A Habit Worse Than Heroin
BY JASON GANTENBERG I OCTOBER 23, 2009
Simon Read. War of Words: A Tale of Newsprint and Murder. Union Square Press, 2009. 320 pages.
"Journalism [is]...a low trade and a habit worse than heroin, a strange seedy world of misfits and drunkards and failures." — Hunter S. Thompson
Simon Read begins War of Words: A Tale of Newsprint and Murder with two quotations, the first an excerpt from the Daily Dramatic Chronicle (later the San Francisco Chronicle) comparing the marksmanship of American journalists to that of their French counterparts and the second a fitting quote from Thompson's indelible The Great Shark Hunt, a landmark collection of essays and articles that chronicle Thompson's slog through the mid- to late-1960s and 1970s.
It is hard to imagine anything (journalistically, at least) that rivals the depravity Thompson encountered and, in some cases, perpetuated during the Hippie movement, the 1972 presidential campaign, and Richard Nixon with the notable exception of the Vietnam Conflict. Enter War of Words, Read's account of an unimaginable and, by turns, almost comic rivalry between the founding editors of the San Francisco Chronicle Michael and Charles De Young and Reverend Isaac S. Kalloch, mayor of San Francisco from 1879-81. While not an account of drug-fueled rampages like those of the often prescient Thompson, it is somehow fitting the events Read recounts are prefaced with a quote from a writer who spurned the journalistic establishment as cowardly and hypocritically beholden to calling itself objective. While Michael and Charles de Young couldn't be considered cowards nor — as Read illustrates — objective, their actions and involvement with Mayor Kalloch were something of an antecedent to the activities that spurred Hunter S. Thompson to write those words and were coincidentally driven by the founding editors of a paper for which Thompson himself would one day write.
At its heart, War of Words is a quintessential American story, a tale of two ambitious, young men who built one of the largest and most influential newspapers of the day almost from scratch and the eventual corruptive influence of the power they eventually gained. Michael and Charles de Young literally began their endeavor with a $20 loan from a friend in order to start a theatre review that they would hand deliver throughout San Francisco.
Read doesn't necessarily comment or appear to push a morality tale upon us, though it is telling that he makes sure to note that the de Youngs' transition from entertainment editors to political opinion-makers came under the auspices of providing San Francisco with a newspaper willing to expose graft and corruption among city and state politicians in an attempt to restore dignity to the government. It was to be a paper for the people, but as circulation grew, the de Youngs (more notably Charles) began to take personal stake in the outcomes of elections. The San Francisco political scene in the 1870s was tumultuous and marked by immigration disputes over how to deal with a swelling Chinese workforce and the doldrums of a gold rush that had waned over the past twenty years. This new xenophobia in many ways led to the creation and galvanization of the Workingmen's Party, a political entity that Rev. Isaac Kalloch, the de Youngs' eventual nemesis, would eventually come to lead.
Ultimately, Kalloch proves to be the lynchpin and powering force behind Read's narrative in War of Words. In his review of War of Words for the Chronicle, Joshua Spivak notes that Kalloch is the richest of any of the characters, and I tend to agree on this account.
Kalloch started as a minister in New England whose riveting, boisterous speeches gained him a considerable celebrity among his parishioners. An inspiring orator, he found his public life considerably altered by allegations that he'd had an affair with another woman, an old friend of his from university, at a nearby hotel. It is during Read's descriptions of the trial that War of Words truly hits its stride and becomes a brisk account of mostly salacious details. There is no insignificant amount of comedy for the modern reader as Read notes that descriptions of sexual acts such as those given under oath by the hotel manager were certainly not commonplace and likely shocking to attendees of the trial. One can easily imagine the fodder such a trial would provide for trash magazines and tabloids were it to happen today.
Though he was eventually acquitted, Kalloch eventually moved away from New England, and after a foray into the Plains states where he remained beset by further rumors of lechery and financial misdeed, he moved west to San Francisco in 1875.
I am obviously skipping over important bits here and there, and I should mention that what makes Kalloch so interesting is his willingness, for a time, to stand up for some progressive views of the time. An abolitionist since childhood and later a supporter of Asian and black rights, the reader's introduction to Kalloch (aside from the adultery) is largely favorable until the man once known as "the Golden Voice" becomes the helmsmen and mayoral candidate for the Workingmen's Party, an upstart movement responsible for rioting and violence as well as fervent opponents of immigrants, especially Asians, in California. In the end, Read paints Kalloch as an opportunist who, by the time he comes to San Francisco, becomes more enamored with the acquisition of power than with the sincerity of his beliefs and who abuses the charge of his status as preacher for the Baptist church to further his political ambitions.
The book comes to its boil when the de Young brothers and Kalloch butt heads, initially over perceived slights, and then Kalloch reading publicly an old smear article published by a rival of the Chronicle's depicting the founding editors' mother as a whore in crude, shocking language. The article itself had been a point of violence for the de Youngs upon its original publication, and the consequences proved similar the second time around eventually resulting in the gruesome assassination of Charles de Young.
War of Words is an interesting story, one of those historical anecdotes normally served to the public by little else than local historical societies and out-of-the-way websites. Read specializes in rustling up these old stories (SEE: On the House: The Bizarre Killing of Michael Malloy, The Killing Skies) and dusting them off, their prior neglect sometimes due to nothing more than a selective mainstream taste for history. In the case of the events surrounding the San Francisco Chronicle in the 1870s, the murder of Charles de Young was a well-publicized event not only in San Francisco but around the country. Sometimes we tend to lose even seemingly major events to the ravages of time.
Read has found a way to bridge the gap, though, and his excitement for his subject matter is apparent. War of Words reads much more like a novel than a historical account and its narrator possesses a notable lack of impartiality. That's not to say Read takes sides, but the book pitches and swells along with pointed, often bilious excerpts from the Chronicle and its contemporaries as well as accounts from witnesses and those involved with the various rifts presented throughout in such a way that the reader is swept up in the fray. The amount of research Read has invested in his tome is quite staggering. He has plumbed the depths of many newspapers and other publications of the time and has resurfaced with scores of fascinating excerpts for the history junkie. More importantly, he knows when to allow the historical literature to do his talking for him.
There are times when some of his descriptions such as those of a physical twitch or rolling of the eyes seem unverifiable, and it is the one potential downfall of novelizing, so to speak, the narrative, but the citation list ought to quell at least some of those fears. All in all, Read appears to bet the pot on immersion rather than didacticism while drawing from a sound base of material, which he describes richly and with great enthusiasm.