The Sun was founded in 1833 by Benjamin Day, a 23-year-old printer. He produced a racy, sensational paper, focusing on "fires, theatrical performances, elephants escaping from the circus, women trampled by hogs." In August 1835 (as recounted in a recent issue of McSweeney's), Day began a series of bogus articles recounting life on the moon as supposedly revealed by a powerful new telescope. Circulation exploded. At the height of the moon hoax, The Sun's circulation was 20,000 a day?larger than any other newspaper in the world.
By the late 1860s, The Sun had become stodgy. Then in January 1868, Charles Anderson Dana, 49, slender, balding and heavily whiskered, took over. Staunchly conservative, he championed the working poor (The Sun's press room was a union shop) and African-Americans (while in South Carolina during Reconstruction, he was invited to a black regiment's military ball, which had been snubbed by the state's corrupt carpetbagger governor; Dana accepted and later wrote of those present, "There was also a fair sprinkling of whites, but not enough to mar the pleasure of the company").
Though an innovator whose paper freshly defined the news and its presentation, Dana refused to install modern typesetting machines. He loathed illustrations: newspapers were for reading. But The Sun first published Jacob A. Riis' photographs, probably because despite his prejudices Dana knew good stuff on sight. He disdained advertising, supplementing The Sun's financing with circulation receipts to preserve its independence of businessmen and politicians. If a good story came in late, he might even rip out advertising to insert it.
Nearly all who worked for him found him warm, generous and good-natured, as The Sun and its people were family to him; but his opponents and competitors found him spiteful and petty.
Dana was born Aug. 8, 1819, in Hinsdale, NH. He clerked in an uncle's store until he had saved enough to matriculate at Harvard in 1839, where he spent two years before his money ran out. He then lived five years among the transcendentalists at Brook Farm. In 1847, he joined Horace Greeley's Tribune, which assigned him to France and Germany for the revolutions of 1848-'49. He became the Tribune's managing editor (arguably the first journalist to hold the title), where he met most of the American intelligentsia and hired Karl Marx as a European correspondent (Marx contributed on and off to the Tribune for decades). But Greeley sacked Dana in March 1862. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton then hired him as the government's military observer to investigate the conduct of the Civil War in the field, and he became one of Stanton's most trusted and influential agents.
Now he had a newspaper. Within a few years, he transformed The Sun into what Joseph Pulitzer called "the most piquant, entertaining, and without exception, the best newspaper in the world," while tripling its readership to 120,000. For Dana, as Allen Churchill writes in Park Row, "Life was not a mere procession of elections, legislatures, theatrical performances, murders, and lectures. Life was everything: a new kind of apple, a crying child on the curb, a policeman's epigram, the exact weight of a candidate for President, the latest style in whiskers, the origin of a new slang expression, the idiosyncrasies of the City Hall clock, a strange four-master in the harbor, a vendetta in Mulberry Bend: everything was fish to the great net of Dana's mind."
The Sun's editorial standards became so high that it could neither be criticized nor disregarded. First, printing a four-page paper with all the news of both hemispheres required condensation, which required superior writers. He emphasized developing style, for he was obsessed by grammar and usage. A literary critic once sent Dana samples of his better columns. They were returned. The writer searched for some indication to Dana's reaction. "Finally," Churchill writes, "he found a black line of exclamatory outrage under two words in one column. The offending words were 'none are.'"
Every edition of The Sun had to be perfect. A reporter sent out on a story had to return to the office to write it in longhand from his handwritten notes. Then Dana studied and analyzed the story. He cross-examined the reporter to explore its shadings and nuances. Then, Dana might fire him for using "balance" in the sense of "remainder," the kind of subtle misuse Dana specialized in finding. Finally, he was unconcerned with respectability. Under Dana, The Sun felt free to keep no opinion to itself.
The Sun was published on Park Row, then the city's media center. Its offices were at Printing House Square, a tiny triangle formed by Park Row, Frankfort St. and Nassau St. featuring a statue of Benjamin Franklin, in a shabby six-story building that had once been Tammany Hall. Visitors climbed a spiral iron staircase to the city room, emerging to find Dana's office and beyond it a huge loft containing the paper's departments. As Churchill observed, "...it perpetually resembled a madhouse...[filled with] shouted conversation, loud profanity...angry pressmen demanding copy...copy boys [scampering] about in answer to furious shouts from editors and reporters."
The room was filled with cigar and pipe smoke; older reporters made expert use of the large brass spittoons "strategically placed about the wooden floor" from amazing distances. Out of this chaos came the newspaperman's newspaper, "The Sun, [sparkling] like its name, with humorous stories, pathetic stories, bits of vivid description." Though the writing is lean and concise, most Sun stories read like essays. As one contemporary wrote, "The Sun could evolve a classic out of a dogfight, an epic out of a football game, invest a tenement house eviction with pregnant pathos, or make an account of a fire vibrant with drama."
One did not publish such a paper without interesting personalities. The staff included multimillionaires, Communists, lawyers, fishermen, poets, society men, former diplomats and future congressmen. Dana's first managing editor, Amos Cummings, had a predilection for profanity. The Tribune had fired him as political reporter for his written response to two orders written by one of its subeditors and apparently posted on the paper's bulletin board: Order 756: "There is too much profanity in this office." Order 757: "The political reporter must have his copy in at 10:30 PM."
There are several versions of Cummings' response, all censored. He probably wrote something like this: "Order 1234567: Everybody knows ?- ?? well that I get most of the political news out of the Albany Journal, and everybody knows ?- ?? well that the ???- Journal doesn't get here until 11 o'clock at night, ?- ?? it, and anybody who knows ?? ?? about anything knows ?- ?? well that asking me to get this ?? ?? out at half past 10 is like ???- asking a man to sit on a ?- ?? window sill and dance on the roof at the same time."
In 1882, a cub reporter asked city editor John Bogart to define news. It is said that Bogart pulled on his pipe for a moment, or, more likely, paused to swig from a bottle of whiskey (when asked about drinking habits in the city room, one editor quipped, "We were not milk addicts"). Then he said, "When a dog bites a man, that's not news; when a man bites a dog, that's news."
John B. Wood, Dana's night editor, omitted needless words. Candace Stone wrote in Dana and The Sun, "Every few minutes boys came up to him on the run, bringing sheaves of yellow paper? To one batch he would scarcely give a glance before tossing it contemptuously into the basket at his feet. Another batch he would subject to merciless mutilation, seemingly sparing neither the dignity of the stateliest paragraph nor the innocence of the most modest part of speech as his terrible blue pencil tore through the pages leaving havoc in his wake. His only pause was to project a violent stream of tobacco juice in the direction of a distant cuspidor."
As for Dana's editorial page, as Dr. Stone wrote, "There was much in that page which ought to please everyone; there was much in it which cannot but grieve judicious readers. But whether it was right or wrong, and it could sometimes be both on the same question within 48 hours, it was almost invariably amusing. It is difficult not to believe that Dana's main purpose was not to make it just this?always incalculable, always individual, frequently a little shocking, but always interesting."
As Stone wrote, "Sometimes he used Titania's wand; sometimes he used a red-hot poker." Sometimes people responded. His paper did not appear in the libraries of the fashionable clubs, including the Century, the home of literary preeminentos, where, if a copy was found, some members were known to pick it up with fire tongs and drop it in the fireplace.
Dana wrote most potently during the Gilded Age, the administration of President Ulysses S. Grant. Dana, who knew Grant, entitled one editorial: "The Presidency Office Holders' Candidate For President: USELESS S. GRANT." Dana then listed 34 relatives of the President who were in, or aspiring to, places on the federal payroll, ranging from the President's father (U.S. Postmaster at Covington, KY) to James S. Wadsworth, "son of the sister of the mother of the President's wife," who had been nominated for U.S. marshal at New York, "but rejected by the Senate on account of his bad character."
Dana's reporters also exposed the Washington Safe Burglary Case, a scandal with a contemporary tone. The private secretary to the President, the solicitor to the U.S. Treasury, the chief of the U.S. Secret Service, the heads of the DC police and a number of congressmen and contractors conspired to burglarize the office of the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, seize books of accounts belonging to an accused corrupt contractor, plant them in the home of his accuser and arrest the accuser as responsible for the burglary. The U.S. attorney arranged the employment of professional burglars to dynamite his own safe while the police stood outside to prevent possible interference. When the second break-in, to plant the books, failed, one of the burglars was arrested and signed a confession charging the accuser with hiring him to commit the crime.
Dana grew more acerbic with age. He thought nothing of calling the New York Journal, a third-rate paper known as "the chambermaid's delight" and edited by Joseph Pulitzer's forgotten older brother Albert, "a newspaper edited for fools by fools." Of course, journalism was rougher then. Both James Gordon Bennetts of the Herald, the Elder and the Younger, were horsewhipped in the street. William Cullen Bryant, the poet of "Thanatopsis" and "To a Water Fowl" and editor of the Evening Post, waylaid a rival, whip in hand, after the fellow printed an editorial addressed to Bryant: "You lie, you villain, you sinfully, wickedly, basely lie."
Dana's editorials attacking Joseph Pulitzer and his World were cruelly personal. Yet Pulitzer was now the innovator. The Sun began slipping. By 1886, circulation had fallen from 137,000 to 85,000. But the paper continued, becoming ever more polished. Dana's associate Francis P. Church wrote its most famous editorial in December 1897. At an editorial conference, "they" told Church to write a reply to a letter of inquiry from an eight-year-old girl. Church was unenthusiastic. "They" insisted. He shrugged and, probably after a good slug from the bottle in the lower right-hand drawer, took up his pencil:
Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to our life its highest beauty and joy. Alas how dreary would the world be if there were no Santa Claus... There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance, to make tolerable this existence... The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see.
But Dana would never read it, having died some two months before. His death was front-page news in every paper across the country save one. The Sun published its announcement of his death as he had directed in ordinary body type at the top of the editorial column on page two:
CHARLES ANDERSON DANA, Editor of THE SUN, died yesterday afternoon.