William T. Stead: Cosmopolitan Journalist
B. O. Flower, Progressive Men, Women, and Movements of the Past Twenty-Five Years (Boston: The New Arena, 1914)
William T. Stead occupied a unique and commanding place among the great Anglo-Saxon journalists of the past fifty years. In him there was a rare blending of intellectual force with moral conviction, idealism with utilitarianism, a virile imagination and a common-sense practicality that strove to make the vision a useful reality. Dauntless determination, superb moral courage, and untiring energy marked his whole journalistic career.
He was cosmopolitan. His influence was international. All world problems fascinated him. The superficial observer might have imagined that he was constantly under the spell of the wanderlust. We find him in Russia interviewing the Czar, and later persuading the young sovereign to call an international peace conference. The Pope of Rome grants him an audience. From the Sultan of Turkey he obtains a long and illuminating interview. The President of the French Republic, and leading rulers and statesmen of other nations, empire builders, publicists, scientists, and thinkers were all found “good copy.” From Olive Schreiner, the idealistic author and humanitarian, to Richard Croker, the one-time Tammany boss, men and women in the public eye were interviewed and described with rare penetration.
A broad catholicity of spirit, rare even in a cosmopolitan journalist, was a distinguishing characteristic. All vital political, scientific, economic, social, ethical, and spiritual problems were alike interesting to him.
At times he reminded one of the old prophets of Israel, laying bare iniquity in high places. London was the modern Babylon; Chicago the throne-room of Mammon-worship and civic corruption. In New York he found “Satan’s Invisible Empire Revealed.”
But it must not be supposed that he was a pessimist. I have never known a publicist more optimistic; but he believed that only by courageous and unflinching unmasking of iniquity, and forcing the people to face the conditions that were conveniently ignored, could real progress be made.
With Gladstone, he appealed to the conscience of Europe in behalf of the victims of Turkish atrocity. Later he became very unpopular with the jingo element of England by his stern denunciation of the Boer War as unjust and unjustifiable.
Great reform movements and organized movements for helping the helpless and ennobling humanity found in him a militant advocate. One New Year he sent me an autographed photograph on which he inscribed: “For the union of all who love in the service of all who suffer”; and this was his living creed.
In later years he, more than any other individual, aroused the sleeping conscience of the English-speaking world to a sensible realization of the evils of militarism by his unique crusade in which he waged “war against war.”
Such was the tireless, Argus-eyed modern journalist, whose methods were those of the New World rather than the Old, and in whom there was a mixture of idealism and opportunism, of practical utilitarianism and rugged, militant non-conformity.
Of many pleasant hours spent in the society of Mr. Stead, one evening stands out in bold relief, for during that time he gave me in graphic outline the story of his early life, where on the one hand were poverty, hardships, illness, and great fear, and on the other the powerful inspiration of a vision or dream that became the pillar of cloud and fire which led him onward through all the stress and strain of after life.
He was the son of an Independent minister. The Nonconformist conscience, stern regard for duty, and a keen recognition that life carried with it solemn and inescapable obligations were a part of his early heritage that remained with him throughout the mighty rush of world events in which he played so important a part.
With Mazzini, he felt that “Life is a mission.” From his earliest years he learned to love and revere the Bible. Like John Bright, whose eloquent addresses were always marked by Biblical illustrations, Mr. Stead was continually comparing men, events, and conditions with those of Israel’s important history.
“I was one of a large family,” he said. “We were very poor, and when fourteen years old I had to take the position of errand boy in a merchant’s store, for which I received four shillings a week. Of this I had an allowance of three pence, or six cents of your money, for myself. My nights were my own, and they were given to reading and studying. The few books that appealed to me were almost learned by heart. I determined to fit myself for a literary career and secretly cherished the hope of becoming an historian, and every spare moment I could call my own was given to improving my mind. Long hours spent at night reading by very poor light, and over-study, resulted when I was fifteen years old in a bad nervous break-down and the failure of my eye-sight.
“I was literally saturated with the memory of the Puritans and oppressed with a sense of my unworthiness. A Nonconformist conscience is very valuable, sometimes. It was the salvation of England and had far more to do with your greatness and moral stamina than your people appreciate; but there are occasions when it is not only inconvenient, but dangerous, and now I was thrown into the lowest depths by the conviction that my literary ambitions were prompted by the devil, who was bent on getting my soul. The gloomy theology in which I had been brought up almost proved my ruin; but in the darkest hour there came into my life the message of your own poet, Lowell, which lifted me from the pit and changed despair to buoyant hope.
“How did I happen to get Lowell’s poems?” he continued, in reply to a question. “Well, that is one of the most curious and interesting events of my early life. It was in this way. The publisher of ‘The Boys’ Own Magazine’ offered a prize of a guinea’s worth of books for the best life of Oliver Cromwell written by a boy. I won the prize, and among the books I received was a paper-covered copy of the poetical works of James Russell Lowell. This book, coming at a crisis in my life, was my redemption. I still have it, and it has been my companion wherever I have been. It is worn and thumbed almost to pieces, but no money could buy it. I can truthfully say that Lowell’s ‘Extreme Unction’ changed my life. I here learned that a call, a divine call, was sounding for everyone to devote life in helping right the great wrongs of the world.
“I determined that henceforth I would try to brighten the lives and lot of others with practical service, and though I did not decide on journalism as a life-work until some years later, in looking back I am convinced that it was Lowell’s preface to ‘The Pious Editor’s Creed’ that set my mind in the direction of journalism. To me Lowell’s declaration that the high mission of the true editor was to find tables of the new law among our factories and cities, in the wilderness of sin called civilization, and become the captain of our exodus into the Canaan of a truer social order, was a revelation, and it has remained a constant guide and inspiration through all the years of my journalistic career.”
Mr. Stead early began to write for the newspapers, and his ability finally won him the editorship of “The Northern Echo,” a position which he filled until invited by John Morley to come to London as an associate editor of “The Pall Mall Gazette.” On this important metropolitan paper he was able to carry out his wishes along various lines. Mr. Morley had many important demands upon his time, apart from the paper, and before long Mr. Stead became its virtual editor. In those memorable years “The Gazette” was a commanding power in the social, political, and economic life of England. Its sympathy with the artizan class, its efforts in behalf of social betterment, and the high and aggressive stand it took for civic and personal morality, contrasted boldly with the cowardly opportunism of most of the great newspapers of the day.
Then came the titanic battle for social purity. The attempt to raise the age of consent was blocked at every turn through the influence of men in high places, in and out of Government. Stead led the battle for the bill, and when no other way seemed open to obtain evidence of appalling conditions that investigations had clearly shown to exist, Mr. Stead, thoroughly understanding the danger he ran, determined to obtain the evidence to force the bill through, even though he personally suffered. This he did. The revelations of "The Pall Mall Gazette" appalled the world and forced through Parliament the important legislation, but the editor was made to pay the penalty of his daring act by two years’ imprisonment.
In 1890 Mr. Stead founded the English "Review of Reviews" and later was instrumental in having the American and Australian "Review of Reviews" established.
Social and economic problems, practical Christianity, and temperance work found in him a tireless advocate. His interest, however, was not confined to the kaleidoscopic events of the passing years and the problems that intimately affect man now and here. The tomorrow of life, the age-long question of the Arabian seer, “If a man die, shall he live again?” threw its spell upon him. He essayed to penetrate the dark continent of psychology. After he commenced his investigations, his own hand was seized and began to write automatically. From that time forth his interest became personal and intimate. It is doubtful whether any one having his experience would have failed to believe as he did, and yet one can readily see how those not so favored found it impossible to accept his conclusions.
During his later years perhaps his most immediately important work was his tireless peace campaign. In England and America he did much to crystallize the growing sentiment into definite opposition to the murder game of nations.
Mr. Stead was on the ill-fated “Titanic” when she went down, and in his death the Anglo-Saxon world lost one of her greatest and noblest journalists, a man who combined at once moral rectitude, intellectual brilliancy, tireless industry, and rich imagination.