Editorial

in Critical Survey

In October 1860, the New York-based magazine, Harper’s New Monthly, offered its readers this scathing commentary on the apparently morbid tendency among their British cousins to delve into the private lives of famous men and women. The magazine’s onslaught was both topical and contentious. The pleasures and punishments of fame experienced by such victimised ‘lions’ as Charles Dickens and Edward Bulwer Lytton, together with the public’s apparent right to ‘know’ everything, struck the writer as not only ‘vulgar’ but as clear evidence (if any were needed) of a degenerate culture. The situation was bad in America but much worse in Britain for there, as Harper’s noted, ‘John Bull is very fond of . . . talking about the private history of public men – prying into their bathing-tubs and counting the moles upon their necks.’ In the name of both art and decency, Harper’s made the following plea: ‘For the honour of the guild – for the fair name of literature – let us have done with peeping through keyholes and listening at cracks.’

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