W. Joseph Campbell

Sketches published 115 years ago undercut a tenacious media myth

In 1897, Anniversaries, Debunking, Furnish the war, Media myths, Spanish-American War on January 24, 2012 at 5:25 am

On assignment for Hearst

The artist Frederic Remington was back from Havana just a few days when on January 24, 1897, William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal began publishing his sketches of the Cuban rebellion against Spanish colonial rule.

Remington later confided that he didn’t think much of the Journal’s reproduction techniques. But the newspaper played up Remington’s artwork, publishing them beneath an extravagant headline that read:

“Cuban War Sketches Gathered in the Field by Frederic Remington; The Gifted Artist, Visiting Cuba Especially for the Journal, Describes with Pen and Pencil Characters That Are Making the War Famous and Infamous.”

The prominent display given the sketches, and the Journal’s flattering references to the artist, serve to undercut a tenacious and prominent media-driven myth, an anecdote that ranks as one of the most popular in American journalism.

And that is the hoary tale that Hearst, in a telegraphic exchange with Remington, vowed to “furnish the war” with Spain.

As I discuss in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, the exchange, if it happened, would have occurred on or about January 17, 1897, when Remington was preparing to leave Cuba and return to New York.

Hearst had sent Remington and the correspondent Richard Harding Davis to Cuba to report on the rebellion against Spanish rule, a vicious conflict that gave rise in 1898 to the Spanish-American War.

Remington and Davis didn’t get along and parted ways after only a few days in Cuba. According to legend, Remington before leaving sent a cable to Hearst that said:

Everything is quiet. There is no trouble here. There will be no war. I wish to return.”

In reply, Hearst supposedly told Remington:

Please remain. You furnish the pictures, and I’ll furnish the war.”

Remington left anyway, taking the passenger steamer Seneca to New York, arriving January 21, 1897. His Cuba sketches began appearing in the Journal 115 years ago today.

So how do those sketches help debunk the tale about Hearst’s vow “furnish the war”?

As I discuss in Getting It Wrong, the sketches “depict unmistakable (if unremarkable) scenes of a rebellion — a scouting party of Spanish cavalry with rifles at the ready; a cluster of Cuban non-combatants trussed and bound and being herded into Spanish lines; a scruffy Cuban rebel kneeling to fire at a small Spanish fort; a knot of Spanish soldiers dressing a comrade’s leg wound.”

Their subject matter effectively disputes the notion that Remington had found “everything … quiet” in Cuba.

Remington, 'gifted artist'

That the sketches were accompanied by glowing references to Remington as a “gifted artist” indicates that Hearst was not angry with Remington as he surely would have been had the artist left Cuba after being told “please remain.”

Indeed, it is difficult to believe Hearst would have been so generous in his compliments and ordered such prominent display of Remington’s work had the artist in fact disregarded Hearst’s instructions to stay in Cuba.

“Far from being irritated and displeased with Remington,” I write in Getting It Wrong, “Hearst was delighted with his work. He recalled years later that Remington and Richard Harding Davis, the celebrated writer who traveled to Cuba with the artist, ‘did their work admirably and aroused much indignation among Americans’ about Spanish rule of the island.”

The sole source of the “furnish the war” anecdote was James Creelman, who in January 1897 was neither with Hearst in New York nor with Remington in Cuba. Creelman then was in Spain, as the Journal’s “special commissioner,” or correspondent, on the Continent.

Creelman incorporated the anecdote about the Remington-Hearst exchange in a book of reminiscences, On the Great Highway, which was published in 1901. Creelman, a blustery, cigar-chomping egotist, did not say how he learned about the purported Remington-Hearst exchange, which he presumes to quote verbatim.

Hearst denied ever having sent such a message. Remington apparently never spoke about the supposed exchange.

The display Remington’s sketches received in Hearst’s Journal, and the newspaper’s compliments about the artist, are two of several compelling reasons for doubting the anecdote and treating it as a media myth.

Another reason is that the telegrams Remington and Hearst supposedly sent have never turned up.

The anecdote, moreover, is illogical on its face: It would have made no sense for Hearst to have vowed to “furnish the war” because war — the rebellion against Spanish rule — was the reason he sent Remington to Cuba in the first place.

WJC

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