Thursday, December 23, 2010

December 23, 2010: The Pen and the Sword

For obvious reasons, folks in my profession are big fans of the cliché that the pen is mightier than the sword. Or, more exactly, of the reading of that phrase in which the pen and the sword are opposed, and thus the narrative in which words and writing can, in one way or another, triumph over or at least outlast weapons and war. None of us are naïve enough to think that the pen can win in a direct confrontation, but in this reading of the phrase, the words and writing are the slower but steadier and ultimately stronger influences, the ones that can revise and reshape and remake histories and stories (even those of war at its worst). I don’t disagree with that perspective—I wouldn’t do what I do if I didn’t put that kind of faith in the power of words—but there’s another possible reading of the phrase, one that is much less attractive for us fans of the pen: in this reading, the pen and the sword are both trying to achieve the same objectives, are both weapons of war, and the phrase simply suggests that the pen is ultimately a more powerful such weapon.
One of the best and most troubling proofs for that reading comes from the late 1890s and the build-up to the Spanish-American War. I’ve already written in this space and likely will again about the US’s imperialistic endeavors that partly coincided with and definitely expanded as a result of this war, especially the bloody and tragic mess in the Philippines, but the war itself likewise was, if not particularly bloody (from an American perspective, anyway), almost certainly tragically unnecessary. Although the war represented in many ways the culmination of decades-long trends on multiple levels—from Cuba’s efforts for independence from Spain to those aforementioned growing American imperialistic goals—its most proximate cause was the February 1898 sinking of the U.S.S. Maine, a warship that had been sent to Havana to monitor ongoing social unrest there. At the time, the narratives of that incident, as advanced for example in the hugely popular newspapers of William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer (both vocal advocates of imperialistic expansion and thus of war with Spain), emphasized the strong likelihood that the ship’s powder magazines had exploded due to an external attack (from the Spanish forces, was the constant implication), and the subsequent “Remember the Maine” battle-cry greatly pushed public opinion in support of the war. (Later investigations, which will never be much more than speculative, have made clear that the explosion could have been internally triggered, and at least that there was no specific evidence for any particular cause.)
The pens of Hearst and Pulitzer and their employees thus certainly helped make the war palatable and so perhaps possible. The most troubling such pen was that of a man who had long since used it to make an iron-clad reputation as one of the most talented and nuanced artists and illustrators of his era: Frederic Remington. Remington had been producing his drawings and paintings of the West and the frontier for almost fifteen years by this time; those works did partly contribute to the origins and extensions of a Wild West mythos, but in his renderings of Native American subjects (for example) Remington displayed a cultural awareness and sensitivity that far exceeded many of his Wild West mythmaking peers (such as Buffalo Bill). But in early 1897 Remington was sent to Cuba by his friend and sometime employer Hearst to witness and capture Spanish abuses and atrocities there; Hearst’s famous instruction to him, “You furnish the pictures, I’ll furnish the war” may well be apocryphal (as per the article linked below), but there’s no question that Remington’s assignment was to illustrate the sensationalist coverage of the situation and help push the US closer to war, and Remington did not leave Cuba until he had what he believed was sufficient material to illustrate those stories. That he would, a year later, cover Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders during their over-glorified charge up San Juan Hill in Puerto Rico, the event that cemented both the narratives of the US’s war effort and Roosevelt’s national reputation, only highlights how much Remington’s pen became in these years a direct corollary to the sword.
The Spanish-American War might well have happened even if Remington—or any of these journalists—had never raised a pen; history is rarely if ever reducible to single influences or causes. But on the other hand, it’s difficult to overstate the importance of public opinion when it comes to the US’s war policies in this era—it was less than two decades later, after all, that Woodrow Wilson would win reelection on the campaign slogan “He kept us out of war.” And while the war’s influences and trajectory will, like what happened to the Maine, remain open to historical interpretation and analysis, there is no disputing that in this case, many of our most prominent pens were drafted into combat. More tomorrow, on one of the most genuinely Christian American lives (the first of two Christmas-related posts).
PS. Two links to start with:
1)      The story on the famous Remington-Hearst exchange, which also includes lots of other relevant contexts:

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