The very evocation of small town life between the wars

Country EditorCountry Editor by Henry Beetle Hough

Henry Beetle Hough (pronounced huff, it says in his NYT obituary) was legendary among journalists, or at least those of a certain age. He won a special Pulitzer when he was 22 for a paper he cowrote at Columbia University, and in 1920 moved with his wife to Martha’s Vinyard and bought the Vinyard Gazette. They coedited it for the rest of their lives, which life is the subject of this book.

Hough knew everyone on Martha’s Vinyard whether they were year-round natives or only summer visitors, and wrote about them all in the same disconcertingly gentle, perceptive prose. He is especially good at describing contributors to the Gazette, as in

Gradually, without any understanding and without any pay, Miss Banks became our correspondent from nowhere, sending in eager notes and letters of suggestion and advice, and often of appreciation. Perhaps it was as well for us that she lived so far from the beaten track, for her restless mind reached out further and further, building upon some small bit of reality, until she had a dream empire of vast dimensions. Had she been within walking distance of our office we would not have put off her ideas easily.

and

Everett came into the office with a little story about a man who had bitten a cow, pleased to have hit so close to the classic definition of news. The man was Everett’s own brother, and he had been milking the cow when the animal planted one hoff firmly on his foot. His hands were occupied. He yelled at the cow to move, but she merely looked at him. So then, considering that she was a clean cow, he leaned over and bit her in the leg until she removed her weight from his foot.

There are always those inevitable errors and ommissions the weekly newspaper is heir to, chronicled by Hough (man, I’m starting to write in his era) in the chapter entitled “We Give Offense.”

Some years ago one of our reporters interviewed a man who was so certain we could not get things right that he insisted upon seeing a proof of the proposed article. For some reason we yielded, although we have never done so since, believing that if our editorship cannot be trusted matters may as well stop right there. This man found no errors but, in common with all men who find themselves with a proof and a pencil, he made a few additions in his own handwriting. (This is one good reason for keeping proofs away from lay persons.) Anyway, one of the additions our friend wrote was this: “Dr. Hunter is the son of Abraham S. Hunter and the daughter of Lucy Jones Hunter.” We wanted to let that go through, but if we had it would have been blamed on us.

The humor is so low key and delivered in such a deadpan manner that I was constantly saying “Wait, what?” and backing up and rereading because I knew I’d missed something good.

Colonel Stedman…was continually appearing with his poems in person instead of trusting them to the mails. It was unfair of an elderly synthetic military man to insist upon confronting a country editor in this manner.

I read this book because Judy Muller mentioned it in Emus Loose in Egnar, and it took me a while to get into it. It is the very evocation of small town life between the wars, and as such I think I had to ratchet down my Oughts expectations before I could fully appreciate it. We’re all so connected online and so disconnected personally that I know what’s going on in Ireland before I know what’s going on down the street. Hough always had time for his neighbors.

The book ends on a murder, and Hough, while sad over the loss of a man he knew and liked, neglects to sully the character of the murderer, a man he knew and liked it seems equally well. There is a lesson there for every writer of prose, fiction or non.

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