March 29, 2014

Gilman: tell you what I think of you

After the turn of the century, Charlotte Perkins Gilman began producing her own monthly magazine in New York, The Forerunner, which she wrote and edited single-handedly. Although it did well considering it was a one-person production, she often sought to republish her work in periodicals with broader circulation. Such was the case with her story "An Unwilling Interview," first published in The Forerunner in April 1912 and republished in the Woman's Journal (published by Alice Stone Blackwell) on March 29, 1913.

The story features a woman named Ellen Carlyle who has come from rural Idaho to visit her sister, now Mrs. Johnson and living in the big city. But all is not well in the Johnson household. Ellen's newly married nephew Worth Johnson has been the subject of a public scandal. It turns out, the local newspaper publisher is a rival of the elder Mr. Johnson, a reported millionaire, and this rival has created the controversy out of spite. Though Mrs. Johnson acknowledges the publisher's lackey reporters are not directly to blame, her sister notes that they still  should be held responsible.

Aunt Ellen visits the home of her nephew and his wife, an innocent and pretty young shopgirl. While her husband is at work, she has locked herself in her apartment to fend off reporters and photographers, including some who try to trick her. She made the mistake of giving a few quotes, without knowing she was being interviewed, and the publisher has twisted those words into scandal. While Aunt Ellen chats with the bride, a dedicated reporter breaks in through a door using a knife. It turns out to be the same reporter that had tricked her into giving him quotes. Without skipping a beat, he notes the newspaper he represents, and begins his questioning.

Aunt Ellen hardly hesitates before forcing the man into a chair and tying him down. She gives the surprised reporter a stern lecture on the harm he has caused. She says:

"In your original interview with her, by using her innocence and inexperience to gather material from, she herself is made to strike a blow at her husband’s happiness—a refinement of cruelty not used by the Apaches. They torture men and also women, but they do not use the woman to torture the man with. Your master does. In order to accomplish this purpose all common decency must be ignored, all privacy, all delicacy, all respect for personal freedom. This little bride is a prisoner on account of the staring cameras that wait outside. She can not rest because of the noise of her assailants."

Aunt Ellen notes that, though there is no law preventing his behavior, what this reporter and others have done is more than criminal. He begins to blush as he realizes the truth. "Cruel, isn’t it?" she asks, "To tie you up—helpless—and tell you what I think of you." Once the reporter learns his lesson, Aunt Ellen lets him go.

The story, with two "unwilling interviews," was aimed at the journalism style of people like William Randolph Hearst, who stopped at nothing for sensational stories. Gilman, in creating her own independent newspaper, had been striking against the Hearst system and its influence. Due to financial concerns, however, she eventually ceased publishing The Forerunner in 1916.

*I learned much about this independent journal by Gilman, including the date of the republication of "An Unwilling Interview," from Denise D. Knight's essay "Charlotte Perkins Gilman, William Randolph Hearst, and the Practice of Ethical Journalism," collected in Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Her Contemporaries: Literary and Intellectual Contexts (University of Alabama Press, 2004).

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