1915 New York newspapers: P G Wodehouse’s Psmith Journalist

wode-1Some years ago I wrote a scholarly investigation on the role of menswear in P G Wodehouse’s fiction (read about it on this page). As part of the background reading I waded my way through all his Psmith novels. They’re not my favourite Wodehouse stories, but I do have a fond appreciation for his cautionary tale about New York journalism in the early jazz age, Psmith Journalist (1915).

It isn’t a Jeeves and Wooster novel. It doesn’t produce rollicking, thigh-slapping hoots of laughter, though there are some fine funny moments. Rather, it is a study of an urbane and resourceful Cambridge student on the loose in hedonistic and slangy New York City, of how he runs rings around the utterly corrupt worlds of the yellow press and housing racketeers. Psmith, the eponymous hero, has been encountered before in earlier Wodehouse novels, mainly in a supporting role to his cricketing hero Mike Jackson. In this novel, Psmith wastes no time in getting on top of all situations that present themselves.

(I edited this paragraph in my original post when George Simmers put me right on a fact I got wrong, that Psmith Journalist first came out in magazine form in 1909.) It’s an interesting novel because it doesn’t mention the war. It was written when Wodehouse was living in the USA, when the US had not yet entered the war. Wodehouse was fully occupied earning a living on Broadway, writing for magazines and the musical theatre, so his fiction naturally reflects this, rather than trench warfare and the home front.

wode-2But the most rewarding aspects of Psmith Journalist are its coruscating analyses of the US magazine industry, and the slog of a journalist’s life sub-editing appalling things for an appalling magazine. Billy Windsor has been appointed the temporary editor of Cosy Moments, a foul-sounding agglomeration of trite tat for the masses. He meets Psmith and Mike during a contretemps over a stray cat, and Psmith – bored with the cricketing tour with which Mike is absorbed –  decides to help Billy Windsor out, whether Billy desires this or not. The scene could now be set for a series of catastrophes in which Psmith wreaks mayhem in New York in a Woosterian manner, because that’s what we expect from Wodehouse. But no: Psmith is the diametric opposite to Bertie Wooster. He is personally uncharming, but resourceful, annoyingly clever, and dashed efficient. Psmith can sort out every situation, every calamity, and deal with any specimen of humanity, and he always ends up on top. For readers accustomed to (and maybe bored with?) the personal disasters that Bertie Wooster trails behind him like clouds of glory, Psmith as a character is a remarkable tonic.

But the newspaper game is why I like this novel most. The repellent contributors to and the regular features in Cosy Moments are described lovingly. Psmith decides that its most revolting and saccharine contributors must go. By changing this best-selling but offensively glutinous rag to a go-getting, crime-fighting, scandal-revealing, campaigning newspaper, Billy will be swept up by one of the great New York dailies, where he really wants to be, and it won’t matter at all that the Cosy Moments owner, Mr Wilberfloss, will return from enforced sick leave to find his precious readers taking their dudgeon and subscriptions elsewhere. Unfortunately, the instigators of the housing rackets that Psmith first instructs Billy to reveal in cold print don’t approve. And then Mr Wilberfloss comes back early …

wode-4There is prize-fighting and boxing, there are New York night-clubs, there is election corruption, there is a good deal of Bowery dialect, there are shenaniganical plot twists, and throughout every farrago, Psmith sails supremely confident. No-one is hurt, no-one is seriously damaged, and Psmith actually gets the chief sufferer to pay him to go back to Cambridge. Thankfully, there is no girl: Wodehouse had not yet got to grips with his best way of writing female characters, and Psmith simply ignores them. Enjoy: I do, every time.


Tell Me What You Read: Kenny Farquharson

In Tell Me What You Read, a new feature on this blog, I interview well-kenned folk in public life about how their reading has shaped their lives, in the past and now. 

KennyThis week: Kenny Farquharson, journalist, formerly deputy editor of Scotland on Sunday, now columnist and senior writer for The Times. 

Tell me which authors, or what reading, you can see now were influential in your life and career?

One is the journalism of Neal Ascherson in The Observer in the 1980s. His columns – about the Polish August and the rise of the Scottish home rule movement, especially – were always about people rather than events. Every story was a human story. Just as important, his columns were beautifully written. They had elegance and clarity.

The second might seem a bit strange for a hard-bitten hack, but it is the experience of reading and writing poetry when I was at school and university. It taught me how to be picky about choosing the right word, and to be brutal about excising words that were superfluous. It showed me how a place, or an emotion, or an event, could be brought to life with a line of words.

McCaigIf you need to snuggle down into a book, or have some sofa reading time, which authors do you go for instinctively?

Comfort reading is Raymond Chandler, Graham Greene, Norman MacCaig.

What reading do you choose for a long journey?

For a long journey I like a short book. There is something deeply pleasing about turning to page one as the train is pulling out of the station or the cabin crew are going through the safety drill, and to read the final page just before it’s time to collect your bags.

Your choice of ‘Oh lord I’m bored’ reading?

My ‘oh Lord, I’m bored’ reading is primarily Twitter. There is always something to divert/interest/amuse/outrage you on Twitter. It never lets you down. Alternatively, the magazines from the weekend editions of The Times and The Guardian. I am so old, I still refer to these as ‘the colour supplements’.

CrawfordWhat was your last huge reading disappointment?

I need to name names here. It was a book by poet and critic Robert Crawford, called On Glasgow and Edinburgh. From the blurb I took it to be an examination of the rivalry between Scotland’s two great cities, highlighting their contrasts, through an examination of their history and culture, heavy on anecdotes and full of insight. A great subject.

I’d saved it up for a summer holiday and was really looking forward to it, because I admire Crawford as a poet and an academic. Disappointment came as early as the first few pages, in which he made clear he would largely be ignoring popular culture, sport, music, food, folk music and most contemporary history. It would instead lean heavily on obscure literary journals of centuries past. Bummer.

I think I’ve had the same experience with a Crawford book: he needs a tough editor. And finally, what was your last happy reading surprise?

MooreOne of those wee, small-format books you buy at the till in a bookshop as a whim purchase while paying for something else. Published by Faber, it’s a short story by Lorrie Moore called How To Become A Writer. Slight, funny, clever and unexpectedly moving.

If you’d like to suggest someone whose reading you’d like to know more about, tweet me at @KateRLTB, or email me at kate dot brussels at yahoo dot com.

Next week: Wendy Bryant, senior lecturer in occupational therapy, and artist