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Jewish World Review April 17, 2001 / 24 Nissan, 5761

Mark Lane

Mark Lane
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Columnists get their own spring day, but no cards -- THIS is the high point of spring. The lovely window-open interlude between heating bills and air conditioning bills. When Hawaiian shirts return to fashion after a winter's pause. Days that beg for elbow-out -the-window driving.

A time when one's thoughts turn to the state of America journalism.

That's because National Columnists Day is this week. Let joy reign supreme! Cue the accordions!

I realize that as national holidays go, National Columnists Day ranks just below National Biting Insects Week, but hear me out.

The 500- to 900-word newspaper column is a wonderful thing. A legacy of the lost world of 19th century journalism, it is as American and as international as jazz. Columns are where hard news, good reporting, near poetry and old jokes get to keep company.

In its best forms, it is the old informal personal essay strapped tightly into a cart at the top of a roller coaster and slides to an end after 650 words, two dips and one loop the loop.

The littlest condo-dwellers' newsletters and most obscure grind-core-thrash-rock-neopunk fanzines run them or they would not feel like real publications.

In foreign countries, I have picked up eight-page newspapers for English speakers and found none so small they didn't carry baseball scores and two columnists.

In a world of specialists, columnists are the last generalists. Even those with a designated beat, tend to use it as a starting point to go off on life, the universe, politics, karma, food and the state of rock 'n' roll.

In a Balkanized world of clashing ethnic identities, divided ideologies and diverse religious practices, columnists wander onto a page blithely assuming a universality of experience that allows them to speak informally to anyone.

In a time of electronic communication, the column somehow remains wedded to the printed page.

Columns don't translate well to television. TV time is too valuable, TV viewers too impatient to allow someone to wool gather or tell stories that don't come to a point within 10 seconds.

Most of us are too plain for television and our volume is too low for radio. Nobody goes on radio unless they're mad at somebody.

And the Internet? The Net allows anyone to set up a site and be a columnist. Now everyone owns the equivalent of a press. Amazing. But take it from an old content-provider, if you read this on a computer screen, it's not because anybody paid me.

The early press was a lot like the Web in that most writers were amateurs and partisans. Fact and opinion, news and rumor flowed together indistinguishably.

Some say the first American columnist was Benjamin Franklin. He seemed to invent everything else, so why not newspaper columns? He wrote a series of humorous letters under the pseudonym Silence Dogood.

He was also the first newspaper columnist to leave town after a fight with his publisher who didn't think he was all that funny.

The golden age of newspaper columns was from the turn of the century to the close of World War II. A time when Finley Peter Dunne, Ring Lardner, Don Marquis, H.L. Mencken, Will Rogers, Damon Runyon and Walter Lippmann ran in newspapers.

Ernie Pyle, too. He was the best columnist in The Good War. He died 56 years ago Wednesday, shot by a sniper near Okinawa. Columnists Day is April 18 in his honor.

Unlike radio drama, which shared this golden age, column writing is still alive and mostly well. For that I'm hugely grateful.

There were no Columnists Day cards in the Hallmark store the last time I looked. Maybe that's just as well. Columnists as a class don't need much encouragement and I have yet to meet one with an underdeveloped sense of self worth.

But what a wonderful journalistic institution: a place to speak directly in first person about what passes for real life. Celebrating that would seem a reasonable use for a spring day.

Comment on JWR contributor Mark Lane's column by clicking here.

03/30/01: Spring Break's final frontier
03/20/01: Who could foresee all this visioning?
02/28/01: Hate not cool? Ya sound like ya mama
02/26/01: Thinking inside the box at tax time
02/15/01: Hurts and flowers: Happy Post-Valentine's Day!
01/24/01: Ugly lyrics should make trendies squirm
01/12/01: White boards taking over classrooms
12/23/00: Post-election holiday etiquette
12/15/00: Outlawing dodge-ball
11/30/00: Courts should be on-line, on-TV and in public
11/29/00: Where did all these solution providers come from?
11/20/00: Giving it the old Electoral College try
11/10/00: Ballot messes a Florida tradition
11/07/00: Vote naked! Cool idea, but is it progress?
11/02/00: Semi-whistle while you para-work
10/27/00: Decided by the undecided


© 2000, M. R. Lane