Post, Undaunted

“The Journalist”: In Verse, Mary Clemmer, a Respected, Highly Paid Columnist of the 1870s, Had Lofty Ideas About Journalism But Her Opinons About The Field’s Women and Their Prospects Were Not So Helpful

December 18, 2022

Portrait of Mary Clemmer


Mary Clemmer, born in 1839, covered the Battle of Harpers Ferry from her kitchen window in 1862, then shed the clergyman husband she had been urged into marrying at seventeen, and went on two years later to become one in a trio of Washington woman columnists—Grace Greenwood and Gail Hamilton, are the other two—who achieved as journalists at the level of their most respected men counterparts in the 1870s and early 1880s. And all three earned even better. Clemmer wrote for the Independent. At her death in August 1884, the Boston Traveller remembered her as “a potent force in the shaping of national issues by their power to influence public opinion” and as someone who “ennobled journalism by her profound conviction of its moral significance.” That said, her well-meant pronouncements on women in the field—what beats should be open to them (never the military or the morgue), what their comportment on the job should be (no pencils or pens lodged in their ears! no invasion of the Senate and House press galleries! no appearances where women would not be treated as ladies!)—did more to harm the pursuit of women for advancement than to help it.

Nonetheless, she was lofty in seeing journalism as a near-sacred calling. She articulated her sentiments in a poem she was asked to craft for the annual meeting of the New York Press Association, held in Utica on June 8, 1881. Dewitt Gray of the Utica Observer recited her ode to the gathering.

Here is what she wrote:






Man of the eager eyes and teeming brain,–

            Small is the honor that men dole to thee;

They snatch the fruitage of thy years of pain,–

            Devour, yet scorn, the tree

What though the treasure of thy nervous force,

            Thy rich vitality of mind and heart,

Goes swiftly down before thy Moloch’s course,–

            Men cry, “It is not Art!”

The Poet,–dallying with his fitful Muse,

            On lagging Pegasus, whose halting stride

Sometimes gives out,–he scorns “the man of news” –

            Cries, “See! We’re parted wide!”

The Novelist—elate from lofty crest

            Of Fiction’s lovely palace of the air—

Looks down and signs: “Only a Journalist!”

            My height is his despair.”

The jays minute of feebler Literature—

            Who lightly chatter, on its outmost rim,

Of naught but of their small position sure –

            Point scornfully at him!

The Statesman—smirched, with pallid malice grim,

            Or red with wrath—doth in the morning read

Of fair faith bartered, of fine honor dim,

            In his recorded deed.

Lo, look for thunder then! His fierce reply

            In House or Senate, as he leads the van;

Time-server and place-seller – loud his cry:

            “Down, cursed Newspaper Man!”

Who takes the daily journal, cool and damp,

            And weighs its ceaseless toll on nerve and brain?

Nor morning sun, nor genial evening lamp,

            Reveals its birth of pain.

“Only a newspaper!” Quick read, quick lost,

            Who sums the treasure that it carries hence?

Torn, trampeled under feet, whose counts thy cost,

            Star-eyed Intelligence?

And ye, the Nameless, best-beloved host!

            My heart recalls more than one vanished face,

Struck from the rank of toilers, –early lost,

            And leaving not a trace.

Martyrs of News, young martyrs of the Press,–

            Princes of giving from largess of brain!

One leaf of laurel, steeped in tenderness,

            Take ye, O early-slain.

Though in the Author’s Pantheon no niche obscure

            Your waning names can hold forever fast,

The seeds of Truth ye blew afar are sure

            To spring and live at last.

On lonely wastes, within the swarming marts,

            In silent dream, in speaking deeds of men,–

Quick with momentum from your deathless hearts,

            Your thoughts will live again.

O living Journalist,–when faith hath fled,

            When men crush men amid the thick of strife,–

Bethink thee of one Man, divine, who said,

            “I am the Truth, the Life!”

Leave Science, leave Philosophy its crown;

            Yet sweeter ever must be that man’s sleep

Who, still his mother’s boy, prays, lyind down,

            His Lord, his soul to keep.

Whate’er our prizes, or how fair our crown

            Or deep our losses, only this is best,–

The soul’s great peace. Nor sneer, nor smile, nor frown

            Can shake it from the rest.

Exalt thy calling! On its spotless shield

            Write truth, write honor, valor, first and last.

Cravens may clutch thy stars, and thou not yield;

            Love them, and hold them fast!

Thus Greeley wrought in fresh, heroic youth;

            Thus Margaret Fuller wrote her way to power;

Thus Bowles—unvanquished in a rain of ruth—

            Went down in manhood’s flower.

Thus Curtis writes, –rare Sidney of the pen,–

O’Reilly sings, and Godkin draws his steel;

Thus Schurz his highest honor takes again,

            To write the truth we feel.

Defender of the People, of the State,

            Kindler and quickener of majestic thought,–

Sure of the finest triumph, thou canst wait

            The crown they patience wrought.

To serve thy generation, this thy fate:

            “Written in water,” swiftly fades thy name;

But he who loves his kind does, first and late,

            A work too great for fame.

(requested and read before the New York Press Association in Utica, June 8, 1881)