The Chicago Diaries of John M. Wing, 1865-1866. Ed. Robert Williams. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press and The Caxton Club, 2002. 139 pp. $25.
A reporter considers ‘poor Jack Wing’ and days of reporting in Chicago
Editor’s note: R.C. Longworth is a Senior Writer at the Chicago Tribune. At the invitation of the editor, he has written his impressions of the new Caxton publication, the diaries of a reporter of another day in Chicago.
n 1865, John M. (Jack) Wing, a young man on the make, fetched up in Chicago from his native New York, looking for newspaper work and (in no particularly order) fun, fame, and fortune. He spent 18 months in the raw and roaring metropolis, a half decade before its great fire, roaming from job to job, both exhilarated by his reporter’s front-row seat at the sights and spectacles of the city (“Things I never dreamed of have passed before my vision”) and glum over the modest successes of his business ventures (“O! poor Jack Wing”). In 1866, he moved on, returning in 1870 to make his pile as a publisher of trade magazines. He retired in 1888 and spent the rest of his life in an eccentric and haphazard enthusiasm for books. He never married and when he died in 1917, he left his fortune and collection to the Newberry Library, which houses the John M. Wing Foundation to this day.
Apart from this, Wing made little mark on Chicago. If he will be remembered at all, it is for the youthful diaries that he kept in those first 18 months in Chicago. Edited by Robert Williams of the University of Chicago Press, The Chicago Diaries of John M. Wing, 1865-1866 have just been published jointly by The Caxton Club and the Southern Illinois University Press.
Paul F. Gehl, the custodian of the Wing Foundation, described Wing’s life in the June edition of the Caxtonian, but Bob Cotner, editor of the Caxtonian, asked me to muse on a newspaperman’s reaction to the young reporter’s adventures in Chicago, nearly 140 years ago. The surprising thing is not how much has changed but how much that hasn’t, and that the adventures of young Jack Wing sound so familiar to a Chicago reporter today.
As Gehl says in his forward, Wing was “a brilliant but callow young man — ambitious, romantic and vain.” He got into the news business looking for excitement and adventure and found it daily. In his first week (“a momentous week for me”) at the Chicago Times, he covered “a great and disastrous fire,” interviewed General Sherman at the Tremont House, smoked cigars with General Grant (“Only think of it! Jack Wing of Holmesville riding, smoking and drinking with Gen’l Grant, the hero of America.”). Three weeks later he covered an execution in Waukegan and was not too appalled (“O! it was an awful sight”) to gloat that he kept “a cuss from the Tribune” from scooping him. Riots, prostitutes, and Gypsies passed under his pen, but so did the tedium of school board meetings and the State Fair — assignments that any nimble reporter of today still tries to avoid. (“Of all the bores in newspaper life, a Fair of any sort is the worst; and especially a State Fair.”)
Reporters in those days, more than their descendants, were vagabonds. Wing spent a day on the Tribune when he first arrived, then jumped to the Times, and held a variety of jobs in his first brief sojourn here. He made $20 a week and supplemented the salary by selling “puffs” in the paper (“tapped three fellows for $5 each, for puffs. I find that the other fellows are doing the same thing”) — a common practice then but one that would get him fired today.
Some things, though, haven’t changed, like padding expense accounts: “Was paid $4 for my expenses (for a trip to Camp Douglas), double what they were.” His one story for the Tribune was an erudite account of a performance of the Bellini opera, Norma, although “never saw an opera of the kind before.” He covered a soldiers’ riot (“found a soldier shot and a building demolished...an eventful day”) and a police raid on a gambling den, then had to haggle with printers who found their names among the arrested gamblers. He covered a commencement at Notre Dame, where the holy fathers treated him to “cigars, wine, everything one could possibly hope for...Notre Dame is a lovely place.” He went to Springfield and saw Grant standing at Lincoln’s tomb.
Wing wrote a long and scurrilous article on Irish squatters, leading to mass cancellations by subscribers “of the Emerald Isle persuasion,” threats of attack, a craven apology from his publisher and the acquisition of a revolver “loaded with six saucy looking cartridges.” A tense time but exciting — “Jack Wing never had an idea that his feeble quill could stir up such a quaking, all over a great city,” he wrote, admiring himself in the third person.
Wing bought into a weekly in Waukegan and spent five self-pitying weeks there (“this dismal hole...this doubly benighted town”) before selling at a loss and hurrying back to Chicago (“I thank heaven to be let off this easily”) with a case of psychosomatic eczema.
As Gehl and Williams note, Wing’s diary tell us more about Jack Wing than about Chicago or the greats, like Grant, whom he met. Wing was self-absorbed, sexually adventurous, idealistic (but not above compromising his abolitionist beliefs by working for the Times, an anti-abolitionist, “copperhead” paper).
What makes the diaries worth reading is the spirit of Wing’s excitement, even amazement, at the gaudy scene around him, his raw ambition, the sense of youth — both of Wing and Chicago — that permeate the book.
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