BETWEEN the day on which William A. Whitehead, at age 13, left Newark with his family for Perth Amboy and the day that he returned, at age 33, to live there once more with a new family, the place, like Whitehead, had come of age.
The Newark he returned to was a far cry from the country town where he was born. Its population had more than doubled, the first great surge in a long period of astonishing growth. A canal and a railroad now funneled goods and people to and through it. Newark was, finally, an official port of entry, a distinction won over a century earlier by Perth Amboy, and one enjoyed for more than a dozen years previous by faraway Key West. Whitehead had been appointed collector of the latter port, at the age of 20; his Newark counterpart, town worthy Archer Gifford, was a mature 44 when he got the job.
What had once been a village was now an incorporated city, with a mayor and council, a police force and a public high school. Newark could boast of a new courthouse, oil-fed street lamps and, above all, burgeoning industries, whose unrelenting assault on the environment–and the senses–its citizens tolerated, even celebrated, for the products turned out and the wealth brought in.
While Whitehead was calling other places home, Newark also acquired a daily newspaper. As the first of its kind in New Jersey, it supercharged Newark’s appeal for men of business, politics and the law. The paper followed a model familiar to readers of other cities’ dailies: a single broadsheet folded once to make four pages, and most of the news, features and commentary crowded onto page two. The rest was generally given over to the paid notices that were the publishers’ bread and butter.
The commercial character of newspapers was in no way hidden from view; it extended even to the names they were given. Many bore mastheads having “Commercial” and “Mercantile” in their titles, and Newark’s pioneer daily, born on the first of March 1832, continued in that tradition, christening itself the Daily Advertiser.
Often referred to by its writers and readers simply as the Daily, the paper operated, like others of its kind, with a skeleton staff. Through miscellaneous printing jobs–handbills, tickets, programs, the occasional book–it supplemented the revenues received from advertising, subscriptions and the few cents casual customers paid for it on the street.
The Daily in the beginning was small, and its value seemed to lie in the mere fact of its being in and of Newark. After a year, the publishers conceded that they didn’t make much money (adding a special plea to subscribers who were in arrears) and might not “for some time to come”. But they felt their experiment had proven that “with proper and careful management a Daily paper can and will be sustained in the Town.”1 Outgoing editor Amzi Armstrong, while endorsing that opinion, urged Newark’s “literary and scientific citizens” to submit items that would lighten his successor’s labors, and “add to the usefulness and interest of the paper.”2
Mentioned under the nameplate for the first time on 16 July 1833 was the journalist who would guide the Advertiser over the next eighteen years. William Burnet Kinney, onetime editor of the weekly New-Jersey Eagle, became the proprietor and editor, and soon thereafter acquired Newark’s oldest extant paper, the Sentinel of Freedom, making it the Advertiser’s weekly edition and so expanding the company’s reach. His two papers shared facilities on Broad Street for twenty years.
Kinney was among the most “literary” newspapermen of the age, of wide-ranging interests but modest temperament, who drew equally educated writers to the pages of the Daily. A learned discourse he delivered before the New Jersey Historical Society, “on the origin and progress of printing and periodical literature in New Jersey,” was itself never printed, not even in his own newspapers.3
Of ancient lineage and a forceful proponent of Whig Party policies, Kinney remained at the head of the Advertiser until 1851, when President Zachary Taylor appointed him head of the U.S. mission to Sardinia, whose royal house would unify Italy a decade later. His long sojourn in that land brought him–and his poet wife Elizabeth C. S. Kinney–into the circle of Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning and other expatriates.
William Kinney’s unusual regard for history and literature coincided perfectly with the interests and passions of William Whitehead. They collaborated in at least two seminal enterprises of the 1840s, the Historical Society and the Newark Library Association. Both organizations did considerable business with the Advertiser, whose presses turned out the Proceedings of the former, and the circular letters, by-laws and printed ephemera of both.4 Kinney in his papers gave ample space to news of their activities.
But Whitehead, at the time he resettled in Newark in April 1843, was no stranger to either the scribal trade or Kinney’s Advertiser. In Key West in 1835 and 1836, he had filled up his days if not his purse writing for and editing the island’s lone weekly, The Inquirer. There he’d contended with shortfalls not only of income, but of paper and even of news.5 Having resigned the collectorship in 1838 and returned to the north with dim prospects of employment, Whitehead was doubtless grateful to get whatever Kinney paid for his descriptions of Cuba, written that summer and printed between July and September in a series of fifteen “Letters from Havana.”6 Thereafter, while a resident of New York City, Whitehead enriched Kinney’s pages with dozens of reviews, letters and historical pieces. These culminated in 1842 in twenty lengthy columns devoted to facts and foibles of New Jersey’s colonial era, published under the running title Glimpses of the Past.7
Whitehead’s most distinctive contributions to the Advertiser, however, began soon after reclaiming his Newark citizenship. With a return to the daily discipline of noting temperature, precipitation, wind speed and direction to which he had devoted himself on Key West, Whitehead proposed to Kinney the recording of local weather statistics and events, and publication of a monthly summary in the Newark paper.
Page 2 of the Advertiser on 1 June 1843 thus included a column entitled “Review of the weather for May,” which began with the observation that the cold, easterly winds of the last month contradicted the “’meed of praise’” it normally received “from the poets in every land.” This article and its many successors went beyond the expected data of highs, lows and averages, to touch upon other natural phenomena (May 1843 brought news of a possible earthquake in central New Jersey, and a warning about the impending return of the “seventeen year locusts”) and they often included excerpts of seasonal poetry.8 Whitehead’s meteorological reviews were a feature of the Advertiser whose popularity and longevity surprised no one more than their author: the reports continued month by month without interruption for almost forty years.9
The success of the Newark Daily Advertiser, as well as its solidly Whig (and subsequently Republican) outlook on contemporary issues, was met by the launch of some fiercely competitive Newark upstarts. The Morning Eagle, a new daily incarnation of the weekly Kinney had once edited, was, in 1847, the first rival to spread its wings. The Eagle’s Democratic leanings were opposed by the Daily Mercury, founded in 1849. Their respective publishers, as one veteran journalist recalled, “handled each other without much regard for the amenities of journalism or of common politeness…”10 The Eagle was replaced in 1857 by the Evening Journal, a paper even more virulently anti-Republican and pro-South, whose editor would run afoul of the Lincoln administration for encouraging resistance to the draft.11
The Daily, left by Kinney in the hands of his son Thomas, stayed its moderate course through the political tempests of the 1850s. Fewer pieces than before were explicitly identified as coming from Whitehead’s pen, although there’s no doubt that his work for the Advertiser continued, even as the national union unraveled and the secession crisis loomed.
An editorial writer for the Advertiser at the end of 1860 floated the possibility that letting a Southern state secede might be better for the country.12 But once the threat was acted upon, the paper took a firm stance against it: “With such a cancerous disease, as the pretended right of secession, festering in the body politic, the United States must surrender all its once glorious hopes and aspirations of being a great power in the earth.”13
Whitehead left scattered hints that some of the Advertiser’s unsigned editorial columns were his. His scrapbooks preserve two such columns of 1863 whose authorship he claimed for himself.14 In a memoir composed in the 1870s he wrote, “On the breaking out of the Civil War I took an active interest in all public measures to promote the success of the Northern States, and I take some credit to myself for the service rendered the cause by my pen and personal writings.”15 Of this period he recalled as well, “My contributions to the columns of the newspapers became more numerous and pointed and attracted considerable attention.”16
A stylistic analysis of hundreds of unsigned newspaper columns might indeed reveal patterns of authorship permitting attribution of some to Whitehead. A project of this sort is, for now at least, beyond the realm of the possible. We have his own assurance, at least, that he continued to write for the Advertiser into the Civil War period and welcomed in return “a light contribution to my purse from the Daily Advertiser–for a year or more receiving $25 a month for my literary services.”17
Copyright © 2021 Gregory J. Guderian