Making Modernism

Ben Hecht’s WWI Dispatch and Editor’s Reply, 1919

The two documents collected here—Ben Hecht’s Berlin dispatch to the Daily News, February 3, 1919, and assistant editor C. H. Dennis's reply to Hecht, February 7, 1919—highlight an important tension between newspaper eyewitness accounts as personal, essentially provincial ventures, and eyewitness accounts as a collaborative, global enterprise. One of the first American newspapers to employ foreign correspondents to cover the international politics of World War I, the Chicago Daily News boasted firsthand accounts in which information and colorful description coexisted. Correspondents’ insider-outsider positions allowed the News to claim a specifically American viewpoint, meant to interest its Chicago readership.

Ben Hecht served as a war correspondent in Berlin for the Chicago Daily News from 1918-1919, but Chicago was his home base, and his readers could sense it. And in this dispatch, Hecht makes Berlin feel like home by comparing it to Chicago. His move recasts Philipp Scheiemann, the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) revolutionary who had recently declared the end of the German imperial government and who would soon be called upon to help found the Weimar Republic, to corrupt Alderman Michael “Hinky Dink” Kenna, known for buying poorer Chicagoans’ votes. In Dennis’s opinion, however, this Berlin-cum-Chicago perspective is a mistake. Moving too quickly and superficially to Chicago, Hecht neglects to “interpret” Scheidemann for what he is: a powerful leader, partially responsible for “making the world over.” Dennis explicitly increases the responsibility of the eyewitness by referring to the News’ readers not as “Chicago” or  “the nation” but as the voracious, curious “world.” Expanding the reading audience also implicitly claims Chicago as an international capitol, a full participant in the circuitous process of newsmaking.

The News never ran Hecht’s account, but even the decision not to publish required an international network. At minimum, Hecht’s dispatch travelled to Amsterdam, London, Paris, and finally back to Berlin, now with Dennis's cover (with embedded quotations from Hecht, Scheidemann, Bell, and Lawson) and Bell’s (lost) re-“skeletonized” cable. Had the story run, it would have passed to the Chicago news desk as well, and finally to the public. In order for this vast array of readers “not to get lost in the mist,” these editors push for brevity and clarity, for concrete, pithy sketches and informational anecdotes.

We do not know which ninety-five words Bell found so expensively superfluous in Hecht’s already spare skeletonized account, but Bell’s and Dennis’'s editing practices clearly influenced Hecht’s later writing and the News’ standards for national reportage. After continuing for a time in Berlin, Hecht returned to the States, where he went on to pen the long-running series “One Thousand and One Afternoons in Chicago.” These factual accounts and character sketches do the work of “interpreting” the city and its inhabitants by defamiliarizing them, allowing Hecht’s readers to imagine their hometown as a foreign land whose everyday events become news by their own collaborative work of interpretation.

Chalcey Wilding, University of Chicago

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