Brief Encounters

Short reviews of Out on Assignment and Famous Long Ago
August 14, 2012

Out on Assignment: Newspaper Women and the Making of Modern Public Space | By Alice Fahs | University of North Carolina Press | 360 pages, $37.50

Frank Luther Mott’s once-standard history, American Journalism (1962 edition), covered in two paragraphs the era to which Alice Fahs now gives a whole book—the impact of an energetic, determined cohort of several hundred women journalists on the metropolitan press of the 1890s and early 1900s. Mott listed a name or two, but made it clear that he did not consider women’s work part of the grand march of journalism history.

Fahs, a history professor at the University of California, Irvine, says that “we have missed an entire generation of female journalists and a richly networked public community.” In an era when women were barred from the sweat and smoke of the newsroom and from covering most hard news, a wave of the young, educated, and ambitious found their way into the papers nonetheless. They created down-to-earth women’s pages and advice columns that enhanced both circulation and reader loyalty. They performed eye-catching stunts, such as trying out an electric chair for size (Kate Swan of the New York World) or going undercover as waitresses, models, or domestic servants. Others, such as Nixola Greeley-Smith (Horace Greeley’s granddaughter) and Kate Carew gained fame as audacious and probing interviewers. Still others, such as the durable Fannie Brigham Ward, transformed travel writing into foreign correspondence; Ward was one of the few Americans in Cuba at the start of the Spanish-American War.

The newcomers gained celebrity as representatives of a new social type, dubbed the “bachelor girl,” independent, striving, and often charming as well. Usually, their goals were simple—money and advancement. Fahs distinguishes them from another type known as the “New Woman,” who was usually wealthier and devoted to causes. One who played both roles was Rose Pastor, who began as a cigar-wrapper in Cleveland and later joined the English-language Jewish Daily News in New York. She went to interview the philanthropist J. G. Phelps Stokes, and Rose Pastor, journalist, soon became Rose Pastor Stokes, reformer, socialist, and ultimately communist.

Fahs suggests that the legacy of this half-forgotten generation stretched beyond journalism. She does not claim that these reporters made a permanent place in American journalism for women; in fact, that goal was not truly achieved until 60 or 70 years later. But she sees their influence in the campaign for suffrage. They covered the story, and found myriad ways to smuggle the issue into their newspapers. And in the end they won.

Famous Long Ago: My Life and Hard Times with Liberation News Service | By Raymond Mungo | University of Massachusetts Press | 204 pages, $19.95

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The reissue of Raymond Mungo’s Famous Long Ago, first published in 1970, does not make one nostalgic, but at least it invokes vividly an unpredictable and dangerous time. (The title is taken from Bob Dylan’s “Desolation Row.”)

Mungo’s bumpy narrative covers roughly a year, ending in the summer of 1968, at the crest of his generation’s dope-fueled revolt. In 1967, Marshall Bloom and the author, both erstwhile hellraising college editors, left the United States Student Press Association (and its sponsor, the CIA-supported National Student Association) and founded the Liberation News Service (LNS) to feed material to the growing underground press. Incidentally, CJR was a subscriber, and I recall the mailings as being oddly unlike the flamboyant alternative press in tone and appearance. The service consisted of many cleanly typed pages with informative, well-edited articles from the left that of course did not find their way into the mainstream press. (Samples are still available online.)

Based at first in decrepit surroundings in Washington, DC, LNS’s first big story was the massive antiwar demonstration at the Pentagon in October 1967. The young Mungo (he was about 22) records the turbulent office politics that led, in 1968, to a schism with a faction he dubs The Vulgar Marxists. By this time the office had moved to Claremont Avenue in New York, near the Columbia campus, an advantageous site for covering the 1968 uprising at the university. The Mungo-Bloom faction absconded to rural New England, taking with it a printing press and a cache of lns funds. Mungo describes in lurid tones a violent night during which the New York faction tried to retrieve the taken goods.

Allen Young, an important figure in keeping LNS going, has called Mungo’s account “self-serving and one-sided.” Probably so. But the story reveals something of the audacity, even recklessness, that enabled the young left to capture the attention of the nation and the world—and the shallowness and impulsiveness that made it too weak to survive. Mungo lives on, having taken other paths; his LNS partner, Bloom, committed suicide in 1969. 

James Boylan is CJR’s founding editor.