"A New National Trait"
October 31, 1889
The Independent

Dublin Core


"A New National Trait"
October 31, 1889
The Independent


”A New National Trait”

MAY I point my meaning by an anecdote?

Thirty years ago a young journalist who had been on the staff of a New York newspaper which had pushed itself into notice by its personalities, started a paper in a city in Virginia. A few weeks after his arrival a marriage took place in one of the prominent families of the town. The young editor was invited to it. The next morning a brief article headed Marriage in High Life, appeared in his columns in which the contracting parties at the wedding, the prominent guests and the entertainment were described. I remember well the shudder of disgust and contempt with which the article was received by the astonished community. The family whose private affairs were thus dragged before the public, were as much mortified and as much pitied as tho they had been turned out into the street at noonday in their night-gear. The unfortunate editor was at once cut by all decent people. His social career began and ended with that wedding.

Now, here is the point to which I wish to call attention.

The community which was outraged by this article was not an exceptionally intellectual or refined one. Its lines of thought were of necessity narrow and confined. Compare the plain people who composed it--professional men; planters and the good housekeepers, their wives, with the "best set" in any of our cities to-day, and how few and limited would their ideas appear! They had never even heard of the higher education; science and art were almost meaningless terms to them. Yet, contracted as were the bounds of their lives, and starved as their minds must often have been for new subjects of interest, there was not a man among them who would not have felt himself disgraced if he had peered into the private affairs of his neighbors in order that he might publish them abroad. In this they were but like other Americans of their class. What gentleman, thirty years ago, would have posted on the streets a handbill describing the domestic quarrels of a private citizen, the dishes on his dinner-table, or the stockings and petticoats which he bought for his daughter on her marriage?

But gentlemen publish such news now, and send it broadcast over the land. And, after all, are they to blame? Publishers, editors and reporters, like any other retail dealers, merely furnish the wares which the public most eagerly demand. We cannot lay the burden of this vulgarity wholly upon the newspapers. It is undeniable that a morbid curiosity concerning the personal affairs of individuals prevails and is openly acknowledged in all classes of American society. Every morning the best and the worst papers in the country serve carefully prepared food for this curiosity. No man can now curtain in his life. Does his wife ask her friends to drink tea, or his shy little daughter pledge her maiden troth to her lover, or his son, maddened by some secret grief commit suicide, every detail must be spread before the fierce, hungry eyes of the great public. We have grown so used to this thing, that we have actually forgotten that it is indecent and degrading.

Now is this morbid appetite confined to Americans. Miss Power Cobbe, in a recent article on "The Love of Notoriety,"[1] forgets her subject to berate us for this vice of curiosity, from which, she vehemently declares, her own countrymen are free. Like other angry people, however, she is apt to fall into mistakes. The Englishman betrays just as keen an interest in individuals as does the American, but lacking the tolerance and large good-humor of his cousin across the sea the individuals who interest him are fewer in number. They are, as a rule, limited to the men above him in rank and--to himself. John Bull[2] stands perpetually agape with curiosity to hear of the comings and goings of the royal family or of the doings, however trifling or vicious, of the titled class. His own little affairs, too, usually engross him so completely that it never occurs to him that they are not of supreme interest to everybody else. He will tell you with his characteristic brutal truthfulness the story of his sufferings from sea-sickness or of the victims to hereditary dipsomania[3] in his own family.

Even good Miss Cobbe offers an amusing example of this in her diatribe against personalities, when she unconsciously drops from the lofty philosophic consideration of the subject to tell us anecdotes of her own relations with publishers or to give malicious little stings to "Mr. Motley," "a gentleman in Boston," or "a chit of a girl from the States."

In short, the tendency is universal among English-speaking people in this age of scientific research, to dissect, not principles, nor ideas, but human beings; to approve, criticise or malign the individual who happens at the moment to occupy the focus of the eye.

How can we account for this sudden outbreak of vulgar personal gossip, at the very time when science and religion have lifted the horizon for men as wide as the universe and as high as God? What is the cause of it?

Asylums, hospitals, charities of every kind show that our brother man is closer and dearer to us than he was fifty years ago. Is our curiosity only an awkward expression of this newly recognized kinship?

If so, it is but a savage manifestation of kindness and equality. The Hottentot peers at his guest and paws him over to test the quality of his skin and clothes. But surely we have passed far enough beyond the Hottentot to know that our neighbor prefers to keep his clothes, his business and his relations to his wife and to his God apart from prying hands and eyes.

Or, horrible thought! Can it be that he does not prefer it? That, being a commonplace man, bewildered with the chances which our American life affords of rising in the world, he fancies that notoriety is elevation and an vulgar exposure of his affairs to the public is distinction?




1. Frances Power Cobbe (1822-1904), Irish writer, social reformer; "The Love of Notoriety," Forum 8 (1889).

2. A national personification of Great Britain in general and England in particular, most often in political cartoons.

3. Alcoholism.


Dan Graham
University of Connecticut



Dan Graham University of Connecticut, “"A New National Trait"October 31, 1889The Independent,” Rebecca Harding Davis: Complete Works, accessed February 20, 2019, http://rebeccahardingdaviscompleteworks.com/items/show/47.