Richard Harding Davis
( Originally Published 1907 )
A GREAT many persons, indeed, a great many critics, have called Richard Harding Davis superficial. They obviously had one thing in mind and said another. Perhaps they may have meant to say that sometimes Mr. Davis dealt in superficialities. We lean toward Professor Harry Thurston Peck's opinion. "Mr. Davis, in fact," he says, " because of the predominance in him of the journalistic motive, is a photographer rather than an artist ; but he is a very skillful and adept photographer."
No person of superficial temperament could have described with so much humor Van Bibber's attempt to practice economy, or could have given us the affecting conclusion of " Princess Aline," or could have written many paragraphs of The Exiles." No sympathetic human being who has ever read " The Exiles " will forget the picture of the outlawed boodle alderman in Tangier, saying to a visitor about to return to New York with a clean conscience and a strong hunger to see the familiar sights :
"'I'll tell you what you can do for me, Holcombe. Some night Iwish you would go down to Fourteenth Street, some night this spring, when the boys are sitting out on the steps in front of the Hall, and just take a drink for rue at Ed. Lally's ; just for luck. Will you ? That 's what I 'd like to do. I don 't know nothing better than Fourteenth Street of a summer evening, with all the people crowding into Pastor's, on one side of the Hall, and the Third Avenue L-cars running by on the other. That 's a gay sight, ain't it now? With all the girls coming in and out of Theiss's, and the sidewalks crowded. One of them warm nights when they have to have the windows open, and you can hear the music in at Pastor's, and the audience clapping their hands. That's great, isn 't it? Well,' he laughed and shook his head, ' I 'll be back there some day, won't I,' he said, wistfully, ' and hear it for myself ? ' "
It would be hard to find in fiction a more affecting picture done with fewer strokes and with closer fidelity to human nature. It is a picture which must strike the attentive reader, and particularly the attentive New York reader, full on the heart strings.
Mr. Davis has the habit of looking at the odd things in life. Without this habit no man can be a first-class reporter; and our author has proved himself a first-class reporter in many parts of the world and for many papers.
Like every well-trained reporter, Mr. Davis is continually "seeing things." As he said to his friend Mr. Sangree, some months ago : " I never walk one city block that I do not see twenty things to interest me. I tire my friends sometimes by pointing them out. Their minds run in different channels. But this ability to see things is my greatest joy in life, incidentally my living. I cultivated it when I began reporting, and to this day if I see a man turn in a car to look out the window I unconsciously turn with him. He may have observed something that escaped me — something that contains an element of human interest, and I hold no effort wasted that may add to this general cargo of life's impressions."
No able reporter could have worked long under Charles A. Dana and escaped the objective habit. In fact, a story which Mr. Sangree tells of his friend's experience on The Evening Sun illustrates the point.
" At eight o' clock one spring morning," says Mr. Sangree, "the blotter at police headquarters recorded a trifling fire on the East Side. News being dull, Davis was sent to cover it. He found a rickety tenement house in which fire had little more than singed the top floor. The crowd had left, a few ashes were smouldering, and the insurance adjusters were examining the place.
"Nothing here,' said the policeman on watch. ' Only five hundred dollars damage and a bum lodger asphyxiated. He 's in that room.'
" The reporters peeped, saw the blackened face and rigid form, a man unnamed and forgotten — and wrote a paragraph. The Evening Sun reporter, in mousing about, saw an alarm clock by the dead man's side with the hand pointing to seven o' clock.
"'What time did you break in here?' he asked.
"' Let me see,' yawned the bluecoat ; Seven o' clock it was. I remember because that alarm was going off just as I got inside.'
"' That's my story,' said Davis, and he began his account, touching and vivid, simply with : ' The man died at six-thirty. The alarm went off at seven. It was just half an hour too late.' "
" What impressed me," said the author, discussing the story subsequently, "was that impotent alarm clock jangling away when the owner was dead. A man's existence had been cut off because that fifty-cent clock could not give its alarm a few minutes earlier."
This illustrates what was meant when we said that Mr. Davis takes an objective view of life. His experience as a reporter was invaluable to him ; and he took Dr. Hale's advice, and ended the experience at the right time. Doubtless many good writers have been spoiled by indulging too long in the fascinations of newspaper work.
A large part of his training as a reporter the creator of Van Bibber obtained in his native city, during his service on the Philadelphia Press, for which paper he went to work when he was a little more than twenty. There is a portrait of him taken at the age of twenty-three, in the disguise in which he worked while getting the information which drove the nest of thieves out of Wood street.
While Davis was working for the Philadelphia Press, by the way, he and his associates in the reporters' room fell in love with one of Stevenson's thrilling short stories, " A Lodging for the Night." They could not restrain their admiration ; so they wrote an enthusiastic letter to the gentle sick man off there in Samoa. And to the spokesman of the admiring crew Stevenson replied :
Dear Sir :
Why, thank you very much for your frank, agreeable and natural letter. It is certainly very pleasant that all you young fellows wholly enjoy my work, and get some good out of it ; and it was very kind in you to write and tell me so. The tale of the suicide is excellently droll ; and your letter, you may be sure, will be preserved. If you are to escape, unhurt, out of your present business, you must be very careful, and you must find in your heart much constancy. The swiftly done work of the journalist, and the cheap finish and ready-made methods to which it leads, you must try to counteract in private by writing with the most considerate slowness and on the most ambitious models. And when I say ' writing '— O, believe me, it is re-writing that I have chiefly in my mind. If you will do this I hope to hear of you some day.
Please excuse this sermon from
ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON.
This letter, brought to light a short while ago by Mr. Sangree, in a magazine article, discloses an exchange of sentiments creditable to all the correspondents concerned.
For a time the promising journalist was overmastered by an ambition to be an editor, and he established a short-lived dramatic periodical called The Stage. In 1889 he reported the Johnstown flood for a Philadelphia paper, and then, the following summer, went abroad with the All-Philadelphia cricket team. Upon his return to this country, New York charmed him, and there, for the most part, he has lived ever since. At first he was connected with The Evening Sun. During this connection he wrote his delightful " Van Bibber " stories. But these were not his first stories. His first stories were written while he was editor of a paper at Lehigh College, in his student days. The stories numbered about a dozen, and Mr. Davis collected them and paid ninety dollars to have them published in book form. The book has scarcely ever been heard of since. Later, while at Johns Hopkins University, he wrote his first accepted story, " Richard Carr's Baby," a sort of foot-ball tale, which was published in St. Nicholas. However, the "Van Bibber " stories were his first work of any serious account ; they were the first work to bring him popularity.
After the " Van Bibber " sketches came his most sparkling gem, Gallegher," a newspaper story which was refused by three editors and then published, with immediate success, in Scribner's Magazine. Later appeared in quick succession " The Other Woman," " An Unfinished Story,"
My Disreputable Friend, Mr. Raegan," and the other short stories which soon made their author's name familiar to the reading public on both sides of the ocean.
In 1890 Davis became editor of Harper's Weekly. This position he left a year or so later to travel across the continent, with " The West Through a Car Window " as the result. Then he went to London, and described the life there ; and then he went to Egypt and wrote "The Rulers of the Mediterranean." He was now fairly well started; and since then his pen has never been idle.
Since Mr. Davis's advent as a serious writer of fiction he has been subjected on one side to the most extravagant praise and on the other to the most merciless censure.
The critics on both sides have made matters worse by dropping the subject at hand and bringing out for public inspection vast quantities of personal anecdotes about the unfortunate author, most of which stories are probably apocryphal. In fact, a,t one time the newspaper comments were so vulgar that the helpless victim said to a friend who visited him in New York : " If I thought I was like the man the news-papers make me out to be, I would not only cut my own acquaintance ; I 'd cut my own throat." But, so far as the public ever found out, he took the slings and arrows philosophically. He could afford to. One by one his new works have prospered.
It was at the height of this hypercritical hostility that, in 1897, Davis was suddenly missed. About the same time the stories in the London Times on the war between Turkey and Greece began to attract universa]. attention. The Times, said one of the New York newspapers, which had shown especial bitterness toward its former reporter, has discovered a brilliant war correspondent. It seemed that people all over the world were asking, Who is he ? It was Mr. Davis, proving, under the cloak of the Times' traditional anonymity his right to be respected as a descriptive writer of the first quality. He repeated this success the next year in Cuba, during the Spanish war, when his extraordinary skill in the description of picturesque incidents was favored by the circumstance that the generals and admirals themselves were sending home virtually all the news.
When, last year, Mr. Davis went to South Africa it was commonly expected that he would take sides with the British. Never was public expectation more emphatically at fault. In a moment he took the measure of the British cause and the British tactics ; both of these things disgusted him. He put Mr. Kipling himself to shame by serving " the God of Things as They Are "; and as a result he forfeited many friendships which he had made in England. But he won the hearts of his countrymen. His courageous honesty destroyed in this country the last vestige of captious hostility.
Today, at the age of thirty-eight, just at the entrance to full-blown life, Mr. Davis is widely admired and honored. He has pleased the light-hearted with his pretty romantic tales, and he has satisfied the strong of heart with his many examples of an unerring sense of the true comedy and the true pathos of life, and, moreover, of his remarkable personal fearlessness. Perhaps the term which a friend applied to him is most fitting — perhaps he may best be called a " sublimated reporter " for your sublimated reporter must be at once an imperturbable philosopher and an artist holding the mirror up to nature.
The author's marriage to Miss Cecil Clark of Chicago, at Marion, Massachusetts, on May 4, 1899, was an event remarkable for its jollity. Last year Mrs. Davis accompanied her husband to South Africa. She is said to be as skillful with the pencil as he is with the pen.