All the news published over the past two weeks about Amazon giant Jeff Bezos and his purchase of the Washington Post generated an interesting swirl of speculation about what he might do to innovate print journalism. Long gone are the days when, as Ezra Pound once wrote, the man who believes what he reads in the papers could be considered the foundation of a modern democracy. Other media, with unregulated and informal attitudes toward objective reality, have usurped that role. I personally have taken heart from Bezos’s move, as well as the fine show, The Newsroom starring Jeff Daniels, which is airing these days. I have high hopes for a return of news with integrity, and a heightened awareness of the creative and vital relationship between journalism and the other arts. My next book project, “The Creation of Relevance,” will tap into that deep and vibrant current at key moments in French history.
Consider the role played by the news in the months following the Terror (an excerpt from chapter 4 of The Frankenstein of 1790, p. 178):
One reader pleaded for respite in the Journal de Paris national in January 1795 and in so doing announced a new literary market on the horizon. In an unsigned letter printed on 9 nivôse, the author thanks the editors of the paper for political news: “in presenting to our eyes the long script of counterrevolutionary atrocities committed by Carrier and his confederates, you have well served the Republic: publishing crimes prevents their return.” But he admits that a certain compassion fatigue has set in, noting that “our souls are weary of so many horrors and we need softer emotions for relief. Nothing refreshes the blood of a decent man [un honnête home] . . . like the tale of a good deed.” The letter ends by producing “that happy effect on your readers” with the example of a generous shopkeeper in a lower-class neighborhood known for its left-wing militantism. His shop is located on la rue de la Chanvrerie (first arrondissement), future setting of the barricade and the battle that took so many lives in Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables (1862). This valorization of the worthy workingman would launch a major publishing industry in mid-nineteenth-century France.
Today’s events suggest another paradigm change may be on the horizon, and attest to the necessary bond between writers of every age.