Academic journal article Journal of American & Comparative Cultures

The Evangelina Cisneros Romance, Medievalist Fiction, and the Journalism That Acts

Academic journal article Journal of American & Comparative Cultures

The Evangelina Cisneros Romance, Medievalist Fiction, and the Journalism That Acts

Article excerpt

He should have been born in the active days of knights-- errant-to have had nothing more serious to do than to ride abroad with a blue ribbon fastened to the point of his lance, and with the spirit to unhorse any one who objected to its color, to to the claims of superiority of the noble lady who had tied it there.

Richard Harding Davis, The Princess Aline

I. Introduction

In mid-1897 as the United States inched toward conflict with Spain over colonial control of Cuba, one sensational event served as a rallying point for Americans intent on war. A young Cuban woman named Evangelina Cisneros1 was charged with conspiracy to assassinate a Spanish official and imprisoned in Havana. The young and brash newspaper editor William Randolph Hearst, however, dumbfounded that such a lovely specimen could be guilty of treasonous crimes, perpetuated a more emotionally-- laden version of the story within the pages of his New York Journal: that Cisneros was held captive because she had chastely refused the advances of a Spanish colonel.

Had the Cisneros story been limited to reportage about her imprisonment, whatever its cause, it might have served as little more than a passing example of how newspapers highlighted atrocities against Cuban women before the Spanish-American War. But the story is pertinent today because of how Hearst's Journal created a masterpiece of manufactured news by colliding actuality with fictionality and with familiar literary forms, ultimately drawing upon readers' expectations about one of the most popular genres of the decade-the medievalist romance novel. The story of Cisneros was not a dry presentation of documentary evidence filed within the pages of the Journal. Rather, it was a testimony to her goodness and heroic nature, filled with the melodramatic adventure, unforgettable characters, and forbidding settings of a captivity narrative set in romantic, medievalist discourse. In this grand tale, Hearst's reporters strategically capitalized on the literary vogue of medievalist romances; incorporated those vogues into the news; and rewrote the news as a real romance. They turned the young woman into a cause celebre, portraying her as a virginal heroine transmogrified from the pages of a romance novel and held captive in the fearsome grip of a diabolical Spanish overlord.

Hearst's Journal was perhaps the penultimate example of late nineteenth-century "new journalism," an innovative, commercialized, and above all sensationalistic newspaper style first championed in Joseph Pulitzer's New York World.2 Readers at the turn of the century approached the Journal and similar papers confident they would find thrilling stories told by people who spoke from experience-they would encounter the expert, eyewitness accounts of crimes, scandals, accidents, and all things sensational (all mediated, of course, through the reporter's colorful pen). New journalism transformed traditional newspapers, which wrote about the news, into a "journalism that acts," as Hearst himself put it, a journalism that constructed the news and believable-if ultimately fictionalized-stories.3 Hearst encouraged his writers to blend the apparent facts of the news with specific literary vocabularies, creating a meta-fiction that Journal readers consumed voraciously. In the case of Evangelina Cisneros, Hearst created the meta-fiction because he wanted his readers and the government to act, just as his was "the journalism that acts." That is, he wanted to free Cisneros from her Havana jail cell, and he wanted to sell more newspapers as a highly-- desirable by-product of that political action. Hearst recognized that the way to motivate readers-and in turn the government-to act toward the same goal was to make Cisneros' story real to them, something achievable only by turning the facts of the case into a familiar fiction, so that the truth could be stranger (and even better) than fiction.

In this article I first survey Hearst's articulations of new journalism. …

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