Journalism in Tennessee: More truth than fiction
By Buzz Trexler | (email@example.com)
Around 1871, Mark Twain penned a short story entitled “Journalism in Tennessee,” which may have been inspired by his work in a Nashville print shop in the 1850s, although there appears to be some question as to the extent of his Tennessee travels beyond conception in Jamestown.
Still, when a copy of Twain’s humorous account of newspaper publishing was given to me during a Friends of the Blount County Library book sale more than a decade ago,
it became one of my favorites. The reason: While it bears little resemblance to the mostly bland, milquetoast affairs in today’s newsrooms, it does bring to mind the true “Spirit of the Tennessee Press” (apologies to the chief editor of the “Morning Glory and Johnson County War-Whoop” for misappropriating his headline).
Consider the associate editor’s account of the editing process, as relayed by Mr. Twain:
“I never saw a pen scrape and scratch its way so viciously, or plow through another man’s verbs and adjectives so relentlessly. While he was in the midst of his work, somebody shot at him through the open window, and marred the symmetry of my ear.
“‘Ah,’ said he, ‘that is that scoundrel Smith, of the Moral Volcano SEmD he was due yesterday.’ “And he snatched a navy revolver from his belt and fired SEmD Smith dropped, shot in the thigh. The shot spoiled Smith’s aim, who was just taking a second chance and he crippled a stranger. It was me. Merely a finger shot off.”
The tale goes on to tell of a hand grenade being thrown down a stovepipe, the trading of more gunfire, and instructions from the chief editor to his associate that included such assignments as, “Jones will be here at three — cowhide him. Gillespie will call earlier, perhaps — throw him out of the window. Ferguson will be along about four to kill him. That is all for today, I believe.”
It’s been said that what makes humor funny is that the subject carries a kernel of truth.
That’s true of journalism in Tennessee.
For instance, there’s William Gannaway Brownlow, who was more popularly — or unpopularly, depending upon your view — known as Parson Brownlow, described in Tennessee Press Association’s
“A History of Tennessee Newspapers” as a “hell-fire-and-damnation Methodist circuit riding preacher.” He was an advocate for temperance and during the Civil War took aim at the Confederacy.
With probably as many admirers as detractors, the controversial Brownlow first published The Tennessee Whig out of Elizabethton on May 16, 1839. He later moved his family and press to Jonesborough, eventually renaming it The Jonesborough Tennessee Whig, where he went head to head with Landon C. Haynes’ The Jonesborough Sentinel.
In 1840, Haynes raised some sort of question concerning the parson’s ancestry and things went south, so to speak, after they squared off on the street:
“Brownlow seized Haynes and began beating him with his cane, then grabbed him around the neck and started beating him with the butt of his own pistol. Haynes pulled out a concealed pistol and shot Brownlow in the thigh.”
The history book notes that this would not be the last such “physical assault in which Brownlow was engaged during his long fiery, career.”
Incidentally, the now-defunct daily Knoxville Journal traced it roots back to Parson Brownlow’s The Knoxville Whig and Independent Journal in 1849.
But the Brownlow-Haynes affair would not be the last such standoffs.
In 1907, Col. Luke Lea became publisher of the Tennessean in Nashville and was an ardent supporter of prohibition, hiring former U.S. Edward Ward Carmack as editor. Alas, Carmack was shot to death by Col. Dunc Cooper and his son, Robin. The reason cited: The Tennessean’s “offensive editorials.”
Journalism in Tennessee.
Twain wasn’t far off the mark.
Buzz Trexler is managing editor of The Daily Times. You can email him at (firstname.lastname@example.org) and follow him on Twitter @EditorBuzz.