Darien historian explores talent, valor of early war reporters
Published 10:29 am, Sunday, June 1, 2014
It's no accident that historian Robert H. Patton's new book, "Hell Before Breakfast," reads like a novel, rather than a traditional piece of nonfiction.
Patton began his history of journalism between the Civil War and the outbreak of World War I with a focus on people, rather than events. After he finished his last book, "Patriot Pirates," about privateering during the American Revolution, Patton realized that the real-life characters in the book interested him as much as the history surrounding them.
"That was a very large (historical) canvas, but what I really enjoyed was bringing the people to life. I decided that with my next book I would begin there, with people I would like to know," Patton, the grandson of the famed World War II general, George S. Patton, said in a recent phone interview from his Darien home.
Patton's project started when he pulled a 1986 book, "Eyewitness to History," down from a shelf and found himself engrossed by the adventures -- and the writing -- of early war correspondent J.A. MacGahan.
"I dipped into MacGahan's account of (wartime) atrocities. It was heartbreaking work by a reporter I had never heard of. First, I was going to deal with MacGahan alone," he said of one of the star reporters for the New York Herald in the late 19th century. "But then I started to branch out."
MacGahan covered the Franco-Prussian war -- the bloody urban siege between leftists and rightists that came to be known as the Paris Commune -- and also did profiles of major figures such as Victor Hugo.
The book becomes an overview of the colorful writers and editors who created the whole notion of a war correspondent and then refined it through the improvements in technology that would take place in the years after the Civil War.
The title is derived from Gen. William T. Sherman, who hated reporters and who was said to be happy when one died in battle -- "`That's good news! We'll have dispatches now from hell before breakfast.'"
The book is packed with larger-than-life characters, such as the whimsical and super-rich New York Herald publisher James Gordon Bennett Jr., who ran his operation from Paris after a scandalous duel caused him to leave New York City.
Asked why he chose to lead his organization from France for more than a decade, Bennett said, "I love America. It's Americans I dislike."
Patton reminds us that the term "war correspondent" derives from the style of the early dispatches, which were written as letters sent back to newspapers from various fronts. The form dictated the style.
The tone of the early war reporting often reads like today's very personal blog writing on the Internet. The shifting of tenses and points of view is also reminiscent of the novelistic "New Journalism" that would emerge in the 1960s from a group of writers that included Tom Wolfe and Joan Didion.
"Hell Before Breakfast" shows how telegraph transmission and the completion of transatlantic cables in the second half of the 19th century had just as profound an effect on the journalism of that period as the creation of the Internet has had on reporting over the past two decades.
The long and personal correspondence approach -- with the letters reprinted days or weeks after they were written -- was replaced by short dispatches of what went on just the day before a newspaper was published. The tight style was demanded by the high cost of telegraph and cable communication, where every word was billable.
"The priorities changed," Patton said. "The long languid letter became an immediate dispatch where facts came first."
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