Free Press in Freehand: The Spirit of American Blogging in the Handwritten Newspapers of John McLean Harrington, 1858-1869

By Renaud, Sally | Journalism & Mass Communication Educator, Winter 2011 | Go to article overview

Free Press in Freehand: The Spirit of American Blogging in the Handwritten Newspapers of John McLean Harrington, 1858-1869


Renaud, Sally, Journalism & Mass Communication Educator


Books M Smith, Michael Ray (2011). Free Press in Freehand: The Spirit of American Blogging in the Handwritten Newspapers of John McLean Harrington, 1858-1869. Grand Rapids, MI: Edenridge Press, pp. 217.

"With pleasure or displeasures to friends or foes we sketch the world as it goes" - slogan of the Nation, John McLean Harrington's handwritten newspaper, published for five months in 1858.

Journalism history education is often about helping students see connections between what happened in the past and what is happening now. Free Press in Freehand shows those connections by reminding readers that every generation has writers who report the news and share it in some manner, considering their audience and perhaps their own egos, as they do.

Smith tells the story of a Civil War publisher whose handwritten newspapers compare with journalism of his time and with journalism of today. He makes the argument that in many ways, the work of Harrington may be compared to the work of today's blogger, who "control[s] the design and content of his personal musings about public life" (p. 4).

That's just one aspect of the book. Readers are treated to a discussion of the role about the newspaper in the South of the 1850s and 1860s, using Harrington's work as the primer.

History textbook examinations of Civil War journalism tend to be weighted toward the stories of the Northern press, which were bigger and more successful than their Southern counterparts. But Smith looks into the very personal journalism of a small, rural community in North Carolina during this era. Through the story of Harrington and his 302 handwritten issues of various newspapers during the course of eleven years, we are treated to a glimpse of what news about the war and the community was disseminated. And just as with a content analysis of any newspaper, a look at Harrington's papers reveals something about Harnett County's business, culture, circumstances, and politics.

His newspapers, including the Nation and the Young American, were suited to the needs of his community, and Harrington thought of himself as a credible voice for a certain political and cultural style. He referred to himself as "a lifelong, known member of the community" (p. 42). He wrote of morals, news, and literature, whatever suited his fancy, in addition to advertisements and, of course, politics.

In a chapter on journalism history theory, Smith focuses on the Cultural School, which examines the social and economic conditions that influence journalism's evolution. He suggests that Harrington's handwritten papers reflect a society in the midst of change, yet clinging to its traditions. Smith explains that newspapers in the South during this time used the telegraph and railroads but faced high illiteracy rates and a scarcity of materials during the war, including manpower. He points out the differences between the state's city papers, such as the Raleigh Register and the Raleigh Standard, and the rural papers such as Harrington's. And he challenges the agreed-upon definition of a newspaper, defending Harrington's publications as newspapers despite the fact that they were not printed on a mechanical printing press. He argues that the point becomes moot when no presses were available. Whether newspapers are composed and distributed with no mechanical presses, in places such as prisons and mining camps, they provide their readers with a shared culture and experience.

The book is at its best when it provides readers with background. Smith has done his research. …

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