Wednesday, December 16, 2009

“You might as well not believe in fairies!”

One of my favorite pieces of writing related to the Christmas season is the 1897 editorial from the New York Sun penned by Francis Pharcellus Church. The editor wrote in response to a letter from a reader:

“Dear Editor: I am 8 years old.
“Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus.
“Papa says ‘If you see it in The Sun it’s so.’
“Please tell me the truth; is there a Santa Claus?
            “Virginia O’Hanlon.”

I admire Church from the outset because he doesn’t hedge. He goes right for it with his opening sentences: “Virginia, your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except they see.”

Church’s response celebrates the season and the power of a sense of wonder. But it also illustrates the strength and certainty that once upon a time rolled off printing presses all over the country. “If you see it in The Sun it’s so.” Readers believed in newspapers. That belief has slipped away over the past century as surely as a faith in the existence of Santa.

I’m not saying that newspapers then—and in times since—didn’t grind axes and rake muck and go all yellow, but people counted on them, and the journalists knew it. Now, in the age of twenty-four-hour-a-day news access via television and the Internet, news in print is like the turtle to the hare (with the outcome of the race still to be determined). With so many outlets for news none of them appear to feel that same sense that people count on them.

Getting the story first matters more than getting it right, because there’s always a chance for a follow-up, and a follow-up just means more news to deliver. Streaming news comes at us like flowing water—first impressions, unconfirmed items, corrections, additions, commentary, confirmations, additional unconfirmed facts uncovered, bystander accounts, exclusive interviews, semi-related juicy gossip…

Once upon a time a newspaper reporter dug up all those bits and pieces, chewed them over, and then gathered them into a story. Or a series of stories. All those elements, rather than streaming over us, gathered into a pool that we could dip into. And the deeper the reporter dug, the deeper the pool for us to savor.

I’m afraid those days of diving into the news may be gone, but perhaps, as F. P. Church wrote, I “have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age.”

In this season of wonder I will try to resuscitate my belief.

Church’s editorial makes me want to believe in journalism as much as in Santa Claus. And the belief he writes of, a belief in “all the wonders there are unseen and unseeable in the world” makes me think he may have been a fiction writer too. Or at least he understood fiction writers, the creative process and the magic involved in it.

“[T]here is a veil covering the unseen world which not the strongest man, nor even the united strength of all the strongest men that ever lived could tear apart. Only faith, fancy, poetry, love, romance, can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernal beauty and glory beyond. Is it all real? Ah, Virginia, in all this world there is nothing else real and abiding.”

I wonder if he knew, after he’d finished writing the column and was reading it over, that he’d written something that would be so long enduring—so “real and abiding.”

(In case you’re interested, you can read the whole column for yourself.)


Note: I’m giving myself a Christmas present and taking a couple of weeks off from blogging. Look for me again in 2010.

1 comment:

  1. What a wonderful way to end the year of this blog! I make it a habit to check this account every week and am never disappointed by what I find. Merry christmas and a Happy New Year!