Changing words

March 2, 2015

The Invention of News:
How the World Came to Know About Itself
By Andrew Pettegree
Yale University Press
445 pages. $35; paper, $25

The Invention of News arrives with honors, as the winner of the 2015 Goldsmith Book Prize given by the Harvard Kennedy School, Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy. Its author is a distinguished scholar of Renaissance and Reformation history at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland; he also directs the university’s Universal Short Title Catalogue, comprising more than 350,000 items published in Europe between the invention of printing and the end of the 16th century.

It is no surprise, then, that his history of news rises from his work, geographically and chronologically. The “world” of the subtitle is not the whole world, but that portion of Europe lying west of Poland, north of Africa, and south of Scandinavia; it includes Britain and, with a stretch, the American colonies. The time period he covers runs, roughly, from the 15th century to the end of the 18th. As Pettegree writes, his book “follows the development of a commercial news market from the medieval period—when news was the prerogative of political elites—to a point four hundred years later when news was beginning to play a decisive role in popular politics.” Within its geographical and chronological limits, Pettegree’s history is packed with detail about the expanding varieties of oral, written, and printed communication; he carefully traces the transformation of news from a service for state, church, and commerce to a product that could be sold to the masses for a profit.

His complexity is a bit of a problem. The compilation of fact upon fact and the twists, turns, and reversals of the narrative may be great for specialists, perhaps less so for generalists. This observation is offered only as a warning and is not meant to discount what is clearly broad, enterprising, and illuminating research. Those who persist can gain a sense of the breadth and complexity of communication across the continent before, during, and after the emergence of printing. Of course, finally came the arrival of the newspaper, just making its way toward dominance. Pettegree suggests that the newspaper—and journalism, for that matter—was initially less a culmination than a letdown, a form that swallowed its predecessors and smothered their variety.

Incidentally, the hardcover version of The Invention of News has a handsome, antiqued dust jacket, uncredited. But too many of the examples of old news forms illustrated within are drab and only semi-legible.

The War That Used Up Words:
American Writers and the First World War
By Hazel Hutchison
Yale University Press
304 pages. $45

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The title of this study comes from a 1915 statement by Henry James, a few months after the start of what was known then as the Great War. Like so much James wrote or said, its meaning falls short of obvious: “The war has used up words; they have weakened, they have deteriorated like motor car tires.” The author, Hazel Hutchison of the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, implies that James was hinting that prewar literary modes were already giving way to the next era, which in the 1920s became the age of Eliot, Joyce, and Hemingway. She finds a kind of preview of the harder-hitting postwar literature in the writing done in the midst of the war, including from little-known authors.

‘The war has used up words; they have deteriorated like motor car tires.’

She calls particular attention to nonfiction by two volunteer American nurses working in field hospitals. Mary Borden-Turner wrote much of The Forbidden Zone, a “startling and experimental account,” which Hutchison deems “one of the great texts of the First World War,” while in charge of a hospital treating hundreds of the wounded. However, she withheld publication until 1929.

Not so for Ellen La Motte, an older American nurse who joined Borden at her hospital. She completed The Backwash of War, a book of sardonic sketches about incidents at the field hospital during the first year of the war. The first episode describes an attempted suicide—a soldier who fires a gun into his mouth has to be nursed back to survival so that he can be shot for cowardice, an incident somewhat echoed in Stanley Kubrick’s great 1957 film, Paths of Glory. La Motte’s work was issued in 1916 by the American publisher, G.P. Putnam’s Sons. Its distribution was blocked in France and England and, after America’s entry into the war, in the United States as well. When she pleaded that what she had written was true, she was told, “That is exactly the trouble.”

James Boylan is CJR’s founding editor.