Disparage the press? (From Herman Melville’s novel The Confidence-Man)

“Anything in praise of the press I shall be happy to hear,” rejoined the cosmopolitan, “the more so,” he gravely proceeded, “as of late I have observed in some quarters a disposition to disparage the press.”

“Disparage the press?”

“Even so; some gloomy souls affirming that it is proving with that great invention as with brandy or eau-de-vie, which, upon its first discovery, was believed by the doctors to be, as its French name implies, a panacea—a notion which experience, it may be thought, has not fully verified.”

“You surprise me, Frank. Are there really those who so decry the press? Tell me more. Their reasons.”

“Reasons they have none, but affirmations they have many; among other things affirming that, while under dynastic despotisms, the press is to the people little but an improvisatore, under popular ones it is too apt to be their Jack Cade. In fine, these sour sages regard the press in the light of a Colt’s revolver, pledged to no cause but his in whose chance hands it may be; deeming the one invention an improvement upon the pen, much akin to what the other is upon the pistol; involving, along with the multiplication of the barrel, no consecration of the aim. The term ‘freedom of the press’ they consider on a par with freedom of Colt’s revolver. Hence, for truth and the right, they hold, to indulge hopes from the one is little more sensible than for Kossuth and Mazzini to indulge hopes from the other. Heart-breaking views enough, you think; but their refutation is in every true reformer’s contempt. Is it not so?”

“Without doubt. But go on, go on. I like to hear you,” flatteringly brimming up his glass for him.

“For one,” continued the cosmopolitan, grandly swelling his chest, “I hold the press to be neither the people’s improvisatore, nor Jack Cade; neither their paid fool, nor conceited drudge. I think interest never prevails with it over duty. The press still speaks for truth though impaled, in the teeth of lies though intrenched. Disdaining for it the poor name of cheap diffuser of news, I claim for it the independent apostleship of Advancer of Knowledge:—the iron Paul! Paul, I say; for not only does the press advance knowledge, but righteousness. In the press, as in the sun, resides, my dear Charlie, a dedicated principle of beneficent force and light. For the Satanic press, by its coappearance with the apostolic, it is no more an aspersion to that, than to the true sun is the coappearance of the mock one. For all the baleful-looking parhelion, god Apollo dispenses the day. In a word, Charlie, what the sovereign of England is titularly, I hold the press to be actually—Defender of the Faith!—defender of the faith in the final triumph of truth over error, metaphysics over superstition, theory over falsehood, machinery over nature, and the good man over the bad. Such are my views, which, if stated at some length, you, Charlie, must pardon, for it is a theme upon which I cannot speak with cold brevity…”

From Chapter 24 of Herman Melville’s novel The Confidence-Man.

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1 thought on “Disparage the press? (From Herman Melville’s novel The Confidence-Man)”

  1. Anacharsis Cloots, Jack Cade…my referenced-by-Melville cast of historic radicals grows w/each post. Keep ’em coming!

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