The required reading in our Forest Hills High School English classes in the late '40s was an eclectic mixture of works that someone in the downtown Manhattan headquarters of the Board of Education decided were age appropriate. They included Edvart Rølvaag's saga of pioneer life, Giants in the Earth, Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, and Lincoln Steffens' Autobiography. We were required to memorize ten lines from the Shakespeare [any ten lines], and since I have always been simply awful at memorization, I chose the most famous lines, the opening of Marc Antony's speech, "Friends, Romans, and Countrymen/Lend me your ears." It was all I could do to keep those ten lines in my head for the brief time that we were required to recite them, and today I might at best get through the first four. I recall watching the Johnny Carson Late Show one night some years later when the great old Canadian actor Walter Pidgeon, who was near the end of his life, was his guest. Pidgeon turned out to be a total flop as a guest, projecting no personality whatsoever, and Carson labored mightily to keep the segment afloat. At one point, Pidgeon told Carson that, as a discipline, he had long ago adopted the practice of memorizing a poem every night before going to bed. The previous evening, he said, he had memorized a little poem about the donkey that Jesus rode into Jerusalem on what Catholics now commemorate as Palm Sunday. Carson asked him to recite it, and as Pidgeon began, an astonishing transformation came over him. His face lit up, his voice lowered, and he became WALTER PIDGEON, famous actor. As soon as he had concluded the poem, the light went out and he again became a boring old man.
At any rate, back to Lincoln Steffens' Autobiography, which is actually the inspiration for this post. Steffens, for those of you too young to recall, was a great muckraking journalist of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In the Autobiography, he tells the story of how he and Jacob Riis, another great muckraker on a competing New York daily, created a crime wave one summer out of a mixture of boredom and competitive spirit. You can read the entire story here. In a nutshell, Steffens and Riis, both city reporters, began reporting in their papers every crime on the police blotter as it was recorded, regardless of whether it was especially newsworthy. The reading public soon became alarmed at the dramatic rise in crime, quite unaware that there had been no change at all in the incidence of crime, only in the incidence of reporting. Finally, Teddy Roosevelt, who was at the time the President of the Police Board, told Steffens and Riis to cut it out. Since they were both friends of T. R. they complied, and the public was much gratified that order had been restored to the streets and homes of the city.
I was reminded of this story after I posted that rather dour comment yesterday with the Yeats poem. One of the side effects of the advent of the Internet is that every ugly thing anyone does or says anywhere gets recorded by someone with a cell phone and in less time than it takes to text OMG goes viral. Since there is a Gresham's Law of journalism, according to which bad news drives out good, obsessive surfers like me are fed an unrelenting diet of horribles. No wonder Tiggers turn into Eeyores.
I shall strive to retain my balance in the future [even while tripping and falling flat on the pavement.]