The Reporter Who Would Be King: A Biography of Richard Harding Davis

August 28, 1992 at 04:00 AM EDT

Can you think of a contemporary American man of whom it might be said that ”boys and young men dreamed of becoming him, girls and young women imagined marrying him”? I can’t either. Whoever he may be, it’s a safe bet that he isn’t a ”well-bred, handsome, clean-living” journalist, even if there still are any well-bred, clean-living journalists. But a hundred years ago Richard Harding Davis, the first celebrity journalist, fit the description.

Legendary war correspondent, Manhattan man about town, boon companion of British aristocracy, he was also a prolific author of stories, novels (Soldiers of Fortune, The Princess Aline), and plays featuring chivalric heroes based on himself and ending on a Victorian note of moral uplift. His meteoric career was eclipsed in mid-trajectory by younger, more realistic writers like Stephen Crane and Theodore Dreiser. He may have been the ”hero of our dreams” for the young H.L. Mencken, but as a writer he was, for an older Mencken, a ”cheese- monger” offering ”servant-girl romanticism” of ”almost inconceivable complacency and conformity.” Soon after Davis died of a heart attack at age 51 in 1916, his reputation and books disappeared beneath the dust of secondhand bookstores.

So what is the use of Arthur Lubow’s The Reporter Who Would Be King: A Biography of Richard Harding Davis (Scribner’s, $25), even if it is lucid, discerning, fair-minded, and Freud-free? Davis was a man of his time, and his time was a period of wrenching transition, and he eventually got wrenched. By giving us Davis, with one foot in the Victorian era and one foot in our own quagmire, Lubow gives us modern culture howling in its genteel cradle. Here, in infancy, are such full-grown and flourishing things as celebrity journalism; sensational journalism; journalism that manipulates or serves government policy; foreign policy with a penchant for starting small, winnable wars with small, defeatable countries; book publishers offering up incense and sacrifices for blockbusting best-sellers; tourist hordes; computers; the electric chair. In the midst of it is the daring, breezy, and ultimately baffled and futile figure of Davis.

Arriving in teeming New York from Philadelphia, he is quick-witted and self-dramatizing, making instant journalistic gold out of chance encounters with con men and crooks. He becomes the incarnation of youthful adventure and the model for the handsome young men accompanying the illustrator Charles Dana Gibson’s Gibson Girl. As a war correspondent taking in everything from a comic-opera Greco-Turkish skirmish to the trenches in 1914, he’s ostentatious but honorable, exposing stuffy and incompetent officers, chafing under censors, sympathizing with underdogs. He polished and delivered the story of Teddy Roosevelt at San Juan Hill, but he was largely free of the imperialistic cant of the time.

Davis’ weakness as a fiction writer seems to be that he really wrote it all to please his smothering mother, herself a writer caught between Victorian sentiment and modern realism. His devotion to her may have had something to do with the fact that he married a woman who kept the union sexless; after his mother’s death he got a divorce and wed a vaudeville star. By then his own star was fading and he was writing by the yard for money and ruining his health. A few chapters are clotted with excessive detail and repetition, but Lubow makes much of the book as compelling and alert as a novel-a novel half dashingly Victorian and half broodingly, bleakly modern. B+

Excerpt: The End of All That

In retrospect, we can see that at the same time that the nation was glorifying youth and energy, it was gripped with anxiety about depletion and loss. That is what is so poignant about the turn of the century. The national physiognomy resembled Davis’s own: an exuberantly self-confident grin, masking weary, troubled eyes. Between 1898 and 1900, in a burst of aggressive expansion that climaxed in the Spanish-American War, the United States would acquire nearly all of her territory outside the North American continent: the Philippines, Hawaii, eastern Samoa, Guam, and Puerto Rico. It was also in the 1890s, however, that Americans mourned the closing of the frontier and the death of the mythical West. (In his famous paper of 1893, the historian Frederick Jackson Turner crystallized the public perception, if not the geographical reality, by declaring that the West was full up.) The era of the Gibson Girl, the bicycle, and the American Beauty rose was also the time of economic depression that began in 1893 and set off a series of convulsions: Populist agitation in the farmlands, violent labor disputes like the Pullman and Homestead strikes in the cities. Everywhere that a student of turn-of-the- century America looks, he finds an obsession with degeneration, exhaustion, and depletion. Morals were falling down, nerves were wearing thin, natural resources were running out. Very sensitive to these concerns, Davis expressed them by negating and denying them. A grateful literary establishment saluted him for ”a certain unique vigor, healthy and hearty and masculine, in the work, rare in these days of sickly prurience and pessimism.”

The Reporter Who Would Be King: A Biography of Richard Harding Davis

Arthur Lubow
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The Reporter Who Would Be King: A Biography of Richard Harding Davis

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