A lost literary relic of the First World War, Common Cause tells the story of Jeremy Robson, a crusading newspaper editor in the fictional midwestern town of Fenchester. The Guardian's muckraking has led special interests to withhold advertising in order to drive Robson out of business. But he and local plutocrats put their differences aside when war is declared in 1917 in order to attack the German-American community for its supposed fealty to their Fatherland. Common Cause provides a vivid picture of the America-first fear and hate that gripped the midwestern United States during the Great War.
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About the Author
Samuel Hopkins Adams (1871–1958) was an American muckraker and World War I propagandist. He wrote for the New York Sun, McClure’s Magazine, and Collier’s Weekly and authored dozens of books, including Revelry and Common Cause.
John Maxwell Hamilton is the Hopkins P. Breazeale Professor at Louisiana State University’s Manship School of Mass Communication and a Global Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. He is the author and editor of many books, including the award-winning Journalism’s Roving Eye: A History of American Newsgathering Abroad.
Amy Solomon Whitehead is a Baton Rouge based writer and communications consultant.
Read an Excerpt
"Deutschland, Deutschland über alles!" Three thousand voices blended and swelled in the powerful harmony. The walls of the Fenchester Auditorium trembled to it. The banners, with their German mottoes of welcome, swayed to the rhythm.
"Über alles in der Welt!"
The thundering descent of the line with its superb resonances was as martial as a cavalry charge. Three thousand flushed, perspiring, commonplace faces above respectable black coats in the one sex and mildly ornate blouses in the other, were caught by the fire and the ferment of it and grew suddenly rapt and ecstatic. Wave after wave of massed harmonies followed in the onset. One could feel, rather than hear, in the impassioned voices a spirit instantly more fanatic, more exotic, a strange and exultant note, as of challenge. It was inspiring. It was startling. It was formidable. It was anything for which young Mr. Jeremy Robson, down in the reporters' seats, might find an adjective, except, perhaps, American.
Yet this was the American city of Fenchester, capital of the sovereign State of Centralia, in the year of grace and peace, nineteen hundred and twelve, half a decade before the United States of America descended into the Valley of the Shadow of Death to face the German guns, thundering out that same chorus of "Germany over all in the world!"
All the Federated German Societies of the State of Centralia in annual convention assembled might sing their federated German heads off for all that Jeremy Robson cared. He mildly approved the music, not so much for the sense as for the sound, under cover of which he was enabled to question his neighbor, Galpin, of The Guardian, concerning the visiting notabilities upon the stage. For young Mr. Robson was still a bit new to his work on The Record, and rather flattered that an assignment of this importance should have fallen to him. The local and political celebrities he already knew — the Governor; the Mayor; Robert Wanser, President of the Fenchester Trust Company; State Senator Martin Embree; Carey Crobin, the "Boss of the Ward"; Emil Bausch, President of the local Deutscher Club; and a dozen of the other leading citizens, all ornamented with conspicuous badges. Galpin obligingly indicated the principal strangers. Gordon Fliess, of Bellair, head of the Fliess Brewing Company; the Reverend Theo Gunst, the militant ecclesiast of a near-by German Theological Seminary; Ernst Bauer, of the Marlittstown Herold und Zeitung; Pastor Klink, the recognized head of the German religious press of the region; Martin Dolge, accredited with being the dictator of the State's educational system; and the Herr Professor Koerner, of the University of Felsingen, special envoy from Germany to the United States for the propagation of that wide-spread and carefully fostered Teutonic plant, Deutschtum, the spirit of German Kultur in foreign lands.
At the close of the musical exaltation of Germany above all the world, including, of course, the hospitably adoptive nation under whose protection the singers sat, the exercises proceeded with a verbal glorification of the Fatherland. The Governor, in complimentary and carefully memorized German, lauded the Teutons as the prop of the State. The Mayor, in strongly Teutonized English, proclaimed them the hope of the city. Several other speakers, whose accents identified them as more American than their sentiments, acclaimed the upholders of Deutschtum as salt of the earth and pillars of Society. Then a chorus of public school children, in the colors of imperial Germany, rose to sing "Die Wacht am Rhein," and everybody rose with them, or nearly everybody. They sang it directly in the face of his Imperial Majesty, Kaiser Wilhelm, gazing, bewreathed, down at them from over the stage, with stern and martial approval.
"They do it mighty well," commented young Jeremy Robson.
"Ay-ah. Why wouldn't they!" returned Galpin.
"You mean they've been specially drilled for it?"
"Specially nothing! That's part of their regular school exercises."
"In the German schools?"
"In the public schools. Our school. Paid for out of our taxes. 'Come to order.' Tap-tap-tap with Teacher's ruler. 'Der bupils will now rice and zing "Die wacht am Rhein."' But try 'em with 'America,' and they wouldn't know the first verse."
"You seem to feel strongly about it."
"Not in working hours. Haven't got any feelings. I'm a reporter."
From this point the programme was exclusively in German. The next speaker, Pastor Klink, rose and glorified God, a typically if not exclusively German God. Emil Bausch, following, extolled the Kaiser rather more piously than his predecessor had glorified the Kaiser's Creator. Martin Dolge apostrophized the spirit of Deutschtum, which, if one might believe him, was invented by the Creator and improved by the Kaiser. Just here occurred an unfortunate break in the programme. The next speaker on the list had been called out, and an interim must be filled while he was retrieved. The chairman motioned to the band leader for music. Whether in a spirit of perversity or by sheer, unhappy chance, the director led his men in the strains of "The Star-Spangled Banner."
In justice to our citizens of German descent and allegiance, it must be admitted that they are of equable spirit. Nobody openly resented the playing of the national anthem. A glance of disapproval passed between the professorial envoy from Germany and Pastor Klink, and some of the others on the stage frowned momentarily. But their habitual tolerant good nature at once reasserted itself. Of course, no one rose; that gesture was reserved for the German national music. No one, that is, who counted in that assemblage. But from the reporters' seats Jeremy Robson and Galpin dimly made out a figure, long-coated, straw-hatted and slim, in the first row of the balcony's farthest corner, standing stiffly erect.
Around it buzzed a small disturbance. There were sounds of laughter, which spread and mingled with a few calls of disapprobation. A woman beside the erect figure seemed to be making an effort at dissuasion. It was unavailing. On the stage there were curious looks and queries. Presently the whole house was gazing at the slender, lone figure.
"Who's the kid?" asked Jeremy Robson, interested.
"Don't know him," answered Galpin, staring.
"I like his nerve, anyway."
"It's better than his style," commented the other, grinning. "If he's going to stand to attention, why doesn't he take off his hat?"
"Here's another one," said The Guardian reporter, turning toward the lower tier box on their right.
An iron-gray, square-jawed man with shrewd and pleasant eyes, who, in his obviously expensive but easy fitting suit of homespun, gave the impression of physical power, was shouldering his way to the rail. A small American flag occupied a humble position in a group of insignia ornamenting the next box. The man plucked it out and made as if he would raise it above his head, then changed his mind. Holding it stiffly in front of him he turned to face the distant figure, and so stood, grim, awkward, solid, while the chosen voice of the Nation's patriotism sang to unheeding ears below.
"Movie stuff," observed Jeremy Robson with that cynicism which every young reporter considers proper to his profession.
"That's Magnus Laurens," said his mentor. "Nothing theatrical about Magnus. He's a reg'lar feller."
The novice was impressed. For Laurens was a name of prestige throughout Centralia. Its owner controlled the water-power of the State and was a growing political figure.
"What's he doing it for?" he inquired.
"Because he's an American, I suppose. Queer reason, ain't it!"
"There's another, then," returned Robson, as there arose, from a front row seat on the stage, the strong and graceful figure of Martin Embree, State Senator from the Northern Tier, where the Germans make up three fourths of the population.
"Trust Smiling Mart to do the tactful thing," observed Galpin. "He's the guy that invented popularity, and he's held the patent ever since."
The Senator was wearing his famous smile which was both a natural ornament and a political asset. He directed it upon Magnus Laurens who did not see it, turned it toward the slim patriot in the gallery who may or may not have observed it, and then carried it close to the ear of the chairman. Snatches of his eager and low-toned persuasion floated down to the listening Robson.
"... all up. Can't ... harm. National ... after all. If don't want ... leave ... me."
The chairman shook his head glumly, broke loose from the smile, spoke a word to the erring orchestra leader. The music stopped. The figure in the balcony sank into the dimness of its background. Magnus Laurens sat down. Senator Embree, smiling and gracious still, returned to his chair.
"There's my story," said young Jeremy Robson, ever on the lookout for the picturesque. "If I can find that kid," he added.
"Try Magnus Laurens," suggested his elder. "Maybe he knows him."
Throughout the address of the Herr Professor Koerner, young Mr. Robson sat absently making notes. The notes were wholly irrelevant to the learned envoy's speech. Yet it was an interesting, even a significant speech, had there been any in those easy days, to appreciate its significance. The learned representative of German propaganda impressed upon his hearers the holy purpose of Deutschtum. German ties must be maintained; German habits and customs of life and above all the German speech must be piously fostered at whatever distance from the Fatherland, to the end that, in the inevitable day when Germany's oppressors, jealous of her power and greatness, should force her to draw the sword in self-defense, every scion of German blood might rally to her, against the world, if need be. Amidst the "Hochs!" and "Sehr guts!" which punctuated the oratory, the negligent reporter for The Record sat sketching the outlines of his word-picture of the stripling in the gallery and the magnate in the box, standing to honor their country's anthem, amidst the amused and patronizing wonderment of the Federated German Societies of Centralia. As the session drew to a close, he left.
Magnus Laurens had already gone. By good fortune, young Jeremy Robson caught a glimpse of his square and powerful figure, emerging from the crowd and going down a side street. A girl in a riding-habit was with him. In the bearing of her slender body, in the poise of the little head with its tight-packed strands of tawny hair, Jeremy Robson caught a hint of a subtle and innate quality, something gallant and proud and challenging. He overtook them.
"I beg your pardon, Mr. Laurens. My name is Robson. I'm a reporter for The Record. Could I have a word with you?"
The water-power magnate turned upon him a face of mingled annoyance and amusement.
"This is what I get for making a spectacle of myself, I take it," he grumbled. "What do you want to know? Why I did it?"
"No. That's plain enough. Who was the boy in the balcony?"
"Boy?" repeated Mr. Laurens in surprise.
"Yes. The kid that stood up when they began 'The Star-Spangled Banner.' Do you know him?"
"Let me refer that question to Miss Marcia Ames. She was right at the spot, in the balcony. Miss Ames, Mr. Robson."
Jeremy bowed and found himself looking into two large, young, and extremely self-possessed grayish eyes, frank and happy eyes on the surface, but with inscrutable lights and depths beneath. For the rest, his hasty impression recorded an alert, intelligent, and delicately slanted face, and an almost disconcertingly direct regard. The skin was of that translucent brown-over-pink which the sun god bestows only upon his tried and true acolytes.
"Do you know the boy, Miss Ames?"
"What boy?" Her voice was cool and liquid and endearing, and just a bit lazily indifferent, with a strange hint — never anything more — of accent.
"The boy who stood in the first row of the balcony."
"That was not a boy."
"That was I."
"You! You're much too tall."
"If you thought me a boy I would seem much shorter," she returned composedly.
"Do you mind telling me how you came to stand up as you did?"
"I always do when they play my national anthem. Do not you?"
The "do not you" gave the young man the clue to her speech, to the slightly exotic quality of it. It was less the accent than the clear precision of her use of words, without the slur or contraction of common usage. The charm of her soft and rather deep voice saved it from any taint of the pedantic.
"No," said he.
"Ah? But perhaps you are not an American."
"What else should I be?"
She shrugged her shoulders slightly.
"Nor do I," put in Magnus Laurens, "I'm ashamed to say."
"At all events, you did it this time. It was very nice in you. Usually I feel quite lonely. And once they were going to arrest me for it."
"Where was that?" asked Jeremy Robson, stealthily reaching for his folded square of scratch paper.
"In Germany. When I was at school there. Are you going to put all this in the paper?"
"Would you mind?"
"I suppose I ought to mind. It is very forward and unmaidenly, is it not, to permit one's self to be dragged into print?"
"It is," said Magnus Laurens, his shrewd eyes twinkling, "and about one hundred and one maidens out of every hundred just love it, according to my observations."
"I do not think that I should object," said Miss Ames calmly. "In fact I should be curious to see what you would say about me."
That was Jeremy Robson's first intimation of her unique frankness of attitude toward herself as toward all other persons and things.
"We are on our way to the hotel where Mrs. Laurens is waiting for us," explained the water-power dictator. "Why not walk along with us while you conclude the interview?"
"I haven't much more to ask Miss Ames," said the reporter, complying, "except what started her on her patriotic habit."
"My father was an army officer," she explained. "While he was alive we always stood up together. Now I could no more sit through 'The Star-Spangled Banner' than you would wear your hat in church. But I really do not see anything to write about in that. There was much, surely, more interesting at the meeting."
"What, for instance?"
"The whole affair," she said vaguely. "It seemed to me strange. What are so many German subjects doing over here?"
"Those aren't German subjects, my dear," said Mr. Laurens. "They're American citizens, mostly."
"Surely not!" exclaimed the girl. "The German flags, and the pictures of the Emperor, and all the talk about the German spirit, and — and 'Deutschland über alles.' From Americans?"
"Certainly," said the reporter. "And good ones."
"I should think they would better be called good Germans. One cannot imagine that sort of thing occurring in a German city. I mean if the case were reversed, and Americans wanted to hold such a meeting."
"No? What would happen?"
"Verboten. Lèse-majesté. Anti-imperialismus. Something dreadful of that sort."
"They aren't as broad-minded in such things as we are," observed Mr. Laurens, in a tone which caused young Jeremy Robson to glance at him curiously and then become thoughtful.
"Did you notice that fat and glossy person on the stage, the one who had just made that speech — what was his name? Bausch, I think — did you notice his patronizing grin when you got up, Mr. Laurens? As if he felt a calm superiority to your second-rate patriotism."
"What a malicious young person!" said Laurens. "There's really no harm in Bausch that can't be blown off like froth from beer."
"I suppose there is a story in all that," ruminated young Jeremy Robson: "if I had the sense to see it. Maybe it would take a historian's mind instead of a reporter's to see it right. But I think I can get some of it into my 'Star-Spangled Banner' story."
"Good luck to you and it, then," said Magnus Laurens cordially. "I'd like to see someone in this town at this time point out that, after all, America is America."
"Would you?" said the girl. "Walk around to the next block and I will show you what I saw this morning as I passed."
They followed her around the corner and stopped before a tiny shop with a giant's boot swinging in front of it. The legend over the door read:
Boot & Shoe Infirmary Eli Wade, Surgeon
Across the window was stretched a brand-new American flag, and beneath it a second legend, roughly inked on packing-paper and secured to the glass with cobbler's wax:
The Flag of Our Country. It stands alone.
Two beribboned, bespangled, bebadged German Federates passed near them, and paused.
"That is the man who refused to decorate with our colors," said one, in German.
"Pfui!" said the second contemptuously, "'s machts nichts. Matters nodding!"
Jeremy Robson took off his hat and made his adieus. "You've given me something to think about," he said, apportioning his acknowledgement impartially, though his eyes were on the strange and alluring face of Marcia Ames. "Good-bye, and thank you."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Common Cause"
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