Journalism as Direct Mail

“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,...

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