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Radio Readers BookByte: The Existence of Wide-Ranging News

U.S. Post Office
Wikimedia Commons

I had almost forgotten how good it feels to slip into a narrative which folds around you and won’t let go until the very end.

In “News of the World” Paulette Jiles’ protagonist, Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd is a former printer who lost his press in the civil war and is now a traveling lecturer, who reads news of the world out of newspapers from cities around the country. He lives off the money his audiences pay to hear him.

Because he now travels, he is asked to transport a 10-year old girl to her relatives on his way from Wichita Falls in north Texas south to the San Antonio area. She has just been recovered after having been taken two years previously by Indians after they killed her parents. That journey and its unexpected conclusion is our narrative.

Paulette Giles’ main historical source is "The Captured" by Scott Zesch. Zesch was drawn to the stories of whites captured by indigenous tribes because of a great, great uncle of his, Adolph Korn. “The Captured” is almost a guide to “News of the World.” Both books emphasize how, regardless of violence involved in their kidnappings, people taken by the Indian raiders never left the lives they were abducted into. The captives preferred their native lives, becoming “white Indians,” as they were called.

One piece of exposition left wide open by Paulette Jiles is how the news of the world got to those newspapers that Captain Kidd carries and reads from.

In Jiles’ book the existence of wide-ranging news is a given. It wasn’t so in every country. The history of news distribution in the United States belongs to the Post Office, specifically the Postal Act of 1792, akin, for its time, to net neutrality today. The Postal Act of 1792 had four factors which were central to the role it would play in the new nation. All postal routes were created and set by congress. There was no minimum required revenue to setup and run a post office. The privacy of the mail was protected - no government surveillance

Newspaper exchange between printers was free.

When the constitution was created there was almost no sense of a nation. The states were what the average citizen related to. The Post Office became almost the only visible connection with the federal government. By 1831 postal employees made up 74-percent of all federal employees and by 1841 the figure was 79-percent.

In England and Europe at the same time new post offices had to have a return in revenue. France required $200(USD) a year. In the US, congress members appointed postmasters everywhere, a use of pork barrel politics.

Most pertinent to Captain Kidd’s lectures was the Postal Act’s free exchange for newspapers between printers. Printers shared and re-published information, from the largest cities to the most remote frontier outposts - very much the way bloggers re-publish information today.

When Alexis de Tocqueville visited the US in 1831 for the French government, later publishing “Democracy in America,” Tocqueville was impressed that the most back-country citizens knew more about European affairs than most citizens in his own country who were not in a capital city.

Jiles’ protagonist, Captain Kidd, was born in 1798 and first went to war in 1812. Later at nearly 50 the author places him in the Mexican War where his skills as a printer are enlisted (literally) to print dispatches. Within that time, by the 1830’s, newspapers were receiving around 4,500 exchange papers a year, more than a dozen papers a day on average (4500/365).

That was pre-telegraph. By 1866 a telegraph cable had been laid across the Atlantic to Europe. And that is where, in 1870, Jiles sets the stage for her character’s journey in “News of the World.”

References / links

“News of the World,” by Paulette Giles

“The Captured : A True Story of Abduction by Indians on the Texas Frontier,” by Scott Zesch

“Spreading The News, The American Postal System from Franklin to Morse,” by Richard R. John

I was also reminded of “The Postman,”a post-apocalyptic book by David Brin (and later movie with Kevin Costner). (Blurb quote: “He was a survivor—a wanderer who traded tales for food and shelter in the dark and savage aftermath of a devastating war.”) The postman becomes the savior he was seeking.