In 1905, Ralph Paine's editor asked him to "get out among the real Americans" and report back on what he found in the mysterious nation that was bursting into life beyond the Mississippi River. The veteran war correspondent covered 15,000 miles on his quest, and over the course of a year wrote twenty-three articles for Outing magazine, which published them as The Greater America.
"To read the book is to get a new appreciation of the greatness of America, the greatness of her present and the possibilities of her future" — That was the reaction in 1907 when Ralph Paine published his dispatches from his travels around and through a West that was fast losing its wildness.
Paine talked to homesteaders in sod huts, to the people building towns and laying railroads across the empty prairie, to cowboys making their last roundup on the once-open range, to lumberjacks who scorned any tree less than six feet through, to prospectors and sailors and confidence tricksters. He rode trains and horses, a pilot schooner, a stage coach, and a desert jalopy, taking copious notes wherever he found himself. The result, in the words of another admirer, was a book to make a man hold his head high, to step high, to throw out his chest."
That was important in 1907, when the United States was suffering growing pains, with a president who believed in American greatness while the "muckrakers" ranted about the evils of capitalism as seen from New York and Washington. All this will seem very familiar to Americans in 2017.
Paine's classic has now been edited and brought up to date by Daniel Ford, a prize-winning historian and author.
The print edition goes on sale about the same time. Or for $15 I'll send you a signed copy by Media Mail as soon as one is available. (US mail addresses only!) PayPal rolls your credit card; I put the book in the mail.
Ralph Paine was born in Illinois in 1871, but grew up in Jacksonville, Florida. He finished high school at fifteen and then decamped to New Haven, Connecticut, to get a "classical" diploma from what is now Hillhouse High School. Thus equipped, he entered Yale in the fall of 1889. Alas, he soon ran out of money and had to retreat to home, where he worked the year as a twelve-dollar-a-week reporter for the Florida Times-Union. The job gave him money enough to return to college and the means to support himself there.
Back in New Haven as a powerful nineteen-year-old, he played football and rowed for the Yale crew. After a game or a race, while his friends partied, he went to the telegraph office and dispatched "two or three thousand words" to his private syndicate of twenty newspapers, each paying a few dollars for an article exclusive in its circulation area. Thus he financed his college education, with enough left over to send money to his father and to pay his sister's expenses at boarding school.
Graduating in 1894, Paine went to work for the Philadelphia Press. Searching for adventure, he joined a gun-running expedition to Cuba, carrying a sword he was supposed to deliver to General Máximo Gómez of the rebel forces. He failed in that, but did succeed in being sought as a pirate for a battle in which his filibustering vessel shelled a Spanish gunboat.
Paine loved the excitement, and he returned to Cuba during the Spanish-American War, reporting for the Press and the New York World. Two years later, he rode with the China Relief Expedition to Beijing, as foreign troops went to the rescue of civilians and diplomats caught in the Boxer Rebellion.
Then, in 1903, he made two life-altering decisions: he married the love of his life, and he quit journalism to become a free-lance author of books, short stories, and magazine articles. The family lived in Forest Hill, New Jersey, convenient to New York publishers, though in time they moved to Massachusetts and finally to a salt-water farm in New Hampshire.
By my reckoning, Paine wrote forty-three books from 1904 to 1925, when he died of a heart attack while on jury duty in the state capital. His output included novels, an autobiography, maritime history, adventure stories for boys, and the occasional ghostwritten book. (The first of those was Working with the Hands, which he wrote in collaboration with Booker T. Washington.)
One of his principal outlets was Outing magazine. This was the heyday of the "muckrakers," as President Teddy Roosevelt styled writers who specialized in exposing real and fancied ills of American life. Outing was a countervailing force, a handsome monthly combining elements of National Geographic, Field & Stream, Popular Mechanics, and Boys' Life. Under the editorship of Casper Whitney, it preferred to celebrate the glories of an ever-expanding United States.
In September 1905, Mr. Whitney made Paine an offer he couldn't refuse, to go on the magazine's pay-roll at $100 a week, supplemented with sales to other magazine and royalties from his books. (His first novel and a collection of short stories were about to be published.) "Get among the real Americans," Whitney told him, an assignment that resulted in twenty-one articles and eventually this book, which the company published in May 1907, not long after his final dispatch appeared in the magazine. The company published two other books by Paine the same year.
His output was prodigious. At one point he was working on no fewer than eight books, which many authors would call the work of a lifetime. More than once he finished a novel in a single month. His monumental The Ships and Sailors of Old Salem, 240,000 words and 693 oversized pages, took him just three months. His income averaged $6,000 a year, or about $155,000 today.
A typical story, article, or chapter might run to 3,000 words. That was a convenient day's work for him, two-finger-typing on a massive Remington with seven rows of keys, on a table fashioned from two equally massive slabs of wood, spiked one to the other in the shape of a T. If he needed ten hours to write the story, that's what he devoted to the task, including most Sundays and at least one Christmas Day; if he missed a session, the event was so notable that he entered the reason in his journal. At a guess, he worked three hundred and fifty days every year.
In 1968, I married Ralph Paine's granddaughter, and as a fond husband I set out to read his books in chronological order. Of them all, The Greater America was my favorite. Sally and I tried to revive it, but we couldn't find a publisher willing to take a chance on it. But now, more than a century after his book was published, and with a president who promised to Make America Great Again, seems the ideal time for the book to make a fresh appearance. What, after all, does a Greater America look like?
Posted May 2017. Websites © 1997-2017 Daniel Ford; all rights reserved.