Saturday, November 7, 2009

Should we bring the duel back?

I've been out of work four days this week with some kind of imitation flu. The downside of this has been missing my colleagues, the internal buzz I get from doing my job, my daily sacred gym time. The upside was that I had a lot of time to read for pleasure.

It was with great pleasure that I began reading The Southern Press, W&L professor Doug Cumming's just-out book on just what its title suggests--journalism in the South from Poe well into the last century.

The book is not history; it's more an exploration of a style of journalism that grew up without tightly-packed urban areas and without an indigenous publishing industry. I learned a lot, but I also had fun. Particularly from the bottom of page 62 to the top of page 63. As part of my self-assigned blog mission is to promote fun, I'm now going to transcribe the rather long, relevant passage. (I've bolded and italicized the juicy and most telling part, which is at the end.)
     John Moncure Daniel of the Richmond Examiner, who spiced his attacks on political enemies with such terms as jackass, hyena, sleek fat pony, and curly-headed poodle, is credited with fighting nine duels. He bequeathed his dueling pistols to his successor at the Examiner, H. Rives Pollard. A column Daniel wrote in 1847 somehow insulted the then famous [Edgar Allen] Poe, who happened to be back in Richmond and drinking again. When Poe barged into Daniel's office to challenge him to a duel, the Examiner editor managed to silence his friend by pointing to a set of large pistols waiting on the table.
     The aristocratic notion of honor was like a "reputation" in a libel suit, except that damages to honor could never be compensated with money or settled in court. That is why so many cities and town[s] in the South had a dueling ground as well as a courthouse, from the Oaks at the north end of Esplanade Street in New Orleans to Bloody Island in the former North River beside Lexington, Virginia. Duelists could even buy instruction manuals such as one published in 1838 by a former governor of South Carolina. Keeping in practice was always a good idea, especially for newspaper editors, "who are most of them very good shots," noted a British traveler in the 1830s. Like libel law, the code of the duel was said to be a force of restraint on a boisterous press. If only the North would adopt dueling, the novelist Simms wrote to an editor in Boston in 1841, "it would soon but a stop to the blackguardism of the press, the insolence of petty knaves, and the slanderous personalities of their writings."
I do wonder how an Opinion-ater -- my name for today's working "journalist" who, like those northern journalists referred to by novelist Simms, appear to think it his/her mission to inflame strong feelings in us rather than to impart accurate information -- would react if everyone who felt offended showed up with a couple of dueling pistols and started going on about "honor" and "reputation."

Would it serve to reign in the use of blatant untruth in argument? Sadly, nothing else seems to.

Note: The next time you're really, really annoyed at someone, I d-double-dare you to call that person a curly-headed poodle.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  

1 comment:

  1. Well, those opinion-aters wouldn't have much to complain about if it kept the government out of their affairs . . . .