Thursday, May 24, 2012

On the New Orleans Times-Picayune

Sad news out of New Orleans: last night, the New York Times reported that the Times-Picayune looks set to face severe cuts, including the loss of a daily edition. Gambit covers the reaction here. This is depressing for a whole hosts of reasons, not least because the paper, in one form or another, has been a vital part of city life (and literature) for 175 years.

Starting life as The Picayune, the paper was founded in 1837 (on the brink, ironically, of an international depression) by George Wilkins Kendall and Francis Asbury Lumsden, a pair of publishers who had learned their trade in New York and Washington. (It wouldn't become the Times-Picayune until 1914, when it merged with its rival, the Times-Democrat.) The first issue went on sale on January 25th 1837, and in the subsequent decades it missed only 46 days of publication - "one because of a printers' strike in 1837 [...] another 45 during the Civil War, for publishing reports the occupying Union army deemed offensive", and, famously, none because of Hurricane Katrina. As that list suggests, the Picayune was not always on the right side of history. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, for a paper of its place and time, it was conservative in its editorial line - fervently anti-abolitionist and anti-Reconstruction. And well into the twentieth-century, in J. Mark Souther's words, it was the "unofficial mouth-piece" of "the city's old elite." But that, too, only highlights the degree to which the Picayune has been there to record so much of the city's history - indeed, is itself part and parcel of that history. Its continued presence in New Orleans undoubtedly contributes to the city's distinctiveness; even its name, taken from a Spanish coin, is a constant reminder of a rich multicultural heritage.

Then again, some solace might be taken in the fact that the paper has faced hard times before. One of the Picayune's numerous claims to fame is that it was the first major metropolitan daily to be published by a woman. But when poet Eliza Jane Poitevent Nicholson (better known by her pen name, Pearl Rivers) inherited the paper on the death of her husband Alva Holbrook in 1876, the Picayune's future did not look bright: she also inherited $80,000 worth of debt. But thanks to a number of original initiatives (the introduction of a society column, children's pages, and, well, the weather frog), the paper slowly prospered. One of the most important of Nicholson's innovations was the introduction of Dorothy Dix's pioneering advice column in 1895, the first of its kind, which would soon reach millions of readers around America. Nicholson fostered other female talent, too, and nineteenth century notables like Catherine Cole and Mollie Moore Davis were also published in the Picayune. They all congregated at Davis' Friday-afternoon salons, where Kate Chopin sometimes appeared. Little wonder that, in Elaine Showalter's words, turn-of-the-century New Orleans appeared to be the "headquarters of the New Woman."

It wasn't just the city's female writers who benefited from publication in the Picayune. George Washington Cable stood at the forefront of the Southern literary insurgency in the decades following the Civil War. But before he made his mark as a writer, he was an occasional journalist for the Picayune, writing a column entitled "Drop Shot." Indeed, it was while covering Mardi Gras for the paper in 1873 that Cable met Edward King, touring the South for Scribner's. Their ensuing friendship resulted in the publication of Cable's short stories in the north, securing him literary success. Nor was Cable alone. If you believe this story, Mark Twain, Cable's sometime friend, was influenced by the Picayune in his choice of pen name. And, peeking outside the bounds of this blog into the twentieth century, a young William Faulkner published a number of sketches and stories in its pages when he lived in the city from 1924 to 1926. In the nineteenth century, then, the Picayune's influence on literature and culture was not just local or regional, but national - indeed, international.

In her autobiography, published in 1932, New Orleans writer Grace King judged rightly that whatever else it might have been, the Picayune was "a more intimate New Orleanian paper than any other." If this really is the end of 175 years of New Orleans history, the Times-Picayune will leave a significant legacy, and a substantial hole.

Further reading: rather usefully, the Internet Archive has a copy of Thomas Ewing Dabney's One Hundred Great Years: The Story of the Times-Picayune from its Founding to 1940 (Louisiana State University Press, 1944). And don't forget...

No comments: