The American Grub Street
JAMES H. COLLINS IN ATLANTIC MONTHLY
This is a condensation of a most readable article in the November Atlantic, describing the lives and work of the army of people, who keep the newspaper and magazine presses of New York supplied with reading matter, advrtising matter and illustrations. The Ameiican Grub Street has no parallel elsewhe-e in the world.
NEW YORK’S theatres, cafes and hotels, with many of her industries, are supported by a floating population. The provinces know this, and it pleases them mightily. But how many of the actual inhabitants of New York know of the large floating population that is associated with her magazines, newspapers, and publishing interests? —a floating population of the arts, mercenaries of pen and typewriter, brush and camera, living for the most part in the town and its suburbs, yet leading an unattached existence, that, to the provincial accustomed to dealing with life on a salary, seems not only curious but extremely precarious—as it often is.
The free-lance writer and artist abound in the metropolis, and with them is associated a motley freelance crew that has no counterpart
elsewhere on this continent. New York’s “Grub Street,” is one of the truest indications of her metropolitan character. In other American cities the newspaper is written, illustrated, and edited by men and women on salaries, as are the comparatively few magazines and the technical press covering our country’s material activities. But in New York, while hundreds of editors, writers and artists also rely upon a stated, definite stipend, several times as many more live without salaried connections, sometimes by necessity, but as often by choice. These are the dwellers in Grub Street.
This thoroughfare has no geographical definition. Many of the natives of Manhattan Island know as little of it as do the truck loads of visitors “seeing New York,” who cross and recross it unwittingly. Grub
Street begins nowhere; yet herween these vague terminals it runs to all points of the compass, turns sharp corners, penetrates narrow passageways, takes its pedestrians up dark old stairways one moment and through sumptuous halls of steel and marble the next, touching along the way more diverse interests than any of the actual streets of Manhattan, and embracing ideals, tendencies, influences and life currents that permeate the nation’s whole material and spiritual existence. Greater Grub Street is so unobtrusive that a person with no affair to transact therein might dwell a quarter-century in New York and never discover it; yet it is likewise so palpable and vast to its denizens that by no ordinary circumstances would any of them be likely to explore all its infinite arteries, veins and ganglia.
Who but a Balzac will take a census of Greater Grub Street, enumerating its aristocrats, its well-to-do obscure bourgeois, its Bohemians, its rakes and evil-doers, its artisans and struggling lower classes? Among its citizens are the materials of a newer Comedie Humaine. The two personalities outlined above merely set a vague intellectual boundary to this world. In its many kinds and stations of workers, Grub Street is as irreducible as nebulae. Its aristocracy is to be found any time in that “Peerage” of Grub Street, the contents pages of the better magazines where are arrayed the names of successful novelists, essayists and short story writers, of men and women who deal with specialties such as travel, historical studies, war correspondence, nature interpretation, sociology, politics, and every other side of life and thought; and here, too, are enlisted their morganatic relatives
the poets and versifiers, and their showy, prosperous kindred, the illustrators, wTho may be summoned from Grub Street to paint a portrait at Newport. This peerage is real, for no matter upon what stratum of Grub Street each newcomer may ultimately find his level of ability, this is the beginning. This is the dream.
Staid, careful burghers of the arts, producing their good, dull, staple necessities in screed and picture, live about the lesser magazines, the women’s periodicals, the trade and technical press, the syndicates’ that supply “Sunday stuff” to newspapers all over the land, the nameless, mediocre publications that are consumed by our rural population in million editions. The Bohemian element is found writing “on space” for newspapers this month, furnishing the press articles of a theatre or an actress the next, running the gamut of the lesser magazines feverishly, flitting hither and thither, exhausting its energies with wasteful rapidity, and never learning the business tact and regularity that keeps the burgher in comfort and gives his name a standing at the savings bank'. The criminal class of Grub Street includes the peddler of false news, the adapter of other men’s ideas, and the swindler who copies published articles and pictures outright, trusting to luck to eiude the editorial police. The individual in this stratum has a short career and not a merry one, but the class persists with the persistence of the parasite. Grub Street’s artisans are massed about the advertising agencies, producing the plausible arguments put forth for the world of merchandise, and the many varieties of illustration that go with them; while the nameless driftwood which floats about the whole
thoroughfare includes no one knows how many hundreds of aspirants whose talents do not suffice for any of these classes, together with the peddler of other men’s wares on commission, who perhaps ekes out a life by entering as a super at the theatres, the artists’ models, both men and women, who pose in summer and are away with a theatrical company in winter, the dullard, the drone, the ne’er-do-well, the palpable failure. At one end, art’s chosen sons and daughters; at the other, her content, misguided dupes.
The free-lance is bred naturally in New York, and thrives in its atmosphere, because the market for his wares is stable and infinitely varied. The demand he satisfies could be appeased by no other system. The very life of metropolitan publishing lies in the search for new men and variety. Publishers spend great sums upon the winnowing machinery that threshes over what comes to their editors’ desks, and no other editor in the metropolis grudges the time necessary to talk with those who call in person and have ideas good enough to carry them past his assistants. Publicly, the editorial tribe may lament the many hours spent yearly in this winnowing process. Yet every experienced editor in New York has his own story of the stranger, uncouth, unpromising, unready of speech, who stole in late. one afternoon and seemed to have almost nothing in him, yet who afterwards became the prolific Scribbler or the great D’Auber. Not an editor of consequence but who, if he knew that tomorrow this ceaseless throng of freelances, good, bad and impossible, had declared a Chinese boycott upon him and would visit his office no more,
would regard it as the gravest of crises.
New York provides a market so wide for the wares of the free-lance, that almost anything in the way of writing or picture can eventually be sold, if it is up to a certain standard of mediocrity. A trained salesman familiar, with, values in the World of merchandise would consider this market one of the least exacting, most constant, and remunerative. And it is a market to be regarded, on the whole, in terms of merchandise. Not genius or talent sets the standards, but ordinary good workmanship. Magazines are simply the apex of the demand—that corner of the mart where payment is perhaps highest and the by-product of reputation greatest. For each of the fortunate workers whose names figure in the magazine peerage, there are virtually hundreds who produce for purchasers and publications quite unknown to the general public, and often their incomes are egual to those of the established fiction writer or popular illustrator.
New Y'ork has eight Sunday newspapers that buy matter for their own editions and supply it in duplicate to other Sunday newspapers throughout the country under a syndicate arrangement. Perhaps an average of five hundred columns of articles, stories, interviews, children’s stuff, household and feminine gossip, humor, verse and miscellany, with illustrations, are produced every week for this demand alone; and at least fifty per cent of the yearly $150,000 that represents its lowest value to the producers is paid to free-lance workers. The rest goes to men on salary who write Sunday matter at space rates. This item is wholly distinct from the equally great mass of Sun-
day stuff written for the same papers by salaried men. Several independent syndicates also supply a similar class of matter to papers throughout the United States, both for Sunday and daily use. This syndicate practice has, within the past ten years, made New York a veritable journalistic provider for the rest of the nation. The metropolis supplies the Sunday reading of the American people, largely because it has the resources of Grub Street to draw upon. Syndicate matter is cheaper than the provincial product,, it is true; but not price alone is accountable for this supremacy of the syndicate. By the side of the workmanlike stories, articles, skits and pictures supplied by Greater Grubb Street, the productions of a provincial newspaper staff on salary grow monotonous in their sameness, and reveal themselves by their less skilful handling.
The Sunday-reading industry provides a market not only for writers and artists, but also for photographers, caricaturists, cartoonists, makers of squibs and jokes, experts in fashions, devisors of puzzles, men and women who sell ideas for novel Sunday supplements, such as those printed in sympathetic inks, and the like. It is a peculiarity of our country wTorth noting, that ail our published humor finds its outlet through the newspapers. Though England, Germany, France and other countries have a humorous press distinctly apart, the United States has only one humorous journal that may be called national in tone. An overwhelming tide of caricature and humor sweeps through our daily papers, but the larger proportion is found in the illustrated comic sheets of the leading New York dailies; and these are syndicated in a way that gives them
a tremendous national circulation. The Sunday comic sheet, whatever one wishes to say of its quality, was built in Greater Grub Street, and there, to-day, its foundations rest.
In Grub Street, too, dwells the army of workers who furnish what might be called the cellulose of our monthly and weekly publicationsinterviews, literary gossip, articles of current news interest, matter interesting to women, to children, to every class and occupation. As there are magazines for the servant girl and clerk, so there are magazines for the millionaire with a country estate, the business man studying system and methods, the woman with social or literary aspirations, the family planning travel or a vacation. To-day it is a sort of axiom in the publishing world that a new magazine, to succeed, must have a new specialty. Usually this will be a material one, for our current literature deals with things rather than thought; it is healthy but never topheavy. Each new magazine interest discovered is turned over to Greater Grub Street for development, and here it is furnished with matter to lit the new point of view, drawings and photographs to make it plain, editors to guide, and sometimes a publisher to send it to market.
Then come, rank on rank, the trade and technical periodicals, of which hundreds are issued weekly and monthly in New York. These touch the whole range of industry and commerce. They deal with banking, law, medicine, insurance, manufacturing, and the progress of merchandise of every kind through the wholesale, jobbing and retailing trades, with invention and mechanical science, with crude staples and finished commodities, with the great main channels of
production and distribution and the little by-corners of the mart. Some of them are valuable publishing properties, more are insignificant; yet each has to go to press regularly, ..and all must be filled with their own particular kinds of news, comment, technical articles and pictures. Theirs is a difficult point of view for the free-lance, and on thfs account much of their contents is written by salaried editors and assistants. Contributions come, too, from engineers, scientists, bankers, attorneys, physicians and specialists in every part of the country. Foremen and superintendents and mechanics in some trades send in roughly outlined diagrams and descriptions that enable the quick-witted editors to see “how the blamed thing works” and write the finished article. The American trade press is still in an early stage of development on its literary side. It has grown up largely within the past two decades, and still lacks literary workmanship. To hundreds of free-lance workers this field is now either unknown or underestimated. Yet year after year men disappear from Park Row and the round of magazinedom, to be found, if any one would take the trouble to look them up, among the trade journals. Some of the great properties in this class belong to journalists who saw an opportunity a decade ago, and grasped it.
The trade journals lead directly into the field of advertising, which has grown into a phenomenal outlet for the past ten years, and is still growing at a rate that promises to make it the dominant market of Grub Street. A glance through the advertising sections of the seventy-five/ or more monthly and weekly magazines published in New York reveals only
a fraction of this demand, for a mass of writing and illustration many limes greater is produced for catalogues, booklets, folders, circulars, advertising in the religious, agricultural and trade press, and other purposes. Much of it is the work of men on salary, yet advertising takes so many ingenious forms and is so constantly striving for the novel and excellent, that hardly any writer or illustrator of prominence but receives in the course of the year commissions for special advertising work, and fat commissions, too. Often the fine drawing one sees as the centre of attraction in a magazine advertisement is the work of a man or woman of reputation among the readers of magazines, delivered with the understanding that it is to be published unsigned
While its opportunities are without conceivable limitation, Grub Street is not a thoroughfare littered with currency, but paved with cobblestones as hard as any along the other main avenues of New York’s life and energy. The Great Man of the Provinces, landing at Cortlandt or Twentythird Street after an apprenticeship at newspaper work in a minor city, steps into a world strangely different from the one he has known. For, just to be a police reporter elsewhere is to be a journalist, and journalism is the same as literature, and literature is honorable, and a little mysterious, and altogether different from the management of a stove foundry, or the proprietorship of a grocery house, or any other of the overwhelming material things that make up American Ufe. Times have not greatly changed since Lucien de Rubempre was the lion of Madame de Bargeton’s salon at Angouleme, and this.' is a ntatter they seem to have
ordered no better in provincial France. To be a writer or artist of any calibre elsewhere breeds a form of homage and curiousity and a certain sure social standing. But New York strikes a chill over the Great Man of the Provinces, because it is nothing at all curious or extraordinary for one to write or draw in a community where thousands live by these pursuits. Thqy carry no homage or social standing on their face, and the editorial world is even studied in its uncongeniality toward the newcomer, because he is so fearfully likely to prove one of the ninety-nine in every hundred aspirants who cannot draw or write well enough. The ratio that holds in the mass of impossible manuscript and sketches that pours into every editorial office is also the ratio of the living denizens of Grub Street. The Great Man of the Provinces is received on the assumption that he is unavailable, with thanks, and the hope that he’will not consider this a reflection upon his literary or artistic merit.
So he finds himself altogether at sea for a while. No Latin Quarter welcomes him, for this community has no centre. His estimates of magazine values, formed at a distance, are quickly altered. Many lines of work he had never dreamed of, and channels for selling it, come to light day by day. To pass the building where even Munsey’s is published gives him a thrill the first time, yet after a few months in New York he finds that the great magazines, instead of being nearer, are really farther away than they were in the provinces. Of the other workers he meets, few aspire to them, while of this few only a fraction get into their pages. He calls on editors, perhaps, and finds them a
strange, non-committal caste, talking very much like their own rejection slips. No editor will definitely give him a commission, even if he submits an idea that seems good, but can at most be brought to admit under pressure that if the Great Man were to find himself in that neighborhood with the idea all worked up, the editor might be interested in seeing it, perhaps even reading it—yet he must not understand this as in any way binding . . . the magazine is very full just at present . . . hadn’t he better try the newspapers, now? For there are more blanks than prizes walking the Grub Street paving, and persons of unsound minds have been known to take to literature as a last resort, and the most dangerous person to the editor is not a rejected contributor at all, but one who has been accepted once and sees a gleam of a chance that he may be again.
If the Great Man really has “stuff” in him he stops calling on editors and submits his offerings by mail. Even if he attains print in a worthy magazine, he may work a year without seeing its notable contributors, or its minor ones, or its handmaidens, or even its office-boy. Two men jostled one another on Park Row one morning as they were about to enter the same newspaper building, apologized, and got into the eleçvator together. There a third introduced
them, when it turned out that one had been illustrating the work of the other for two years, and each had wished to know the other, but never got around to it. An individual circle of friends is easily formed in Grub Street, but the community as a whole lives far and wide and has no coherence.
Women make up a large proportion of the dwellers in Grub Street, and its open market, holding to no distinctions of sex in payment for acceptable work, is in their favor. Any of the individual markets offers a fair held for their work, and in most of them the feminine product is sought as a foil to the staple masculine.
What is the average Grub Street income? That would be difficult to know, for the free-lance, as a rule, keeps no cash book. Many workers exist on earnings no larger than those of a country clergyman, viewed comparatively from the standpoint of expenses, and among them are men and women of real ability. Given the magic of business tact, they might soon double their earnings. Business ability is the secret of monetary success in Greater Grub Street. One must know where to sell, and also what to produce. It pays to aim high and get into the currents of the best demand, where prices are better, terms fairer, and competition an absolute nullity. Even the cheapest magazines and newspapers pay well when the free-lance knows how to produce for them. Hundreds of work-
ers are ill paid because they have not the instinct of the compiler. Scissors are mightier than the pen in this material market; with them the skillful ones write original articles and books — various information brought together in a new focus. While untold thousands of impossible articles drift about the editorial offices, these same editors are looking for what they cannot often describe. A successful worker in Grub Street divines this need and submits the thing itself. Often the need is most tangible. For two weeks after the Martinque disaster the newspapers and syndicates were hunting articles about volcanoes—not profound treatises, but ordinary workmanlike accounts such as could be tried out of any encyclopedia. Yet hundreds of workers, any of whom might have compiled the needed articles, continued to send in compositions dealing with abstract subjects, things far from life and events, and were turned down in the regular routine. Only a small proportion of free-lances ever become successful, but those who do, achieve success by attention to demand, with the consequence that most of their work is sold before it is written.
The sun, through the hothouse glass, calls upon the plant to give out its glory, to unfold its beauty, to yield up its potencies which have been locked up within it, jujst as the sun of encouragement and opportunity awakens us to the possibilities lying dormant within us