Horace Greeley on Radio

As mentioned in several early blog posts here, in the 1940 radio introduction of Lois Lane, the famous fictional reporter’s first greeting to the mild-mannered Clark Kent was a sarcastic remark comparing him to Horace Greeley (1811-1872), one of the previous century’s journalistic superheroes.

New York Times remembers Tribune's Greeley

A 1930 New York Times remembers Tribune’s Greeley

That got me wondering: Would the radio audience for a juvenile adventure show like “Superman” have known of Greeley at all? It could be that an anniversary helped: His New York Tribune, by then merged with the Herald, marked its centennial in 1941, which may have raised his position in the schoolbooks of the 1940s.

His statue occupied a prominent spot in New York’s City Hall Park, where it was given a cleaning and a new base in 1940 in conjunction with the opening of a new subway station.

Decades earlier, he had been called “the best-known man in America.” A search in the Proquest Historical Newspapers database showed that Greeley’s name was even mentioned when a Herald-Tribune reporter competed in a 1930 national spelling bee on the radio, according to Robert D. Heinl’s “Off the Antenna” column in The Washington Post (Apr 6, 1930; pg.A5).

Coincidentally — since this blog is about radio — Greeley’s 19th century call to young men to look to the western frontier was used in a 1930 New York Times in the headline for a federal official’s career advice: “Radio Calls Out to Young America: Limitless Opportunity Exists, says Terrell — He Likens Radio Unto the West to Which Greeley Pointed.” (Jan. 26, 1930; pg.123)

Meanwhile, dramatized and fictionalized versions of Greeley made it onto the air, telling the radio audience considerably more than the fact that he encouraged Western migration, even if “Go West, young man,” was not his original phrase.

The Dupont series “Cavalcade of America,” which specialized in uplifting profiles of famous Americans, featured Greeley at least four times — in a multi-part 1936 episode titled “American Journalism,” in a 1941 profile of Margaret Fuller, in his own half-hour episode in 1951, “Greeley of the Tribune,” and again in 1952’s One Nation Indivisible, an episode about Greeley’s role in setting Jefferson Davis free after the Civil War. (Click the episode name to download or play the MP3 audio files from the Old Time Radio Researchers Group collection at archive.org, if the audio-player icon is not visible below.)

Cavalcade: American Journalism

Cavalcade: The Heart and the Fountain (Margaret Fuller)

Cavalcade: Greeley of the Tribune

Cavalcade: One Nation Indivisible

The first episode introduced Greeley and his Tribune, James Gordon Bennett and his Herald, and Henry Stanley’s search for Dr. Livingston on behalf of the Herald. The Margaret Fuller episode has Greeley hiring his first woman writer, initially as a literary critic, but eventually as American journalism’s first woman foreign correspondent. (She jokes about expecting him to say “Go East, young woman,” as she leaves for Europe.)

The “Greeley of the Tribune” episode portrayed the editor as innovative and eccentric. Buttermilk and graham crackers hint at his vegetarianism, and his innovative inclination is represented by his having type set at sea on a voyage from Boston to New York — with an alcoholic compositor’s Yankee aunt along to keep the man at work. The technique beats the competition. Other scenes emphasize his interest in explaining America and educating the immigrant masses.

The final Cavalcade episode highlights a later day in Greeley’s career, when his paper called for Jefferson Davis’s release after the Civil War.

Intriguingly, none of the Cavalcade episodes I’ve listened to so far emphasize the most cliche history-book line about Greeley, the “Go West, young man,” quote, regardless of its provenance.

However, my last discovery of Horace Greeley in the old-time radio archives puts a new twist on the “Go west…” theme. In real-life, Greeley did go to the West — reporting back on what he saw there. The same Archive.org that I use for most of my radio program links can serve you numerous biographies and collections of his writings, including his Letters from Texas.

A century later, young radio listeners learned of his travels with a twist — a radio storyline that saw him robbed of his research notes on the way back to New York. And who could come to his aid? A former Texas ranger… (Cue the William Tell Overture…)

Mr. Greeley Goes West

Yes, in 1952, The Lone Ranger radio series had Tonto and the masked hero find Greeley by the side of a Western road, victim of a stagecoach hold-up. (From the one of several Lone Ranger collections at Internet Archive, which gives the episode’s date as June 25, 1952.)

For a more recent historical portrait of Greeley, see Horace Greeley by Robert C. Williams (New York University Press, 2006), reviewed in The New Yorker with this summary:

Horace Greeley was America’s most famous editor and, with his Tribune, a defining voice in mid-nineteenth-century politics. He was an early promoter of Thoreau, lent money to Poe, and employed as foreign correspondents both Mark Twain and Karl Marx (who described Greeley to Engels as a “jackass with the face of an angel”).

Bottom line: Horace Greeley, “America’s most famous editor,” got plenty of airtime — even though he died a half-century before live radio — and even if that upstart Kent was the one who got the thrice-weekly series and Lois Lane as a girlfriend.


Background research: The prolific historian of old-time radio Martin Grams Jr. has an 480-page book about The Cavalcade of America on both radio and television, complete with detailed episode guides — even if you just want to know all the members of the 150-voice choir for a Christmas broadcast.

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