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Sam Johnson, regarded as the most powerful intellect of the 1700’s, was a keen observer of London politics. He saw and articulated aspects of human nature in relation to politics that seem to still ring true.

Regarding politicians who follow the party line, he observed: “men, being numbered, they know not how nor why, in any of the parties that divide a state, resign the use of their eyes and ears, and resolve to believe nothing that does not favour those whom they profess to follow…They deny the most notorious facts, contradict the most urgent truths, and persist in asserting today what they asserted yesterday, in defiance of evidence, and contempt of confutation.”

But, as for the electorate, he felt that most people are far more concerned with personal matters than with the affairs of government:

“How small, of all that human hearts endure,
That part which laws or kings can cause or cure.”

As a high school civics student, I subscribed to Newsweek, and checked off every story, every week, as I read them all, from my most to least favorites. Maybe that had something to do with my getting interested in journalism; that, and liking to write and being a reporter for the school paper. But that, my friend, was 50 years ago this past spring.

I’ve subscribed to Newsweek ( of the time since, except during a short stint in Vietnam as an Army press officer (no magazines received there). I was just reading it over lunch today, and enjoying the good and relevant stories as much as ever. Now, the Washington Post has Newsweek for sale, and they say there have been some 70 bidders, including a Chinese news agency rumored to be associated with the Chinese government. Newsweek is losing editors and writers, and losing money more than anything. If the magazine itself were any thinner, it could be used for stuffing shoes.

But I think it’s still terrific, and a must-read up there for me with The Economist, Fortune, Wired and Popular Science. Editor John Meacham, a frequent guest on Morning Joe and other topical political shows, is one bright, articulate guy, even if he seems a little sad lately. I may be a loyal old softy, but in my book, Newsweek deserves to continue, in print, digitally or otherwise, but continue it should. It still informs, enlightens and stimulates, and that’s more than you can say for a lot of so-called news media.

Mark Twain’s 1869 book about the first pleasure cruise from America to Europe is a “trip” indeed, and gave modern definition to the genre of the American tourist abroad, as in this passage: “We examined modern and ancient statuary with a critical eye in Florence, Rome, or anywhere we found it, and praised it if we saw fit, and if we didn’t we said we preferred the wooden Indians in front of the cigar stores of America.” I enjoyed running across the following in the Writer’s Almanac today, reminding me of one of my favorite reads.

“It was on this day in 1867 that Mark Twain set off on a tour of Europe and the Middle East, a trip that gave him the material for his first major book, The Innocents Abroad. He traveled with a large group of American tourists, on a steam-driven side-wheeler called the Quaker City. It was the first transatlantic cruise on a steamship.

“Twain was just starting out as a writer at the time. He was living in New York, working as the travel correspondent for the San Francisco newspaper the Alta California. He convinced the editors to pay for his cruise, and in exchange he would write 50 letters from the cruise ship to be published in the paper. He had just started using the name Mark Twain a few years before, and he was still trying to build his reputation. His first book, The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County and Other Sketches (1867), hadn’t sold very well, and he thought a travel book would be a good way to make a name for himself.

“When Twain got back from the cruise, his publisher gave him six months to write a 600-page book. He wrote most of it in Washington, D.C., in a tiny room full of dirty clothes, cigar ashes, and manuscript pages. He used a lot of the material from the letters he wrote during the trip, but he made several changes to make it more appealing to an eastern audience. He took out some of the cruder jokes and the racier passages, such as a description of nude bathers at Odessa. He thought easterners were more likely to be offended then westerners, and he wanted to reach as large an audience as possible. He wrote about 200,000 words in two months, or about 3,500 words per day, and finished just before his publisher’s deadline.

“In Florence, he wrote: “It is popular to admire the Arno. It is a great historical creek with four feet in the channel and some scows floating around. It would be a very plausible river if they would pump some water into it. They all call it a river, and they honestly think it is a river, do these dark and bloody Florentines. They even help out the delusion by building bridges over it. I do not see why they are too good to wade.”

“The book was published by the American Publishing Company. The Innocents Abroad sold more than 125,000 copies in 10 years, and it established Twain’s reputation.”

May 2023

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