We live in interesting times… Or so it would seem. In the United States, we have a president that it seems more than half the country hates, this president seems bent on attacking the press, protests erupt across the country on an almost daily basis, people are terrified of the future, the entire political and social landscape has become so divided that people fall into extremes. Of course, these is also all the controversy over “fake news” and “alternative facts.” One could almost feel that our country has never faced such a dangerous and divided era full of disinformation and violence…
We actually have been here before. We got through it then; as a nation we learned lessons that we could stand to learn again. Those lessons and history remain in the literature of that era. For instance, in the short story “Editha” by William Dean Howells. Published in 1905, this short tale discusses an America deeply divided by confusion, fear, disinformation, and violence. The story is available HERE and I highly recommend you read it before we start this discussion.
Before getting into the story and what it says about our world a century later, first some background information. William Dean Howells was a journalist and eventually became an editor of The Atlantic Monthly (in Boston) where he worked from 1866 to 1881. During that time he met with the authors of his time such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Mark Twain. Becoming the leading proponent in the new literary genre of realism, Howells used his time at The Atlantic to give voices to new authors such as Stephen Crane, Sarah Orne Jewett, and Henry James. After his time at The Atlantic, Howells published his own novels, poems, literary criticism, and collections of short stories until his death in 1920.
“Editha” was published in 1905 and takes place during the Spanish-American War. This conflict initially began as the United States became involved in the Cuban War of Independence from Spain. This was the era of “yellow journalism,” sensationalist and over exaggerated newspaper articles that were propaganda for specific political purpose. The leading sources of this type of journalism were Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst. While both claimed to be bringing the absolute truth to their readers, their choice of sensational topics and “alternative facts” fueled the minds of an impassioned public. It was not uncommon for the U.S. Government to condemn this ‘fake news.’ Using disinformation and alternative facts (outright lies), Hearst and Pulitizer were able to build a sufficient anti-Spanish sentiment in the American people to call for an invasion of Cuba. When the naval vessel, the USS Maine, sank near the Cuban coast (under mysterious circumstances), the media and the American people had all the justification they needed to scream for Spanish blood to spill. It was a kind of “war on terror” that led to a legacy of U.S. imperialism throughout the Caribbean and was the impetus of conflict through those island nations that still carries on to this day. The “yellow journalism” that contributed to this war saw its conclusion with the assassination of President McKinley; the assassin, Leon Czolgosz, was led to this act by the “fake news” and “alternative facts” in Hearst’s publications. Not unlike a certain man in 2016 who took an assault rifle into a D.C. area pizza shop because of some “yellow journalism” he read on the internet.
Howell’s story presents the character of Editha, a young woman who is thrilled to learn that the United States has entered this war against Spain. Her fiancée, George Gearson, is not so motivated. Gearson’s father lost an arm during the earlier American Civil War, and the horrors of that conflict have led Gearson to have a very strong anti-war mentality—a point-of-view that Editha, with all her reading of sensationalist journalism, will not accept.
“But don’t you see, dearest,” she said, “that it wouldn’t have come to this if it hadn’t been in the order of Providence? And I call any war glorious that is for the liberation of people who have been struggling for years against the cruelest oppression. Don’t you think so, too?”
“I suppose so,” he returned, languidly. “But war! Is it glorious to break the peace of the world?”
“That ignoble peace! It was no peace at all, with that crime and shame at our very gates.” She was conscious of parroting the current phrases of the newspapers.
Proclaiming, “Our country—right or wrong,” Editha essentially tells her fiancée that he must go and fight in this war. She believes that it’s her duty to motivate her man to fight, that a woman’s purpose is to motivate their man to be a hero for God and Country. She writes a letter to him, delivering that ultimatum by saying: “There is no honor above America with me. In this great hour there is no other honor.”
Though Gearson hates the idea of the war and the yellow journalism that’s promoting it, he’s swept into the conflict through the pressures of Editha and the community. Gearson signs up for military service and hates himself for it. Even as he’s telling Editha about it, his bitterness about the situation comes through in ironic comments.
“I’m going to the war, the big war, the glorious war, the holy war ordained by pocket Providence that blesses butchery… I never thought I should like to kill a man; but now I shouldn’t care; and the smokeless powder lets you see the man drop that you kill. It’s all for the country! What a thing it is to have a country that can’t be wrong, but if it is, is right anyway!”
Gearson’s bitterness goes unnoticed by Editha—she is so impassioned by the war, the war to murder these “Spanish butchers,” this war that she believes to be the work of God. She is absolutely proud of her man for his service to the country, and she is even more proud to be doing her patriotic service as a war bride. Her man is fighting in this just war – that makes her the greatest of patriots. She shows her patriotism proudly, wearing red, white, and blue clothes, decorating her house in the same colors—letting everyone know that she’s doing her duty as an American woman by supporting this war, just like the newspapers say all good American women should.
When Gearson is killed in the war, Editha has a moment of grief, but only a moment. She then realizes her new patriotic status as a war widow. Her man died in service of the country, she’s a hero by association. She goes to visit Gearson’s mother who does NOT share Editha’s opinions about the war and the nature of patriotism.
“You just expected him to kill some one else, some of those foreigners, that weren’t there because they had any say about it, but because they had to be there, poor wretches–conscripts, or whatever they call ’em. You thought it would be all right for my George, your George, to kill the sons of those miserable mothers and the husbands of those girls that you would never see the faces of.” The woman lifted her powerful voice in a psalmlike note. “I thank my God he didn’t live to do it! I thank my God they killed him first, and that he ain’t livin’ with their blood on his hands!”
Editha is upset by these words for a moment until, a few days later, she discusses it with a friend. This friend, working as a sort of echo chamber, validates Editha’s worldview. Together, they decide that Gearson’s mother must have just been some sort of mentally ill woman—nobody could actually be that vulgar.
And from that moment she rose from grovelling in shame and self-pity, and began to live again in the ideal.
“The ideal” is the vapid worldview Editha always had, a thought of Country and patriotism that did not match with the reality around her. Despite the loss of her fiancée, despite being told that newspapers are wrong in their description of this war, despite the large costs of American colonialism, Editha is able to discredit the whole of reality with a friend that shares her sentiment. Reality is “vulgar”- so she lives in the fantasy world of ideal patriotism.
Surely the comparisons between this century-old story and our modern times are quite obvious. In 1898 there were two major sources of “fake news” and “alternative facts,” Pulitzer’s New York World and Hearst’s New York Journal. Today, the number of sensational outlets of similar, exaggerated and often false stories come from countless sources. Any person with a keyboard and internet access can ignite a political revolution in the name of patriotism—reality and facts didn’t matter for the patriots of 1898 any more than today. Like Editha, the American people of today are easily swept up into the political rhetoric of yellow journalism and too quickly adopt an extreme “us or them” mentality. People seem to have abandoned their capability for independent thought and simply parrot the words of their favorite news byte as justification for their ideal. People have ended friendships, fought each other online and off, each proclaiming an ideal that amounts to “You either accept the definition of patriotism I received from this political blog or you’re working to destroy America.”
America hasn’t changed much in 100 years. The ignorance that led to the Spanish-American war and its consequences still exists in our contemporary world. The same divisive ideals of “patriotism” that Howells spoke about in 1905 still divide our country in 2017. One hundred years ago, we had writers like Howells, Mark Twain, Stephen Crane, Ambrose Bierce, and many others that spoke reason to hysteria. These were writers, who all began in journalism, that pleaded with the American people to stop believing every alternative fact they read in the media and to just look at the real world- the real daily lives of ordinary Americans did not match with the extreme ideals of the media. We could use more voices like that today. Social media, celebrities, and the media all seem to be interested in speaking hysteria to hysteria. We need more writers and voices that don’t condemn the extremes but rather encourage Americans to think, to see the reality around them and make their own informed decisions. A century ago it took a war and the assassination of a president to finally pull people out from those ideals and face reality – hopefully Americans won’t be led to such extremes again.