William Bolitho was born in 1890. After leaving university he became a journalist with the Manchester Guardian. On the outbreak of the First World War Bolitho moved to Paris. Where he joined up with other journalists such as Richard Harding Davis, Philip Gibbs, Percival Phillips, William Beach Thomas, Henry Perry Robinson, Herbert Russell, Frederick Palmer, Floyd Gibbons and Edwin L. James.
Another journalist based in France at that time was Walter Duranty of the New York Times. Duranty later argued that Bolitho taught him "nearly all about the newspaper business that is worth knowing." He added that Bolitho "possessed to a remarkable degree... the gift of making a quick and accurate summary of facts and drawing there from the right, logical and inevitable conclusions."
In March 1920 Bolitho went to report on the communist rebellion that was taking place in the Rhineland. This included covering a rebellion by coal miners in Alten Essen. Bolitho had spent time with the revolutionaries and was amazed by their attitude. According to Sally J. Taylor: "He told the leaders they had only one chance, and that was to threaten to blow up all the key mines and factories in the area, then go ahead and blow one up to show they meant to do what they threatened. Bolitho advised them that they could then bargain for certain political and economic concessions, as well as their own pardons... They had told Bolitho that if they blew up the mines, they would have nowhere to work afterwards. They preferred to throw themselves on the mercy of the authorities, who, Bolitho told Duranty, had already begun executing the men even before he could get out of town."
Bolitho was joined by Walter Duranty. In In his autobiography, I Write As I Please, Duranty recorded that Bolitho told him: "Don't forget ... that the majority of people and the majority of opinions are nearly always wrong about everything, not always, but nearly always, and if you ever are in doubt and can't make up your mind, and have to make it up, there are long odds in favor of your being right if you take the opposite view from the majority."
In the early 1920s Bolitho worked for the Manchester Guardian. Based in Paris he became friendly with other journalists living in the city. This included figures such as Lincoln Steffens, Ella Winter, William Christian Bullitt and Louise Bryant. He also became close to Ernest Hemingway who described him as "a strange-looking man with a white lantern-jawed face... that is supposed to haunt you if seen suddenly in a London fog". They met nearly every evening for dinner. It has been claimed that this "marked the beginning of Heminway's education in international politics."
Noël Coward considered Bolitho a great writer: "Bolitho had a mind that colours life with imagination based on necessarily bitter experience, a mind that has survived the squalor of small humiliations and the melancholy of great disillusions." Coward believed that Bolitho belonged to a tradition "of literature to which no short cuts are possible, but which must be, when attained, well worth all the agony and bloody sweat which went into its achievement."
Herbert Bayard Swope, the editor of New York World, appointed Bolitho as one of his columnists. Heywood Broun, who also wrote for the newspaper, later argued that he was the "most brilliant journalist of our time". Broun explained that "he was far more interested in the explanation than in the event. Many had better eyes to see and ears to hear but less of analytical power. Sometimes, like an overeager short-stop who throws before the ball is in his hands, Bolitho began to interpret episodes which were still in motion. It is hard for any interpreter to remain patient until the play has been completed. Yet news must be a deeper and a more significant thing than a mere recital of names, addresses and the doctor's diagnosis. Causes, however far beneath the surface they may lie, are distinctly within the province of journalism. That is, if journalism is to be a kingdom and not a little parish."
Bolitho had a great commercial success with his book, Twelve Against the Gods (1929). With the money he purchased a chateau near Avignon. His friend, Walter Duranty pointed out that "he was able to put a good deal of money into the garden, determined to make a place of wonder and beauty, no matter what it costs."
William Bolitho died of a burst appendix in Avignon on 2nd June, 1930.
Bolitho had just come from Alten Essen, where he had been with the Communists and watched their ultimate demise there. He was indignant because of what he called "the fatalism" of the revolutionaries, their acquiescence in their own defeat, and he and Duranty compared notes.
In the case of the Reds he had just been with, Bolitho figured out early on that they were sure to be annihilated by the superior forces that were closing in around them like a net. He told the leaders they had only one chance, and that was to threaten to blow up all the key mines and factories in the area, then go ahead and blow one up to show they meant to do what they threatened. Bolitho advised them that they could then bargain for certain political and economic concessions, as well as their own pardons.
"Do you think they'd do it?" Bolitho asked Duranty with disgust. They had told Bolitho that if they blew up the mines, they would have nowhere to work afterwards. They preferred to throw themselves on the mercy of the authorities, who, Bolitho told Duranty, had already begun executing the men even before he could get out of town. Bolitho was so impressed by the incident that he later wrote a play about it."'
By the same token, Duranty had watched some men die before the firing squad when there were enough of them to overpower their guard, if they had decided to make a run for it. Instead, they shared a cigarette before going meekly to their deaths, an event that fascinated Duranty. Neither he nor Bolitho could fathom the motivation of men who accepted their own deaths passively, when they could have given themselves a chance, however remote, at living.
Of all the people I have met in the last twenty years, and there have been some high-sounding names amongst them, I think Bolitho had the finest intellect. Under forty when he died, he had already made his name as a forceful and original writer, but his mental range went far beyond the limits of literature. He possessed to a remarkable degree the same quality which proved the key to Lenin's success, namely, the gift of making a quick and accurate summary of facts and drawing there from the right, logical and inevitable conclusions. The matter of dynamiting the Ruhr mines was only one of a score of incidents I have known of his brilliant political insight and flair for the underlying realities of any situation. Unlike most people, he never blindly accepted the opinion of others, but always thought things out for himself, and never ceased to impress on me the necessity of doing that at all times.
"Don't forget," he used to say, "that the majority of people and the majority of opinions are nearly always wrong about everything, not always, but nearly always, and if you ever are in doubt and can't make up your mind, and have to make it up, there are long odds in favour of your being right if you take the opposite view from the majority. All this talk of Democracy and the "Sovereign Peepul" and vox populi being vox Dei is just a trick by cunning demagogues to kid the masses. Read Gustave Le Bon on the psychology of crowds and you'll know the true value of so-called public opinion."
Bolitho and I worked together pretty consistently in 1918, 1920 and 1921, while he was Manchester Guardian correspondent in Paris, and he taught me nearly all about the newspaper business that is worth knowing. I have never met anyone who could see further through a brick wall than he could, or who was better, to use a newspaper phrase, at "doping out the inside facts" of any situation. I shall never cease to regret that death prevented him from keeping his promise to visit me in Moscow in the autumn of 1929. If the Bolsheviks sphinx has indeed a Riddle, which I am sometimes inclined to doubt, Bolitho was the man, perhaps the only man, who might have solved it. The trouble with most people is that they think with their hopes or fears or wishes rather than with their minds; or else they take a certain line, either of thought or conduct, and then see facts or twist facts in accordance with that line. Bolitho, however, like Lenin, thought objectively and dispassionately and judged things as they were, irrespective of his own personal line or interests. To me, of course, his death was a heavy personal blow, but I believe it was also a grievous loss to humanity.
Bolitho paid a flying visit from the little chateau which he had just bought near Avignon, where I had stayed with him for a couple of days on my way up from the South.... That whole section had formerly belonged to a great monastery, whose monks had constructed a marvellous system of irrigation and planted fences of towering cypress trees eighty or a hundred feet high for shelter against the mistral. Anything would grow there and Bolitho, who was born in South Africa, set eagerly about acclimatizing African fruits and plants. He planned to make a garden that would be the wonder of France, regardless of cost. A year or two later, after his book, Twelve Against the Gods, had made a hit in America, and he could look forward with certainty to an income of £4,000 a year, he said to me one day, "I'm determined not to spend more than £1,000 in any year away from La Prefete. I shall put the rest of the money into the ground here and make it a place of wonder and beauty, no matter what it costs. Poor Bolitho! He did not know that it would cost his life. An attack of acute appendicitis wrongly diagnosed by a local doctor, then a last-minute rush in a local ambulance to the operating-table in Avignon, where he arrived too late; and death from peritonitis after thirty-six hours of agony.
Bolitho's dead at Avignon. There has passed, I think, the most brilliant journalist of our time. This is not the overstatement of one who mourns a friend. While he flourished I expressed the opinion that Bolitho's best was far and away beyond the topmost reach of any newspaper competitor.
It was pleasant to praise him because he lent some of his glory and achievement to all the rest. I think that there is no reporter or critic or columnist who does not smart under the popular and snobbish assumption that anybody who sets his stuff down day by day is of necessity a hack. All men live under the hope that one day they may touch greatness, and it is essential for them to feel that when they drive home the thrust the medium in which they live and labor shall be sufficient for their purpose.
It is not inevitable that today's strip of newsprint should be no more than tattered scraps in tomorrow's dustbin. The man who writes well enough and thinks through the thing before him can win his immortality, even though his piece appears obscurely in a Wall Street edition. Most of us on papers, for all our swagger, are at least five and a half times too humble. We are apt to say, "Oh, I'm just a newspaperman." When called upon to justify ourselves we smirk and behave as if the thing we did were really of but small importance.
We know better than that. There is no reason why a first-rate man on any newspaper should yield precedence to every novelist and minor poet and little essayist. In city rooms I've known the whole crowd to gape at some member of the staff in considerable awe and whisper behind his back, "He's written a book."
There's no special magic in getting between boards. Last year's novel is just as dead as last year's paper. Indeed, I know few sights more horrible than second-hand book stalls on which dead volumes are exposed to wind and weather, completely dead and lacking only decent burial.
Bolitho, to be sure, had his fling in bound sheets, but much of his finest appeared in the New York World. And these essays will still remain, though he is dead at Avignon.
From the standpoint of the old-fashioned school Bolitho could hardly be called a newspaperman at all, let alone a leader in the first rank. There still endure graybeards who detest frills and shake their heads to say that news is all and that anything else which creeps into a paper is so much folly.
But these graybeards employ a tight and tenuous definition of news. They mean no more than the report of the thing which has happened. They feel that it is the part of newspapermen to behave like members of the Light Brigade and refuse to reason why.
Such a definition would have excluded William Bolitho almost completely. He was far more interested in the explanation than in the event. Many had better eyes to see and ears to hear but less of analytical power. Sometimes, like an overeager short-stop who throws before the ball is in his hands, Bolitho began to interpret episodes which were still in motion. It is hard for any interpreter to remain patient until the play has been completed.
Yet news must be a deeper and a more significant thing than a mere recital of names, addresses and the doctor's diagnosis. Causes, however far beneath the surface they may lie, are distinctly within the province of journalism. That is, if journalism is to be a kingdom and not a little parish.
For instance, I mean just this: Some little time ago a group of Jewish internees were cruelly hazed in a public hospital. Naturally, all the papers reported the facts of this incident. There they stopped, and I say they stopped because they did not have a sufficiently keen vision to see the whole way to the uttermost boundaries of journalistic territory. It is not enough to discuss the symptom. The disease itself must be investigated. It was the function of papers then, and it is the function of papers now, to get at the root of conditions which underlie strife and prejudice and turmoil. The story of Gastonia should not have ended just because the strike ceased.
It was as the leader of journalistic exploration, deep into the human heart and mind, that Bolitho made his mark. If the standard which he set can even be approximated it may well be that seekers after education will not turn to some five-foot shelf or scrapbook, but find their road to knowledge in the living, daily record of things which lie about them. Indeed, I would call a man well read if he could hold the dinner table spellbound with an accurate discussion of the dispatches from Russia. That would mean much more than if he lived up to the advertisements by giving the date of Walt Whitman's birth and a few lines from his best-known poems.
Indeed, for this opinion I can cite distinguished authority. Dr. Nicholas Murray Butler in his commencement address at Columbia talked on The Insulated Life and said, "A liberal education is not to be confused with mere attendance at school or college or with the possession of a certificate to that effect." And later he added, "A liberal education is that which is worthy of a free man and which fits a man for intellectual and spiritual freedom."
It seems to me that no man can know life sufficiently to understand freedom until he has gone down into it-until, like a dog on a spring day, he has actually nozzled his way beneath the surface. William Bolitho had been newsboy, day laborer, student, soldier, writer, before he died. The last time I saw him he told me of his days as a mason's helper on a construction job in Cape Town.
Naturally it has been said that this brilliant journalist of thirty-nine had much of his finest potentialities still ahead of him. That's true, but still he had been all the way around the track before he died at Avignon.
© John Simkin, March 2013