Conference Report: W. T. Stead: Centenary Conference for a Newspaper Revolutionary

Paul Horn, University of Birmingham

On 16 and 17 April 2012, early career researchers, established academics, media and law professionals met at the British Library to exchange their perspectives on the life and work of the pioneering journalist and editor, W. T. Stead.  With Stead’s discursive career as a focal point, multiple routes were developed into knowledge of his time and ours.

Day One

The conference was opened with a keynote from Laurel Brake (Birkbeck), whose paper ‘W. T. Stead and the Governance of Journalism: Dailies, Monthlies, and Annuals’ gave an introduction to Stead’s innovation, influence, and ‘total responsiveness’ to the world of letters.  Brake’s parallel presentation of pages of the Times and the Pall Mall Gazette from 1885 – overcrowded and sober columns of minute text on the one hand; banner headlines, shorter more readable paragraphs, illustrations, diagrams and maps on the other – persuasively made the case for Stead as a modernizer.  Stead, it was asserted, imagined a future in which the personality and centrality of the editor was on a level with the Prime Minister, and journalistic culture had replaced religion.  Stead’s colonizing cultural approach was shown to be encapsulated by his exploitation of the genre of ‘newspaper fiction’, in which the boundaries between literature and reporting were distorted.

My Spooks Speak Stead-ese

The first panel, focussing on Stead’s relationship with the occult, was chaired by Christine Ferguson (Glasgow), and began with a paper by Mark Blacklock (Birkbeck) titled ‘“Through the looking glass”: W. T. Stead’s higher spatial holiday’, in which we were invited to ‘buckle up and allow William Stead, in full visionary mode, to take you on a voyage to another dimension’.  Blacklock’s subject was ‘Throughth: Or, On the Eve of the Fourth Dimension’, an essay published in  the Review of Reviews, April 1893, and apparently Stead’s only sortie into higher space.  It was explained that Stead saw all kinds of psychical phenomena as ‘rifts in the limits of our three dimensional space’, and how closely Stead’s prose seems to ventriloquise the anonymous I Awoke! Conditions of Life on the Other Side Communicated by Automatic Writing (1893), and perhaps more surprisingly, Henry James on optimal perspective in fiction.  Kate Campbell (UEA) also drew on James in her paper ‘“Other Agencies at Work” in W T Stead: Journalism and the Occult’.  She persuasively elucidated traces of the occult oracles of Stead’s writing in the constructions of reading in James’s ‘The Papers’ (1903).  ‘“Julia Says”: Spirit-writing and the editorial mediumship of W. T. Stead’, the paper given by Sarah Crofton (KCL), focused on Julia’s Bureau, the séance circle set up by Stead to allow people to contact lost love ones via ‘Julia’, a spirit he claimed to be in contact with through automatic writing.  We learnt, via the occult journal, Light’s assertion that ‘We cannot say that Julia’s messages are anything new’ and Stead’s own famous admission that ‘my spooks speak Stead-ese’, that the messages recorded are most usefully to be identified as Stead working within the burgeoning literary genre of ‘spirit writing’.  Crofton’s paper also contained the best pun of the day, dubbing Julia’s Bureau a ‘dead-letter office’.  Finally, William Tattersdill (KCL) delineated Stead’s credentials as a ‘crowd-sourcing occultist’ in ‘Where are the Borders in “Borderland”?: Science and Fiction in Stead’s Journalism’. 

The Newspaper Revolutionary

A number of the afternoon’s papers focussed on Stead’s exploits as publisher.  ‘“Our Association of Helpers”: Participatory Reader Networks in W. T. Stead’s Review of Reviews’ by Ann Hale (University of St Thomas) brought into full focus Stead’s promotion of the collaborative use of media.  Stead involved the Review in social work, setting up the ‘Association of Helpers’, a ‘secret society’ of ‘alter egos’ working on the editor’s behalf.  Help: a Journal of Social Service was employed as a ‘diffuser’ of the Association’s philanthropy.  Hale showed a world map on which the members of the association were plotted.  The members numbered less than 300 but were quite widely distributed – stimulating ideas of a telepathic ‘distant intimacy’ between them.  In ‘W. T. Stead and his “Masterpiece Library”’, Tom Lockwood (Birmingham) set out the significance of Stead’s Penny Poets series, also published under the Review’s auspices.  We learnt that Stead saw his project of bringing canonical writers into the hands of non-canonical readers as being of literary, social, and national importance.  Lockwood also explained what an expert manipulator of paratexts Stead was, constructing a canon which provocatively juxtaposed high and low discourse.  Ken Goldstein (President of Communic@tions Management Inc.) gave a paper entitled ‘From Stead’s Daily Paper to Murdoch’s Daily App: The Rise and Fall of Mass Media’.  Returning us to the present day, Goldstein identified similarities between Murdoch and Stead, arguing that we are now at the end of a hundred year cycle which has seen the ‘unbundling’ of media and the ‘endowed’ newspaper.

The contemporary turn was sustained by the plenary panel with which the day was brought to a close.  Tom Gibbons (Manchester), Karen McCullagh (UEA), and Barry Turner (University of Lincoln) discussed how Stead’s investigative journalism – which notably in the case of his famous ‘Maiden Tribute’ involved committing an illegality to effect a change in the law – illuminates the modern day relationship between the press and the law.  Gibbons suggested that industrial pressures incite journalists to act in an unethical fashion.  Turner added to the debate by noting that in a democracy, law breaking is unsanctionable, especially for journalists.  William Tattersdill’s prescient comment from the floor noted that in our day, as in Stead’s, the legal means to change the law depend upon resources not evenly distributed in society.

Day Two

John Durham Peters (Iowa) opened the second day of the conference with a keynote entitled Discourse Networks 1912.  Peters investigated the links between Stead’s varied interests, especially between technology and the spirit world, and used Friedrich Kittler’s seminal Discourse Networks 1800/1900 as a key part of the critical framework.  The connection between telegraphy and the occult was explored particularly persuasively.  Peters also argued that Stead discovered ‘the banality of the new media’, and that in the age of its abundance, his ‘steadiness’ should be admired.

Stead and the Woman Question

The afternoon’s discussion picked up on one of the themes that had been suggested at various junctures on the previous day – the question of the variety of Stead’s correspondences and professional relationships with women.  As Sarah Crofton’s paper had detailed, Stead’s intimacy with the discarnate ‘Julia’ was so acute that her identity (at least as an author) began to merge with his – which had a problematic effect on the credibility of the writings issued from her ‘bureau’.  Stead’s support of the work of living women seemed to cause the repetition of this unfortunate outcome.  The paper by Elyssa Warkentin (Calgary-Qatar), ‘W. T. Stead as Mentor: His Influential Friendship with Mrs Belloc Lowndes’, asserted that the latter described him as ‘credulous’.  ‘“I’m really going to kill him this time”: Olive Schreiner, W. T. Stead and the Politics of Publicity in the Review of Reviews’ by Clare Gill (QUB) and ‘W. T. Stead’s “Character Sketch” of Annie Besant in the Review of Reviews in 1891: Support or Closure?’ by Murel Pecastaing-Boissiere (Paris-Sorbonne) gave further emphasis to the idea of Stead’s patronage as a double-edged sword.  During the discussion which followed, Lyn Pykett (Aberystwyth) raised a pertinent question: did Stead ever champion a woman he had never met?

Stead and Literature

In the afternoon, Shoshana Knapp (Virginia Tech) argued for the distant affinity between Stead and Victor Hugo in her paper ‘Common Concerns, Crusades, and Visions’.  She detailed how two episodes in Les Miserables echo Stead’s encounter with a runaway thief at the age of twenty.  She convincingly asserted that Hugo’s impalpable, iridescent, changeling ‘devil-fish’ from Travailleurs de la mer rematerializes as a social force in Stead’s If Christ Came to Chicago (1894).  Neil Berry encouraged us to appreciation the full power of Stead’s hegemonic impulse in ‘The Periodical Editor as Conquistador’ via the reception of his publications, with particular prominence given to the tributes received from politicians.  The Review of Reviews, Berry asserted, could be seen as ‘almost literally grasping “the best thought in the world”’.

Stead and Survival

The conference was concluded with two plenaries.  The first was a panel on The Future of the Newspaper Archive, chaired by Jim Mussell (Birmingham).  Jim Draper (Gale Cengage), Patrick Fleming (British Library), Clare Horrocks (Liverpool John Moores) and Chris Cotton (ProQuest) engaged delegates on the topic of the preservation of both Stead’s work and the effective continuance of his project to capture all that is written on important developments in the world – increasingly, in a digital environment.

To close the conference, Roger Luckhurst (Birkbeck), gave a fascinating insight into what he termed ‘Stead’s Death (and Slight Return)’.  Stead apparently went unseen by eyewitnesses aboard the sinking Titanic, but subsequently his presence loomed large in the press as he became iconic for the crisis.  Spectral communications also confounded this absence, and indeed the efficacy of telegraphy, Lady Archibald Campbell allegedly receiving a telepathic message of the tragedy – ‘W .T. Stead drowned’ – before the official news reached her.  Luckhurst also detailed the frictionless continuity between Stead’s life and his posthumous persona, appearing, shortly after his death, at a séance held by a direct voice medium as a luminous presence in his ‘normal walking costume’, and evidently more conversant in ‘Stead-ese’ than any other ‘spook’. 

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