Intelligencer is a blog featuring teaching and research essays as well as news about the organization and its members.
To submit member news or suggest a blog topic, contact Intelligencer editor Dane Claussen.
PDFs of the Intelligencer in its previous newsletter form can be found at the Intelligencer archive. Visit the News page for press releases on the organization's activities.
Three new members were elected to serve three-year terms on the Board of Directors of the American Journalism Historians Association during its 36th Annual Convention in Little Rock, Arkansas.
Joining the board are Dr. Candi Carter Olson of Utah State University and Sonny Rhodes of the University of Arkansas-Little Rock. Dr. Kathy Bradshaw of Bowling Green State University was elected to a full term on the board, after finishing out the remainder of a vacant term.
“AJHA has felt like family since my first conference,” Olson said of her election. “I'm pleased to have the opportunity to give back to the organization and help it to envision a future where journalism history is a vital and important part of the educational endeavor at all levels."
Bradshaw, who has also been serving as AJHA’s representative to the Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communications, said she is “'honored and thrilled to have been elected to the AJHA Board of Directors."
"AJHA is special to me because members are fine historians with industry backgrounds who are engaged with the present,” Bradshaw said. "There are special moments every year at AJHA, and I'm happy to be able to contribute to maintaining the foundation for those special moments."
Rhodes, who served as one of the hosts for the 2017 Annual Convention, said being selected for the board “was both humbling and extremely gratifying.” “Whenever I'm with fellow AJHA members, I feel like I'm at a family reunion—a happy family reunion,” Rhodes said. “I learned some things from helping host the Little Rock conference, and I hope to use that knowledge to help plan future conferences. I'd especially like to look at creative ways to help finance those gatherings and to improve student attendance at them.”
By Robert T. Buckman
One reason I drove to the SPJ convention in Anaheim this year was to scratch some things off my bucket list, including Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument on the Arizona-Mexico border and the Ernie Pyle Home and Library in Albuquerque, N.M.
I have shared by email with my friends, on the anniversary of his death, the dispatch I used to read every year to my feature writing classes on the Death of Capt. Waskow. In more recent years, I’ve also read his dispatch from the Normandy beachhead just after D-Day.
Photos here (TO COME) show the house he built in 1940 for him and his wife, Geraldine, or Jerry, but he spent little time in it. Later that year, Scripps-Howard sent him to England to cover the German blitz. After the U.S. entered the war, as you know, he accompanied the troops as what today would be called an embedded reporter—first to North Africa, then Sicily, then Italy, where he wrote the Waskow dispatch, then to France, where he finally burned out and came home on leave in September 1944. A few months later, though, he went to the Pacific to cover the war against the Japanese. He was killed by a Japanese machine gun on April 18, 1945, on the tiny island of Ie Shima, off the coast of Okinawa.
His wife, who suffered from mental illness, died seven months after he did. They were childless, and in 1948 the house was donated to the city, which made it a branch library. It is tiny, two bedrooms, 1,145 square feet. Besides library books, it contains a good deal of Pyle memorabilia, as you will see, including his handwritten last dispatch, to mark the surrender of Germany, which was then imminent but he was killed three weeks before it happened. It was found in his pocket. Zoom in on the piece of paper in his typewriter. It’s the Normandy dispatch.
He received the Pulitzer Prize for war reporting in 1944.
Outside, in the side yard, is a marble monument. You’ll recognize what’s inscribed on it. So you see, I wasn’t the only one affected by his emotive prose. The death of Capt. Waskow also appears as a scene in the 1944 movie, “The Story of G.I. Joe,” in which Burgess Meredith plays Pyle and a very young Robert Mitchum plays Waskow.
If you’re ever in Albuquerque, it’s worth a visit, even if it isn’t listed in the Albuquerque tourist guide I picked up at the New Mexico welcome center on I-40. It’s located at 900 Girard SE, just nine blocks south of Central Avenue, which is also Historic Route 66. It has strange hours: Closed Sun-Mon, open 10-6 Tue, 11-7 Wed, 10-6 Th-Sat. Take a bookmark home as a souvenir; I brought several extra for some of my alumni.
If you go in the evening, when you’re done go back to 3222 Central SE and have a brew or two at Kelly’s Brewpub, located in an old car dealership and decorated with Texaco signs and Norman Rockwell reproductions.
Robert T. Buckman recently retired as associate professor of journalism at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. He is the recipient of the Distinguished Teaching in Journalism Award from the Society of Professional Journalists.
The Southeastern Review of Journalism History (Debra Reddin van Tuyll, editor-in-chief, and David W. Bulla, managing editor; Leonard Teel, editor emeritus) is a peer-reviewed journal inviting research papers on any facet of U.S. and international journalism history. The Review, founded by Dr. Leonard Teel at Georgia State University (as The Atlanta Review of Journalism History), sees journalism history broadly and will consider all forms of mass communication that have had impact on any area of journalism’s past. Topics in past editions have included column writing, coverage of major topics and events in national and international history (such as civil war, economic policy, frontier society, immigration, national liberation, racism, and slavery), muckraking, reporting arts, leisure, and sports, sensationalism, and travel writing, among others.
The Review encourages both undergraduate and graduate students to submit papers that they have presented at mass communication conferences. Such conferences include American Journalism Historians Association, AEJMC, AEJMC History/AJHA Joint Conference, ICA, Symposium on the 19th Century Press, the Civil War, and Free Expression, and regional or mid-winter AEJMC conferences.
This is a call for submissions for our Spring 2018 edition. Submissions are due by Dec. 15, 2017, at midnight EST. Papers should be double-spaced in 12-point Times New Roman font, with endnotes, and submitted in Microsoft Word format. Please limit article size to 7,500 words (25 double-spaced pages in 12 Times New Roman), not counting the title page, abstract, and endnotes. Use of the Chicago Manual of Style is highly recommended but not required. Please included the following:
An email with the attached paper, with the author’s name, the date, and her/his affiliation.
In the attached paper, please include the title page, a 200-word abstract, body of the paper, and endnotes.
Also include the author’s information (email address, telephone number, institutional affiliation, student or faculty status) in the text of the email.
An undergraduate student submitting a paper needs to also send a statement that her/his paper has been presented at a research conference (confirmation email or PDF of a conference program will do).
The journal is also accepting book reviews of recently published books. Reviews should be no more than 1,000 words in length and focused on books that deal with some aspect of journalism history.
Editors Debra Reddin van Tuyll and David W. Bulla of Augusta University are coordinating paper submissions. Authors will be notified in mid-February whether their research papers have been accepted for publication in the Spring 2018 edition of the journal.
For submission of a research paper, please email Dr. van Tuyll at:
For submission of a book review, please email Dr. Bulla at:
Deadline: February 1, 2018
The third annual conference on Transnational Journalism History is seeking papers that deal with any aspect of the history of journalism and mass communications that transcends national borders.
This year’s conference will be June 1-2, 2018, in Montreal, Quebec, Canada at Concordia University.
The conference is sponsored jointly by the journalism and mass communication programs at Concordia University, Dublin City University and Augusta University.
Conference planners have one book underway from the 2016 inaugural conference (presently in the proposal stage). The work deals with the Irish Diaspora press. As second book, tentatively titled A Handbook of Transnational Journalism History, is planned from the second and third conferences, and we have one publisher who has already expressed interest in receiving a proposal for this book.
For the 2018 conference, we are particularly looking for papers that offer definitions, methodologies, theories, and case studies of transnational journalism history. Papers should be able to be presented within 20 minutes, so around 10 to 15 pages. Papers of up to 25 pages, not including footnotes, will be accepted as well, but the presentation of the paper cannot exceed the 20-minute limit. Abstracts of 250 words are also accepted for research-in-progress.
Papers may be submitted in French, but presentations will need to be given in English.
Papers and abstracts should be submitted to Debbie van Tuyll (firstname.lastname@example.org) by February 1, 2018. Submissions will be double-blind reviewed.
Work presented at this conference will be considered for publication in a Handbook of Transnational Journalism History. Any questions may be addressed to Debbie van Tuyll or Mark O’Brien (email@example.com). This conference is sponsored by Concordia University (Montreal, Quebec); Dublin City Univeristy (Dublin, Ireland); Augusta University (Georgia); and the University of Groningen (Netherlands).
By Kevin M. Lerner, Marist College
While I was working in the New York Public Library archives and records division, gathering material for what would become my dissertation (and later the basis for my current book manuscript), I came across a letter of recommendation in the editorial papers of the New York Times. Typed on an electric typewriter with a janky “a” key that repeated almost every time the author touched it, and all in lowercase, with x’s through mistakes, the letter recommended a young Baltimore Sun reporter named J. Anthony Lukas:
lukas (who is a friend of mine, so be warned) is just what every young newspaperman ought to be. he is very very bright, and he has a high s ense of the profession and integrity, and unlike xxxxxx many bright young guys he has been a nd is willing to do the harder part of the profession—the dirty legwork part. so he is aavery finished and versatile reporter. he is aa guy who has always had his eye on foreign cities but he has also realized that xxxx the way to get there is to do aa good job covering tough local stories. [sic]
The management at the Times would take the advice of this letter’s author, despite his lack of typing skill, and bring Tony Lukas on as a reporter—and it was good advice. Lukas won a Pulitzer Prize at the Times for his story about a woman named Linda Fitzpatrick who lived a drug-fueled life in Greenwich Village in contrast to the Greenwich, Connecticut of her upbringing. His recommender was David Halberstam, who had known Lukas since the two of them worked together at The Harvard Crimson.
I was digging around in Tony Lukas’s personnel file because I was writing my dissertation about (MORE), an anti-establishment journalism review that Lukas would found in 1971. The letter of recommendation had some very small use for me in the dissertation project, but it kindled another idea which would have to wait until I finished and filed and had time to devote my brain to something else. So I did something that is likely familiar to almost any historian who has worked in an archive and I filed away that idea for later.
That was how I came to work on the project that became “The Other New Journalism: David Halberstam, J. Anthony Lukas, and Reported Narrative in the Dawn of the Big Important Book,” which is still very much a work in progress, and which I presented at the International Association for Literary Journalism Studies conference in Halifax last May. I am interested in two interlinked ideas here which fit into the larger arc of my ongoing research agenda.
First, I want to investigate the informal networks of journalists that influence how journalism is practiced. There has been much work on the institutions of journalism, but I want to know more about the history of these backchannels, where journalists exchange ideas about doing journalism, but also get each other jobs or connect each other to editors for freelance work. It seems to me that these networks have an outsized influence that has been undervalued in research. I hold that there is, in fact, a group of elite journalists, many of whom know each other, who operate at the highest levels of the profession and determine much about the standards that other practitioners will be held to.
Secondly, and more importantly, I am investigating the intellectual history of journalism, and at the same time, the history of intellectual journalism. In other words, I am interested in the way that ideas about what constitutes journalism have changed over time, and also the ways that journalism interacts with the broader history of ideas. That’s where the subtitle—and the working thesis—for the present study come in.
Halberstam and Lukas overlapped at The Times with Gay Talese, the elegant and self-aware stylist of nonfiction prose who left daily newspapers to become a part of that loosely affiliated group of like-minded writers known as the New Journalists. And while there are piles of book and papers about the flashy New Journalism, I would argue that the focus on New Journalism has distracted from another movement that was developing at the same time, at the hands (and typewriter fingers) of journalists such as Lukas and Halberstam: a journalism that takes the idea of narrative seriously, but puts even more of an emphasis on reporting. (Halberstam, I’m beginning to discover, required a lot of editing.)
I’ve been calling this genre the “Big Important Book,” and I believe it is one that continues to influence the intellectual life of the United States far more than the occasional masterpiece of nonfiction prose. These are the books that show up on The New York Times list of best books of the year; the books that get their authors invited onto Fresh Air to talk to Terry Gross. They’re well-written, but mostly they are well-reported, and full of intriguing ideas. They’re Big Important Books.
Tony Lukas published five books, four of which I would classify as BIBs. One of them, Common Ground, told the story of the school integration busing crisis in Boston and won him his second Pulitzer and is still in print more than three decades after its publication. David Halberstam published… a lot of books, at least ten of which could be BIBs. And they are merely representative of forty years of journalists doing the same sort of quiet, but important work. Needless to say, there is a lot to read, and while the initial study will probably stop at the coincidence of these two friends working the genre, I don’t know exactly how far this project will go.
As I said, this is a work in progress, but the reading list is one that I look forward to tackling.
Kevin M. Lerner is assistant professor of journalism at Marist College. He is also editor of the Journal of Magazine & New Media Research, published by the Magazine Media Division, Association for Education in Journalism & Mass Communication. His scholarly research concentrates on the history of American journalism, with a focus on the 1970s, alternative forms of journalism, press criticism, and anti-intellectualism in the press. He is completing a book on the history of (MORE), an anti-establishment journalism review.
The History Division of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication is soliciting entries for its annual award for the best journalism and mass communication history book of 2017.
The winning author will receive a plaque and a $500 prize at the August 2018 AEJMC conference at the Renaissance Hotel in Washington, D.C., where the author will give a short talk about the experience of research and discovery during the book’s composition.
The competition is open to any author of a media history book regardless of whether he or she belongs to AEJMC or the History Division. Only first editions with a 2017 copyright date will be accepted. Edited volumes, articles, and monographs will be excluded because they qualify for the Covert Award, another AEJMC History Division competition.
Entries must be received by February 2, 2018. Submit four copies of each book -- along with the author’s mailing address, telephone number, and email address -- to:
John P. Ferré, AEJMC History Book Award Chair
Department of Communication
310 Strickler Hall
University of Louisville
Louisville, KY 40292
Please contact John Ferré at 502.852.8167 or firstname.lastname@example.org with any questions.
By Dr. Dane S. Claussen, Intelligencer Editor
Visits to more museums around the USA continue to show the varying ways and varying degrees to which media history can be and sometimes is incorporated into history museums.
In July, I finally had the opportunity to visit the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia. For those who have never heard of it, Eastern State was once the most famous and most expensive prison in the world, as well as having been, from sometime after its founding in 1829, the world’s largest and most modern prison (and the model for 300+ other prisons around the world). Visiting it now, as a US National Historic Landmark, it is a crumbling ruin and the fact that it continued to be used until 1971 surely is a major embarrassment for the great Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.
As it turns out, between navigating and absorbing the cell were Al Capone stayed in, the synagogue, a temporary art exhibit, and much more, visitors find an exhibit of the Eastern Echo, the prison newspaper from 1956 to 1967. “The articles range from essays on prison life to the ranking of Eastern State’s football, baseball, and basketball teams. Numerous articles on Eastern State’s hospital and medical staff reflect how central medical services had become within this institution.”
For information on the museum, see: https://www.easternstate.org/
Also while in Philadelphia: many people know about the recreation of Benjamin Franklin’s printshop in Philadelphia (http://www.benjamin-franklin-history.org/printing-house/) but one should also see the printing office of Edes & Gill, which has authentic equipment and historically accurate reproductions, plus top-notch employees giving excellent talks, near the Old North Church. See: http://oldnorth.com/printing-office-of-edes-gill/.
In Richmond this summer, I had the opportunity to visit the American Civil War Museum (https://acwm.org/), which is, at least for the time being, housed next door to the so-called Confederate White House. The Virginia Commonwealth University medical school and hospitals continue to expand and the museum building will be torn down, with its contents moved to another site a couple of miles away, while the Confederate White House obviously stays where it is—a huge inconvenience for tourists.
In any case, again I went snooping for media history. A Civil War museum should be a goldmine of media history: they can include copies of newspapers, magazines and photographs from the time, perhaps biographies and artifacts from journalists who covered the war, etc. The reality is something different. On display is one envelope mailed (without stamps) by the Petersburg (VA) Daily Express & Weekly Express, one envelope mailed with two Confederate postage stamps from the Montgomery (AL) Advertiser, an “extra” edition of the Charleston (SC) Mercury that is a broadside announcing “The UNION is DISSOLVED!”, a couple of newspaper clippings, the January 17, 1863, issue of the The Southern Illustrated News (featuring a large woodcut of a startlingly young-looking Robert E. Lee), a bodice sleeve pattern made from the page of an 1864 New Orleans Picayune, and a “Richmond Bread Riot” woodcut from the May 3, 1863, Frank Leslie’s Illustrated. And that is all! Not a very impressive showing of media/journalism history, but then the entire museum is, in many ways, not very impressive considering its name, age, location, and potential importance.
In contrast, a goldmine of media history is the new National Museum of African American History and Culture at the Smithsonian Institution (https://nmaahc.si.edu/). Plan ahead or pay a scalper for a supposedly free ticket to the museum; when I was there in early July, tickets were already all gone through the end of November! (Paying a well-established scalper who advertises every day on Craigslist was worth every penny.) In any case, this museum has it all when it comes to media: the African American press, how African Americans were covered by the dominant media, African Americans in movies, television, and radio—even a set from Oprah Winfrey’s talk show. Where does one start?
Perhaps in more or less chronological order, as the museum does, which means starting at the lowest level underground and working your way up. I may not have seen all exhibits in exactly the order intended by the curators—there’s one floor where exhibits in one room are in a huge circle and other exhibits are in various rooms and hallways leading from the circle—but I’ll give it my best shot. An “early” exhibit shows a photo of William Lloyd Garrison, his watch, and of course describes his paper, The Liberator. However, no photo or copy of the paper is on display, which is rather odd: copies of The Liberator are scarce but not rare. Even I own a couple copies that did not cost me a lot (granted, they are not in excellent condition!). But next is Frederick Douglass, with a copy his The North Star newspaper. A little later, we see a page from Frank Leslie’s Illustrite Zeitung, the German language paper, featuring an engraving of Hiram Revels, the USA’s first African American US senator, and then a copy of Ida B. Wells-Barnett’s book, Lynch Law in Georgia.
Next comes a one frame exhibit called “The Black Press.” It shows the flags (front-page nameplate), with or without headlines form the Chicago Defender (two), California Eagle, and Richmond Planet, plus photos of the Eagle and Planet’s offices. It doesn’t make much of an impression, but it’s not the last we see of the Defender in particular. A little while later we see Defender publisher Robert Abbott’s desk and information about Pullman porters distributing his newspaper on the railroads, one cause of African Americans’ great northern migration. A free-standing exhibit case offers “Printing for Progress,” with copies of The Messenger, Alexander’s Magazine, Competitor, Opportunity, and other African-American magazines.
An exhibit titled, “The Battle Over Lynching” includes reproductions of newspaper clippings and an editorial cartoon, though difficult to impossible to figure out exactly where they were published, followed soon by an exhibit noting how The Crisis responded to African Americans serving in World War I. Next, a 1919 Chicago Daily Tribune front page blares, “RIOTS SPREAD, THEN WANE” about race riots, then we are confronted with an April 1929 copy of Kourier Magazine, official organ of the Ku Klux Klan, then a 1918 Chicago Defender front page covering various hot topics, and then a 1921 copy of The Afro American about the Tulsa Race Riot. A 1940s article from the Chicago Defender illustrates African American women organizing against sexual assaults.
Media history picks up later with a 1969 issue of Negro Digest, a 1970 issue of Black Creation, a 1976 issue of Black World, a famous 1977 issue of Ebony with Alex Haley and African very distant relatives on the cover, and an undated The Black Scholar. Later, there’s mainstream media coverage of African Americans: an undated Playbill (on the cover: Colored Girls Who have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf), a 1974 TIME with the cover story “Middle-Class Blacks,” and the 1969 Newsweek issue with “Report from Black America.” Then there's a 1968 issue of Jet, a 1973 issue of Ebony with “The Black Middle Class,” a 1968 LIFE issue with a crying black child cover photo, and Newsweek’s 1970 issue with “The Black Mayors: How Are They Doing?”
But before get to the Playbill and other magazines, we are off to African Americans in film and television, which fills several rooms: Sidney Poitier, Fred Williamson, Richard Roundtree and, of course, Amos ’n’ Andy, and much, much more. After going by the Oprah Winfrey TV set, we get to see a small exhibit on African American community radio, then Essence’s 2011 special issue on “Hot Hair.”
African-American achievements in education, military or business are illustrated in part by an old Harper’s Weekly cover, The Teacher magazine from 1948, and a 1973 Black Enterprise issue.
Just when you think you have seen all you will see about media and journalism, the museum pays particular tribute to several individual journalists: the Nashville Banner’s Robert Churchwell, Provincial Freeman (Canada) editor/publisher Mary Ann Shadd Cary (an American), Dudley Randall’s Broadside Press company, Ebony magazine, and The Pittsburgh Courier’s Charles “Teenie” Harris. These are nicely accompanied by a “The Power of the Press” exhibit highlighting the Philadelphia Tribune.
African-American achievements in sports are given plenty of attention, and those exhibits include the April 1968 Esquire magazine feature Muhammad Ali shot by arrows like Saint Sebastian and Althea Gibson on the cover of a 1967 Sports Illustrated.
When I was there, a separate area only for media exhibits (entirely photographs and videos) featured “Everyday Beauty” photographs, but also photography artifacts such as a stereoscope, a 1920s vintage photojournalist's camera, and other items.
I recommend the museum highly for all of these reasons and more (although I won’t soon forget the jam-packed exhibit spaces or the grossly overpriced food in the cafeteria). It’s not often we see so much media history content in a museum that is not media-oriented and has no shortage of other items to show.
(Editor's Note: This is the second in a series of occasional articles about media history's role in museums and history books.)
Claussen is Editor of The Intelligencer and the James Pedas Professor of Media, Communication & Public Relations/Executive Director, James Pedas Communication Center, Thiel College, Greenville, Pa. Regardless of what he might say or write about them, he enjoys visiting any and all museums in the USA and abroad.
An exciting publishing opportunity has arisen as part of the three-volume Edinburgh University Press, History of Newspapers and Periodicals in Britain and Ireland 1650-2011 (general editors, Martin Conboy and David Finkelstein). The third volume of this work, co-edited by Professors Adrian Bingham and Martin Conboy of the University of Sheffield, coves the period from 1900-2017: "Power, Popularization and Permeation." It is for this volume that we invite proposals for a chapter concerning the Northern Irish Press in the twentieth century.
The chapter would be a maximum of 7,000 words all-inclusive and could incorporate one or two "case studies" of particularly important people, institutions or titles to fit with the format of the series. If you can commit to the project we would need an initial confirmation, along with an outline of 300-400 words outlining how you would approach the topic and a minibiography of 100 words. We envisage that final chapters would be completed in time for submission to EUP by April 2018, so this represents an intense but rewarding challenge for an established or emerging scholar in this field. We hope that this timeframe will enable the chapters to draw on significant fresh insights and therefore constitute original research. Please bear in mind that even at the synopsis stage we are keen to stress aspects of newspaper and periodical publications from across Britain and Ireland so please do try where appropriate to incorporate in your synopsis some sense of how you will capture the flows of information between the constituent nations.
Please send proposals and bios via email to the volume's editorial assistant, Christopher Shoop-Worrall: email@example.com
The deadline for proposal submission is the 27th October 2017.
Editor’s Note: University of North Texas professor James E. Mueller presented his paper, “‘A True Insight into a Cavalryman’s Life’: George Armstrong Custer as Literary Journalist,” at the recent International Association of Literary Journalism Studies conference held in Canada. The Intelligencer asked Dr. Mueller to tell us more about how and why he started researching this topic, and why this research is important and interesting for himself and our field.
By James E. Mueller, University of North Texas
Once considered an American hero, George Armstrong Custer’s name can’t even be used to sell frozen custard.
This past summer Sonic made the mistake of using the Civil War cavalryman and Indian fighter to hawk a new dessert. A commercial promoting the frozen custard featured some slightly funny banter between its usual pair of comedic actors, one of whom had dressed up as Custer and thought the general’s real name was Custard. The actor was dressed in Custer’s Civil War uniform—the one he wore for four years in the fight to preserve the Union and end slavery. No matter. Custer’s subsequent service on the frontier during America’s postwar Westward expansion has become the symbol for all the wrongs done to Native Americans, and he must be banished from polite society as anything other than a bad example. Sonic is based in Oklahoma, which has a large Native American population, and protests were swift and effective. Sonic pulled the ad and apologized two days after it started running.
Custer, of course, had his faults, and the treatment of Native Americans by the federal government was often cruel and dishonorable. But historical figures should be more than one-dimensional caricatures for modern Americans to use as emotional punching bags. We live in a highly divisive age where more and more people seem to look at their fellow citizens as either villains or heroes rather than as human beings who have a mix of good and bad in their character. This attitude has spilled into history, and we’re in danger of losing a balanced view of the story of the country.
Finding balance in the story of Custer’s life is one of the main reasons I’m writing a biography of him. It might seem an odd choice for a journalism historian, but one of the reasons that Custer was so famous in his time was his success as a writer and a self-promoter. Custer had a side career as a journalist and was his own press agent, cultivating journalists and giving them great copy. My presentation on Custer’s writing to the International Association of Literary Journalism Studies is one part of that biography, which is tentatively titled Custer’s Ambitious Honor: A Life of Service and a Lust for Fame. The book is the natural culmination of research I’ve been pursuing for almost 25 years.
So much of research is prompted by a combination of luck, opportunity and necessity. When I started the Ph.D. program at the University of Texas, I discovered Custer’s headquarters during his Reconstruction service had been in a building that is now part of the UT campus. UT has a wonderful collection of historical Texas newspapers. I needed a paper for my Southern history class. I cranked the microfilm to find out how newspapers in a Rebel state had covered the death of a Yankee hero at the Little Bighorn, especially a hero who had enforced Reconstruction in 1865 and 1866. Texas papers, almost exclusively Democrat, supported the Democrat Custer, saying he was a gallant soldier defeated because of the perfidy of the Republican President U.S. Grant, who had denied him the troops he needed.
I presented the paper at AJHA, where I received encouragement to pursue the topic. I did, writing enough papers and articles to lead to a book, Shooting Arrows and Slinging Mud: Custer, the Press, and the Little Bighorn. The book won a couple of awards, including finalist for best nonfiction book from the Western Writers of America. While writing Shooting Arrows, I naturally had to do a lot of research on Custer the man. I found that in contrast to the received history that he was a born soldier, he had first wanted to be a teacher and had continued that interest and a variety of others throughout his brief 36-year life. In fact, his first professional job had been as a teacher in a one-room school house in Ohio, and he entered West Point with the idea that he would pursue a career in education after a few years in the Army. Custer was also passionate about politics, and he considered running for Congress immediately after the end of the Civil War. He accompanied President Andrew Johnson on a campaign trip in 1866, and continued to associate with politicians and political journalists for the rest of his life, sometimes to the detriment of his military career. He loved the theater, and his best friend was the famous actor Lawrence Barrett. Custer himself engaged in amateur theatrics at his various military posts, and at the time of his death had signed to go on a speaking tour with the same agency that hosted Mark Twain. Of interest to journalism history—Custer was a writer, authoring a bestseller about his experiences on the frontier called My Life on the Plains, as well as numerous magazine and newspaper articles.
The theme that unites the various aspects of Custer’s life is a passion for artistic creative endeavors, whether performing, teaching or writing. The skills required for each profession were useful for all of the others, and his military career, too. For example, teaching requires a theatrical presence in the classroom as well as the creativity and writing skills of crafting lessons. Teaching was also an important skill for Custer’s military career as he had to spend a significant time training recruits during the Civil War and in the frontier Army. On the other hand, the artistic side of his nature—his artistic ego—sometimes got in the way of his military career. His need for attention and recognition caused him to ignore or disobey the orders of his superiors in the Army and the civil government. In his personal attitude toward government, Custer was raised as a fierce Jacksonian Democrat who believed in the greatness of America. He served his country with distinction, yet his artistic ego was constantly battling with his sense of duty. He wrote for newspapers and magazines even when it might have been more prudent to focus on his military career.
What kind of a writer was Custer? I think he was a literary journalist, and that’s why I presented my preliminary ideas to the conference. Many of his biographers are critical of Custer’s style, claiming it was written in the wordy Victorian manner that is difficult for modern readers to enjoy. Frederick Van de Water, who wrote the debunking biography Glory-Hunter, said Custer “never met an adjective he didn’t like.” Louise Barnett wrote a much more favorable biography called Touched by Fire, yet claimed Custer’s writing was too formal, like military reports.(1)
However, after reading all of Custer’s Civil War reports, I think his military writing was decidedly informal at times, appearing to be composed by someone who was striving to be a writer. Custer’s official reports often featured a dramatic flair in what was, after all, supposed to be a government record with all the excitement that term conveys. Custer described an attack as a mix of blue uniforms contrasting with a “mass of glittering sabers” that was “one of the most inspiring as well as imposing scenes of martial grandeur ever witnessed upon a battle-field.”(2) A sergeant who was killed was “the bravest of the brave,” an officer was wounded when a bullet “carried away the end of his thumb,” and the Rebels when defeated turned into “a panic-stricken, uncontrollable mob” in which “entire companies threw down their arms, and they appeared glad when summoned to surrender.”(3)
It’s no surprise the Custer agreed to write for newspapers and magazines when editors asked him for accounts of his activities on the Plains. He also regularly wrote hunting stories for the sporting magazine Turf, Field and Farm under the pen name “Nomad.” But his most famous work was a series of articles for Galaxy magazine—a sort of Atlantic Monthly of its day—that was turned into a book called My Life on the Plains, or Personal Experiences with Indians. The 7th Cavalry’s Captain Frederick Benteen famously called Custer’s book “My Life on the Plains,”(4) and Colonel William B. Hazen, who Custer had criticized in the book, privately published a rejoinder pamphlet called “Some Corrections of ‘My Life on the Plains.’”(5) But no less a personage than William T. Sherman, general of the army, wrote Custer that he and everyone in his family had read the book with “deep interest.” Sherman told Custer that “your articles on the Plains are by far the best I have ever read.” Sherman noted that he had received “hard knocks” from writing his own Civil War memoir but encouraged Custer to write one because it would be a valuable contribution to history.(6) Custer was at work on that memoir when he was killed at the Little Bighorn.
For the literary journalism presentation I re-read closely My Life of the Plains, looking for how it fit literary journalism standards. Custer’s writing was similar to the sketch journalism of Mark Twain, which is considered one of the precursors of literary journalism.(7) Custer’s work includes many humorous vignettes, and in contrast to his current reputation as an egotistical maniac, he sometimes made himself the butt of the joke. In an episode often quoted in Custer biographies, Custer left his column to hunt. He got caught up in the chase and pursued a buffalo until he was out of sight of the column and the bugler he had brought along. When Custer had run it down and was about the kill it with his pistol, the buffalo turned to gore his horse. The horse veered sharply. Custer instinctively grabbed for the reins with his gun hand. He accidentally shot his horse in the head, killing it instantly. Custer was thrown over his horse’s head, and as he was flying through the air he wondered what the buffalo would do to him when he landed. It merely snorted and sauntered off, leaving Custer alive but alone in enemy territory with no horse and no idea where his troops were. He started walking in what he thought was the right direction, and fortunately for him ran into his command instead of enemy warriors. The tale was funny and dramatic, yet not designed to frame Custer as a hero.
Custer’s intense involvement in the stories he told is a hallmark of literary journalism--immersion. Of course, as a cavalry officer Custer had little choice but to be immersed in Indian warfare, but his descriptions were so vivid that they brought the reader with him on the frontier. In one chapter, Custer described his terror when approaching an Indian village at night. The Army wanted to negotiate with the tribe, so he and few of his men left the main command and dismounted when they found the village. As they walked toward the tepees, they called out but got no answer other than the barking of camp dogs. Custer freely confessed that only pride kept him from turning around and running back to his horse. It turned out that the Indians had abandoned the village out of fear of the cavalry, but it was an anecdote that captured the uncertainty of Plains warfare.
Although the book was largely a war story—an account of Custer’s participation in a couple of campaigns in 1867-68—he also wrote in great detail about geography, animals, Native culture and the interplay of all three as they contributed to the way people lived on the frontier. This “thick description” is another key element of literary journalism. Instead of merely writing that the Indians used smoke signals, Custer described what type of wood they used and how they held the blanket over the fire to create just the right sort of smoke. He explained the importance of ponies to the Plains Indians and why their speed and endurance made them superior to the Army’s horses. The ponies, he wrote, could survive on cotton wood bark when there was no grass. Indians would cut the wood into four-foot strips and toss them to the horses, who would hold them down with their hooves and gnaw them like a dog would a bone.
Custer used a variety of other literary journalism techniques like scene-by-scene construction, dialogue and a focus on ordinary people to enliven his narrative. It’s not necessary to go into all of those examples here other than to conclude that Custer developed his own distinct voice while writing his Plains stories. He created an authorial character who had the interests of a scientist in observing his world, was passionate about his military duty and yet was able to laugh at himself and his mistakes. He wrote from a distinct point of the view—that of the ordinary cavalryman. (The title of the presentation comes from Custer’s own description of his book.) He was frustrated at the government’s mad policy of simultaneously feeding and arming the tribes yet demanding the Army fight them when they used those arms on civilians. He also railed against newspaper editorials that claimed the Army wanted war. No one who ever had to go to war, particularly the guerrilla style of warfare on the Plains, would seek a war, Custer wrote. The collected stories in My Life on the Plains struck a note with his contemporaries, who he was able to take to the frontier with him through the power of his writing.
What can journalism historians take from this research? It suggests that when studying literary journalists, historians should not focus solely on full-time reporters. Soldier-journalists such as Custer produced a lot of copy in the 19th century, and we are seeing a rebirth of that in today’s military with soldier-bloggers like Colby Buzzell, who took us to the front lines in Iraq with a “milblog” that led to his book My War: Killing Time in Iraq.
As for my own research, Custer’s writing career will be an important part of an effort to tell the story of his life and how it contributed to the national story. In Custer’s own time, his death was the subject of jokes within weeks of the Little Bighorn, as I related in a chapter on humor in Shooting Arrows and Slinging Mud. One newspaper even called his death “Sioux-icide.” Some blamed Custer for the defeat, others wrote that his attack was what most officers would have done under the same circumstances. But the consensus was that despite the outcome of the battle, he died in the service of his country. Americans in 1876 seemed to have a more balanced view toward their heroes than we do today. I hope this research can make a contribution in that direction.
(1) Frederic F. Van De Water, Glory-Hunter: A Life of General Custer (Lincoln: University of Nebraska, 1988) 227; Louis Barnett, Touched by Fire: The Life, Death, and Mythic Afterlife of George Armstrong Custer (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1996), 365.
(2) John M. Carroll, Custer in the Civil War: His Unfinished Memoirs (San Rafael, Calif.: Presidio Press, 1977), 35.
(3) Ibid., 46.
(4) Robert M. Utley, Cavalier in Buckskin: George Armstrong Custer and the Western Military Frontier (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1988), 54.
(5) Ibid., 125.
(6) (Marguerithe Merington, ed., The Custer Story: The Life and Letters of General George A. Custer and His Wife Elizabeth (New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1994), 244.
(7) Norman Sims, True Stories: A Century of Literary Journalism (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2008), 44-45.
James E. Mueller, Ph.D., is Professor and Interim Associate Dean, Mayborn School of Journalism, University of North Texas.
By David Vergobbi with Ross Collins, Debra Van Tuyll, Patrick Cox.
At this time of political and societal upheaval, I’m reminded of a chapter I wrote a few years ago. So I ask you to consider two scholars named Alex separated by 174 years.
As he traveled around the United States in the early 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville, a French aristocrat with liberal leanings, observed how ideas and aspirations diffused among America’s social and economic groups. He believed identifying the methods of diffusion would explain what political and economic aims each group would pursue, what institutions they would establish and operate, and with what success. He paid little attention to government separation of powers and much attention to which social groups might sustain a democratic outlook. In his considerations, Tocqueville became one of the first observers to recognize the press as a powerful force for promoting and sustaining democracy.
“[The press’s] influence in America is immense. It causes political life to circulate through all parts of that vast territory,” he wrote in 1835’s Democracy in America. “Its eye is constantly open to detect the secret springs of political designs and to summon the leaders of all parties in turn to the bar of public opinion.” Tocqueville argued that the press “rallies the interests of the community round certain principles and draws up the creed of every party; for it affords a means of intercourse between those who hear and address each other without ever coming into immediate contact.”
As he reviewed the state of American news media in 2009, our second Alex, Alex S. Jones, an American journalist with democratic concerns now at Harvard, also observed how ideas and aspirations diffused among America’s different social and economic groups. Jones did pay attention to government separation of powers, and he reinforced a long-held belief in the United States that the news media exist as the public’s check and balance on its political system by diffusing “accountability news.”
“Traditional journalists have long believed that this form of fact-based accountability news is the essential food supply of democracy and that without enough of this healthy nourishment, democracy will weaken, sicken, or even fail,” he wrote in Losing the News: The Future of the News that Feeds Democracy (2009). “[T]his core of reported news has been the starting place for a raucous national conversation about who we are as a people and a country.”
The similarity of Tocqueville and Jones’s comments — separated by nearly two centuries — reveals how deeply the perception of the press as democratic catalyst is embedded in American political thought. J. Herbert Altschull called it “The Democratic Assumption.” “Indeed,” Altschull wrote in Agents of Power (1984), “we can say with a large measure of certainty that one of the primary assumptions held by the American citizen is that democracy thrives in part because of the information disseminated by the news media.” Altschull himself italicized his words to drive home their significance. This assumption considers the news media “indispensable to the survival of democracy.” Political scientist Timothy E. Cook showed us in Governing with the News (1998) that even politicians accepted the Democratic Assumption to the point of planning their campaign and governance strategies based on voter media consumption.
And, yet, today “politicians and opinion-leaders, led by the president of the United States himself, have seriously questioned the need for the press,” reports AJHA 2nd Vice-President Ross Collins. “They show skepticism of a presumption that, after more than two centuries, professional journalists ought to continue to play a central role in American democracy. Debates over the credibility and basic veracity of legacy journalism have spilled down from the politicians’ rhetoric and into day-to-day rumblings around the country at most levels, and in most venues — social media to television commentary. People in general are questioning journalism, perhaps more than they have ever before.”
“Or perhaps not more than ever before,” Collins continues. “Because the one aspect to this central discussion of journalism in democracy that is usually missing is the historical perspective.”
Agreed, argues AJHA Board Member Debra Van Tuyll.
“Given that most Americans have scant knowledge of their own history, much less global history, historical context is vital to providing full, fair, and accurate coverage that gives readers/viewers/listeners/surfers what they need — and have a right — to know,” says Van Tuyll. Plus, “given that history is susceptible to being used and manipulated in the service of those who neither understand it nor value it, historians have an ethical obligation to speak out to correct the record when it is presented in a way that cherry-picks facts, exaggerates, indulges in flag-waving, or offers half-truths and obfuscation.”
Such an ethical obligation directly serves our organizational principles, as well, says AJHA veteran Patrick Cox.
“AJHA members can provide a valuable public service during these fractious times by providing historical perspectives on present events to a much broader audience than our membership and our respective educational institutions — for media professionals, educators at all levels, business and nonprofit organizations, and the public,” explains Cox. “Many AJHA members are doing this at the local, regional and national level. [AJHA can] establish and maintain an easy-to-use online resource for identifying and contacting AJHA member historians who can provide their insight and expertise.”
Establishing such an online resource is exactly the focus of this year’s President’s Panel at AJHA’s national convention in Little Rock titled “Journalism History News Service: A series of historical perspectives on contemporary journalism.”
Ross, Debbie, Pat and I will propose a series of member-produced public essays, editorials, and podcasts on historical topics that could illuminate today’s divisive news media discussions. These essays would appear on the association’s website, on social media, as live online chats, and as articles circulated widely to the legacy press. The service would also offer an online resource of Distinguished Media History Leaders — historians available to speak, collaborate, consult and provide historical context on issues involving press freedom, civil rights, and other relevant issues of the day. The goal is to proliferate a national understanding of and need for our two Alex’s “fact-based accountability news” and to revitalize a Democratic Assumption that the news media are indeed “indispensable to the survival of democracy.”
Join us. Provide your input. And together let’s build an effective AJHA service.
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