is to goad the reader into clicking on the next link, or signing a petition, or casting a vote, or sending someone money. Consequently, the large majority of what writers write does not last even a fortnight in cyberspace, or on the magazine rack. Chesterton never underestimated the importance of politics (he could not understand people who lacked interest in the issues of the day), but he believed in humanizing politics by incorporating it in literature and the general culture.
Computers and the internet are largely to blame for the new journalism, together with the modern educational system that produces ignorance and semiliteracy, but we should remember that the works even of the most distinguished journalists of the pre-cyberspace age, like Walter Lippmann, Arthur Krock, James Reston, and A.J. Liebling, while outliving the immediate fortnight, have not outlasted their time. But Chesterton, and even Mencken, are for the ages.