The sad and even terrible end of W. T. Stead in the disaster of the Titanic naturally caused every one to speak kindly of his memory.
But Stead is too remarkable a figure in the history of English journalism to be left to the tender mercies of funeral flattery.
I have before spoken of the unpleasing impression he produced upon me when I first met him at dinner on his coming to London from Darlington, in company with Lord Morley, Mr. Andrew Lang, Sir John Robinson, and our host, Mr. Yates Thompson. I saw a good deal of Stead from time to time for a few years after that, and he made a wholly unique position for himself. He first introduced the practice of interviewing for the newspapers into the English press, and in some respects bettered his American instructors. That, as Sir Walter Scott said of himself when narrating another man's story, he "put a cocked hat and a sword" on every such bit of special reporting he did cannot be disputed, but his narrative certainly gained in picturesqueness what it lost in photographic accuracy. The interviewed victims lived in his account of them, and he took good care that the portrait of Stead should live too.
As editor he made his paper a platform for vigorous daily preachment by quite unusual methods.
He existed upon active sensationalism and vigorous exaggeration. He, so to say, caught his public by the beard and bellowed or shrieked his convictions for the day into its ear. People might kick, but they must hear. Whether it happened to be the need for a strong navy, or the innumerable virtues of Russia and her Czar, with the splendid work of civilisation they were doing in the East and on the Afghan frontier more particularly, or the glories of a possible Nonconformist Pope, with a vision of the Vatican as W. T. S.'s continental villa, or the splendid work of the Salvation Army and its sweating-shops, or the pressing need for protecting the maidens of modern Babylon from the outrageous vices of the respectable bourgeois, it was all given out to the world on Sarah Jane's top note. There was no mistaking what Stead meant to tell you, but after the first few sentences had been dinned into the ears of any sensitive person an irresistible longing for the sounds to be conveyed from a greater distance, or through two stout plugs of cotton wool, came upon the most eager for information.
Stead's methods of obtaining and parading information were at times as peculiar as they were boisterous in expression. I believe the man to have been strictly honest. Flattery and admiration might win him but not cash. Yet at the time of the Penjdeh incident in Afghanistan he displayed such minute knowledge in his paper of the movements of the Russian troops in that far-off locality, and treated his readers with such appalling accuracy to the names of the very captains of the sotnias of Kossacks employed, that, upon his stigmatising another journal as a catchpenny sheet, that organ referred to retorted by speaking of Stead's paper as "our catchrouble contemporary," and all the London world of journalism was glad.
Again, when he gave detailed descriptions of unseemly misdoings in his "Maiden Tribute" outburst which astounded the dwellers in our metropolis, a well-known member of the Pall Mall Gazette staff was earnestly entreating a still better known member of the Garrick Club, supposed to be versed in erotic literature, to put him in the way of obtaining a copy of the Marquis de Sade's horrible Justine et Juliette for the purpose of getting up "local colour." All was fish that came to Stead's net at such times, and such a trifling matter as good taste never arrested his pen for a moment. But there could be no doubt about the effectiveness of his style for the purpose to which it was devoted, and his industry was as marked as his literary vigour was startling. His descriptions were at times extraordinarily vivid.
Nobody ever gave such an account of the Passion Play as he did. At the time of writing, the play was the actual drama of Jerusalem itself: none the less real to him, and for the time being to you, because the whole story might be a well-invented legend. Palestine and Switzerland also became so inextricably mixed up in the course of the narrative that it would have been quite easy to imagine, on the one hand, that the Crucifixion really took place on an Alpine peak in the distance, and that the Magdalen was a Swiss damsel of easy morals come over from Geneva to mourn for the departure from this life of a benefactor who had diverged from the path of harmless vice into that of commonplace homicide, and was meeting his just reward up there above the snow-line; or, on the other, that the whole company of Swiss peasants were really carrying out the entire scene amid the sunburnt surroundings of Syria, and this was in truth the Son of God, with the two thieves by his side, and his mother, the soldiery, and the apostles gathered at the foot of the torturing cross awaiting the final agony. Stead, like Tertullian, was a firm believer in what he knew to be incredible, and the ardour of his enforced conviction breathed itself into his style.
For myself, I never could stand the man. His mind, his ethic, his manners, his methods, alike revolted me. He was that not uncommon variety of self-conscious ascetic, a Puritan chock-full of guile, and in his way utterly unscrupulous. At one moment when we were at odds with the Tory Government, and it was quite possible serious trouble would come of it, Stead took, or pretended to take, our side, and undoubtedly did us some good. We all of us thought he meant what he said, and that in all good faith he did what he did.
Not a bit of it. The whole affair was carried on, so far as he was concerned, for the greater glory of himself and his newspaper. The night before the great meeting in Trafalgar Square he published an article obviously meant to do the Socialists as much harm as possible, because it might advertise his journal. I told him as plainly as I could, and I am not troubled with stammering in my speech, what I thought of him, but he took my objurgations in what he called a truly Christian spirit.
I wished he had not at the time.
And yet I am bound to admit that in the matter of the Boer War he behaved as well as any man could. It was dead against his interest in every way to act as he did: not only against his pecuniary interest by nearly ruining his own Review of Reviews and heading off his means of making money in other ways, but in deadly opposition to his own personal regard and admiration for Cecil Rhodes. Stead possessed that, to me, unintelligible respect for successful money-getters and capable men of business which some journalists and men of letters are plagued with. What is utterly contemptible in a petty larceny thief becomes for them glorified sagacity in a monumental scoundrel.
Of course, Rhodes was by no means the worst of his tribe, and he stands out to-day as a hero, when compared with such scurvy specimens of humanity as the South African millionaires, who are nowadays kind enough to run horses and high society for our benefit. Rhodes had besides really grandiose notions which, even when stripped of their millionaire gilding, might well impose upon a man like Stead, to whom thinking in continents had a sort of Napoleonic fascination, the railway from Cape to Cairo; the British flag waving all over Africa; an English university awakened out of its torpor, and using its ancient and seductive influence for some higher object than to teach reaction and prop up rottenness. Each and all of these ideas might cause a much less impressionable person than Stead to feel that he was being brought into contact with a genius, even if that genius had been comparatively poor. But when the individual who gave utterance to them possessed a vast fortune, of which, in the cant phrase of our day, he himself had been the architect, why, then, Rhodes appeared to Stead as a very necromancer of modern English Imperialism: the one personage competent above all others to realise dreams which he had persuaded himself were worthy of prompt realisation in fact.
But Stead, to do him justice, never hesitated a moment when the choice lay between supporting the war and breaking his close friendship with Rhodes and his imperial aspirations. It was as a strong opponent of Mr. Chamberlain's policy and all that it represented that I was again thrown into contact with Mr. Stead. As he really was fighting, and fighting hard, on the right side, we Social-Democrats let bygones be bygones, and protected his meetings for him, when his own folk thought peaceful persuasion would save him from the assaults of infuriated jingoes. It is my conviction, which he shared, that our people were the means of preserving him from really serious injury at Exeter Hall. Meeting Stead in the street he told me how very much obliged to us he felt for thus standing by him, and he wrote a letter to our organisation expressing his thanks more formally. But in his opposition to all wars, and not merely to this war in particular, he was, I believe, perfectly genuine. Moreover, his belief that an overwhelmingly powerful navy at our disposal tended to keep peace was, I hold, perfectly sound. There was no contradiction whatever between this view and his habitual pacifism. For a great power to tempt attack by weakness is to incite to war, as things stand to-day, and this must be the opinion of the Nobel Trustees, or they never would have decided, had he lived, to accord to him the Nobel Prize for his advocacy of peace and a big navy at the same time.
When the Italians made their unprovoked attack upon Tripoli Mr. Stead wrote to me and asked me to take part in meetings, and in arranging an organised agitation against their policy. This, although he certainly had no love for the unspeakable Turk. I held much the same opinion as he did about the unjustifiable character of the Italian campaign, but I had plenty of other work to do at the time, and I was not inclined to mix myself up with a somewhat hypocritical form of protestation, as I thought, when we ourselves are pretty constantly at the same game in Asia and elsewhere. Besides, I did not care to associate myself with Mr. Stead's pacifist set, who were all of them as anti-Socialist at bottom as he was himself. And much opposed as any really sane man must be to war between nations, it is obvious that the wars of to-day are in the main capitalist wars; that, moreover, the class war in peace in every country is far more horrible than even the military war abroad. But this Stead would never see, and thought the Hague Arbitration Court was of far greater importance to mankind than all the work of the Socialists. His laudation, also, of the Czar, the Kaiser, the Pope, in fact of anybody who held an autocratic position and used it, rendered close co-operation impossible.
In short, Stead was, altogether, an extraordinary character, and probably the mistake I made about him was to take him too seriously. A man with a modern witch of Endor constantly at his elbow in the shape of his "Julia" advising him as to his every action, and keeping himself and his friends posted as to their material, as well as their psychical, salvation, was obviously somewhat deranged. His beliefs, too, were curiously mixed. Providence for him was queerly composted of Jehovah and Oliver Cromwell. He would kotow to Nicholas of Russia, but it was a perennial source of joy to him that Charles I. involuntarily parted from his head. The second window on the main floor of Whitehall was sacred to him by reason of the fact that through it "the man Charles Stuart" stepped on to the scaffold to be permanently shortened. How he reconciled this rather stringent form of persuasion with his vehement advocacy of peace I never could make out; though I asked him more than once to give me his explanation. My own view of him now is that his mind was not at all consecutive. It moved by kangaroo leaps. But the nonconformist taint he had inherited and cultivated showed itself in all its various manifestations. That and a marked tendency to mountebank methods even when alone.
I called to see him one day, and he came in suddenly with a dingy, yellowish-brown suit on, marked all over with the broad arrow, and a queer-shaped cap, similarly decorated, on his head. I asked him jokingly if he was going to a fancy ball as a criminal lunatic? He then told me that this day was the anniversary of his imprisonment on account of the Maiden Tribute business, and that he made it a practice to appear in this garb by way of remembrance every year on that date. I suggested that a complete cropping of his hair would be still more likely to impress the matter upon his visitors, and even upon himself.
Stead's fine end in the midst of all the muddle and mismanagement of the terrible disaster to the Titanic showed that below all his self-advertisement and charlatanry was a cool courage and self sacrifice which all must admire.