Sunday, January 5, 2020

James M. Lundberg's "Horace Greeley"

James M. Lundberg is the director of the Undergraduate Program in History and an assistant professor of the practice at the University of Notre Dame.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Horace Greeley: Print, Politics, and the Failure of American Nationhood, and reported the following:
Page 99 of Horace Greeley finds its subject, the founder and editor of the New-York Tribune, in a Washington, DC, hotel room late on a January night in 1856. He is recovering from a beating. Earlier in the day, on a street near the Capitol (on page 98), Greeley had been challenged to a duel by one Albert Rust, an Arkansas Congressman seeking satisfaction for unflattering coverage in Greeley’s newspaper. After Greeley refused the challenge, Rust, flanked by a gang of unidentified southerners, twice visited blows upon the editor: first with his fists, then with his cane. Now, head and arm wrapped in wet cloths, Greeley is nursing his wounds, and he is writing about them, assuring his tens of thousands of readers that he is unbowed by violence and intimidation.

Horace Greeley wasn’t assaulted every day; he was beaten and caned just this once. Yet the incident described on pages 98 and 99 aces the test. My book turns on the notion that Greeley is best understood as both individual and idea, person and personage. Greeley lived two closely related lives: one as the man who did the work of guiding and shaping a daily newspaper; the other as a figure who existed in people’s imaginations as far and wide as his name and newspaper could travel. The latter Greeley was adored and reviled, oracular genius to some, shape-shifting menace to others.

The Arkansan Albert Rust assaulted Greeley less for what he said--the offending mention in the Tribune was mild by the paper’s standards--than for what he represented. At a moment of mounting sectional conflict, Greeley was a symbolic villain to white southerners. To Rust and countless others like him, the Tribune’s editor stood for a fanatical North, one that was wildly antislavery and committed to a hundred different reformist causes threatening the South and its institutions. And so Rust became a hero below the Mason-Dixon Line, as would the South Carolina Congressman Preston Brooks just a few months later when he caned the Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner. A Savannah paper only marveled that it had taken so long for someone to do the deed. Greeley an editorial noted, “has labored hard to excite bitterness of feeling”; it was about time his “crazy noddle should come in for some raps.”

The Albert Rust incident thus captures a larger part of Greeley’s story, and the story about him that my book tells. As a voice and symbol of northern society and politics, Greeley helped to rewrite the narrative of national politics as sectional struggle in the decade before the Civil War.
Learn more about Horace Greeley at the Johns Hopkins University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue