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An essay by Thomas Wentworth Higginson

The Career Of Letters

Title:     The Career Of Letters
Author: Thomas Wentworth Higginson [More Titles by Higginson]

A young girl of some talent once told me that she had devoted herself to "the career of letters." I found, on inquiry, that she had obtained a situation as writer of society gossip for a New York newspaper. I can hardly imagine any life that leads more directly away from any really literary career, or any life about which it is harder to give counsel. The work of a newspaper correspondent, especially in the "society" direction, is so full of trials and temptations, for one of either sex, in our dear, inquisitive, gossiping America, that one cannot help watching with especial solicitude all women who enter it. Their special gifts as women are a source of danger: they are keener of observation from the very fact of their sex, more active in curiosity, more skilful in achieving their ends; in a world of gossip they are the queens, and men but their subjects, hence their greater danger.

In Newport, New York, Washington, it is the same thing. The unbounded appetite for private information about public or semi-public people creates its own purveyors; and these, again, learn to believe with unflinching heartiness in the work they do. I have rarely encountered a successful correspondent of this description who had not become thoroughly convinced that the highest desire of every human being is to see his name in print, no matter how. Unhappily, there is a great deal to encourage this belief: I have known men to express great indignation at an unexpected newspaper-puff, and then to send ten dollars privately to the author. This is just the calamity of the profession, that it brings one in contact with this class of social hypocrites; and the "personal" correspondent gradually loses faith that there is any other class to be found. Then there is the perilous temptation to pay off grudges in this way, to revenge slights, by the use of a power with which few people are safely to be trusted. In many cases, such a correspondent is simply a child playing with poisoned arrows: he poisons others; and it is no satisfaction to know that in time he may also poison himself, and paralyze his own power for mischief.

There lies before me a letter written some years ago to a young lady anxious to enter on this particular "career of letters,"--a letter from an experienced New York journalist. He has employed, he says, hundreds of lady correspondents, for little or no compensation; and one of his few successful writers he thus describes: "She succeeds by pushing her way into society, and extracting information from fashionable people and officials and their wives.... She flatters the vain, and overawes the weak, and gets by sheer impudence what other writers cannot.... I would not wish you to be like her, or reduced to the necessity of doing what she does, for any success journalism can possibly give." And who can help echoing this opinion? If this is one of the successful laborers, where shall we place the unsuccessful; or, rather, is success, or failure, the greater honor?

Personal journalism has a prominence in this country with which nothing in any other country can be compared. What is called publicity in England or France means the most peaceful seclusion, compared with the glare of notoriety which an enterprising correspondent can flash out at any time--as if by opening the bull's-eye of a dark lantern--upon the quietest of his contemporaries. It is essentially an American institution, and not one of those in which we have reason to feel most pride. It is to be observed, however, that foreigners, if in office, take to it very readily; and it is said that no people cultivate the reporters at Washington more assiduously than the diplomatic corps, who like to send home the personal notices of themselves, in order to prove to their governments that they are highly esteemed in the land to which they are appointed. But however it may be with them, it is certain that many people still like to keep their public and private lives apart, and shrink from even the inevitable eminence of fame. One of the very most popular of American authors has said that he never, to this day, has overcome a slight feeling of repugnance on seeing his own name in print.

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Thomas Wentworth Higginson's essay: The Career Of Letters