From New International, Vol.3 No.3, June 1936, pp.94-95.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.
Hearst, Lord Of San Simeon
by Oliver Carlson and Ernest Sutherland Bates
xv+312 pp. The Viking Press. New York. $3.00.
Imperial Hearst, A Social Biography
by Ferdinand Lundberg
xvi+406 pp. Equinox Cooperative Press. New York. $2.75.
The story of Hearst is the story of money. Hearst’s liberal critics have been if anything overburdened with “cold, brute facts of record” all of which go to prove that Hearst was and is a hopeless mediocrity. In every sphere of his life’s endeavor, Hearst could only tag along at the tail-coats of others, imitating, cheating, lying, bungling, and making up for his frustrations with money. Even as an imitator he was never more than a second-rater. In journalism, his “least unsuccessful” field, he remained in the background so long as he only aped Pulitzer. He was able to establish himself as a force in American journalism, only after he had bought out Pulitzer’s staff, lock stock and Brisbane. But his millions could not function with the same efficacy in other spheres. Hearst remained a failure in terms of his own ambitions in all spheres except one, namely, that of money.
Carlson and Bates summarize his career as follows in their biography:
“A trickster in reform, a liar in journalism, a charlatan in politics, a hypocrite in morals – what was there left? The greatest of all ... This single claim could not be denied by his worst enemies; he was one of the mightiest of all American captains of industry.” (p.279)
In both of the above volumes, his liberal biographers attempt to strip Hearst of the covering of his millions, to strip him “of his stocks, bonds, and titles to castles, estates, and mines, his hirelings, servitors, beneficiaries, and banker-sponsors” – and then they hold up what remains to “scorn and ostracism”. Indeed, were the facts presented in both biographies (which on the whole are much the same) cut down one-half, or even one-tenth, a gruesomely revolting portrait would emerge.
But Hearst stripped of his millions is Hearst stripped of everything. What makes Hearst so significant a figure in contemporary America is precisely the fact that in his case no outstanding personal abilities, or qualities, either of art or nature, of vice or virtue, can intervene to becloud the essence of the tale. The story of his life is almost a chemically pure distillation of the history of American capitalism in its imperialist stage. In this respect the biographers of Hearst have failed to do him justice. They confine themselves to the routine pattern of “biographical writing”.
Let us consider for a moment the “personal” balance-sheet of Hearst drawn by Carlson and Bates; in reform – trickery; in journalism – lies; in politics – charlatanism; in morals – hypocrisy. What is this if not a very mild generic portrait of American capitalism as a whole? Indeed, what other country can match our galaxy of tricksters, frauds and quacks in the sphere of reform? Why, Hearst was not even a professional in this sphere! What other country can boast of more expert liars in journalism? Or such charlatans (not like Hearst, but successful ones like, say both our Roosevelts) in politics? As for hypocrisy in morals ... There is a piety and a philistine’s delight in “spice” that tinges even some of his “unofficial” biographers, in their references to Hearst’s drab “immoral” menage.
In short, Hearst is almost an ideal model for the purposes of “social biography”. But Carlson and Bates only string together a loose collection of “shockers” in the old Mercury tradition. Lundberg makes a much more serious attempt. Says Lundberg, “Hearst’s position in the American political life of the post-war period is meaningless unless he is evaluated as a cog interlocking with National City Bank, both internationally and nationally.” (p.310) These words are profoundly true. The best section of Lundberg’s book is the one devoted to the working out of the above thesis.
It is indeed a pity that Lundberg failed to draw to the full the conclusions of his own statement. For the essential point is: Hearst is in every way meaningless, socially, politically and economically, unless evaluated as a “cog” of American imperialism, both before and after the World War.
While his biographers both official and unofficial have been very painstaking in uncovering personal details, colorless and trite in the last analysis, they have egregiously blundered in respect to Hearst’s “single claim”. The real forces, the real roots that fed the trickster, the liar, the charlatan, and the hypocrite and turned him into an outstanding figure on the American scene – the real Hearst remains buried in a riot of meaningless details, which might be of service to a moralist but not to a biographer.
This absorption in “private” or “striking” details causes the biographers of Hearst to present him in far more important and powerful roles than he actually played. Conversely, they overlook some of the really important functions of this “cog” in the American imperialist machine.
We cite the instance of the Spanish-American War. In both of the above volumes Hearst is made out the chief-stockholder and director of the war.
While insisting (p.92) that “it would, of course, be absurd to assign the whole responsibility for the Spanish-American War to Hearst”, Bates and Carlson blithely add in the same breath (p.93) that “without Hearst there would have been no Spanish-American War”. And absurdly enough, in their chapter, Owner of Spanish-American War they turn it into William Randolph’s private venture, fomented by him to increase his circulation! Lundberg even imputes to Hearst the blowing up of the Maine.
To assign to Hearst this decisive role in the imperialist venture of American capital is to vilify Hearst’s real taskmasters. American liberals are generally inclined to underestimate their imperialist contemporaries and masters.  A little closer application to the study of modern American history is necessary for any would-be biographer of Hearst. Even from the standpoint of the role the newspapers played in fomenting the war, Hearst cannot be given precedence over Pulitzer. As a matter of fact, Hearst’s journalistic efforts were for a time an obstacle in the plans of the real engineers of the Spanish-American conflict. Hearst was far too clumsy. To compare Hearst’s role in this epoch of American imperialism with such figures as say, Whitelaw Reid, or to go higher up, Theodore Roosevelt, or Senator Lodge is to compare ... Marion Davies with Greta Garbo. The pother Hearst was able to raise with his millions during the Spanish-American War has somewhat mislead his biographers.
On the other hand, Hearst and his associates played a much more important role in the chapter that relates to the Panama Canal than they did in the Spanish-American War. Carlson and Bates are quite unaware of this chapter in Hearst’s career. Lundberg unfortunately devotes very few pages to this rather important link in the chain of American imperialism, but the little he does say is extremely illuminating.
Although it falls considerably short of its excellent title, Lundberg’s biography is the better book of the two. But the social biography of Imperial Hearst still remains to be written.
1. Here is a sample of smug and “superior” history, as it is written by liberals:
“William R. Hearst ... almost solely for the private profit of William R. Hearst, succeeded in prodding this country into a wholly unnecessary war which resulted in riveting upon the nation the imperialist policy that has been followed ever since ... As late as 1898 American capitalists, never very intelligent in world affairs, were still for the most part quite unaware of the destiny ... Big business as a whole ... was definitely opposed to it [i.e., the war]”. (Carlson and Bates, pp.92-99. My emphasis – K.)
Last updated on 3.8.2006