What does the Amherst Bulletin police log have in common with a man who wrote popular books on simple country pleasures 100 years ago?
A stern journalistic taskmaster named Phillip Whitespace.
About 20 years ago, when I was editor of the Bulletin, I was responsible for an enormous amount of editorial space but had a diminishing staff. Every week, it was a struggle to “fill up white space.” I did interviews with political figures and published them verbatim, and devoted whole pages to photographs taken by high school students.
Then I hit upon the idea of publishing not just arrests but also a list of routine police calls, from noise complaints to problems with animals. It was a simple matter of getting copies of police records, agreeing on ground rules, and assigning someone to write them up. It produced a lot of copy with minimal effort and expense.
I never expected that people would actually enjoy reading the police log. But it turned out that many people found it entertaining, and some even found in it a kind of poetry!
The Bulletin police log developed a wry wit when Scott Merzbach started writing it. Readers started seeking out unusual items, such as “A golden retriever by the side of Montague Road was just taking a nap and had not been hit by a vehicle” and “A man licking the pavement on Main Street was gone when police got there.”
Imagine my surprise when in 2002 Harper’s magazine published selections from the Bulletin’s police log as “found poetry.” A former UMass grad student named Corwin Ericson submitted them to Harper’s, which gave them the headline “Gone When Police Got There.” Ericson later called police logs “people’s history” and “marginalized literature” and published a book called “Checked Out OK” (I’m not making this up; check it out on amazon.com) with 300 police log items in it.
I heard about people reading the police log aloud at pubs to general amusement. I still hear of people who read the police log before they look at anything else in the paper.
I was reminded of this irony when I was researching the life of Ray Stannard Baker, a “muckraker” journalist who in 1910 moved to Amherst, where he lived until his death in 1946. Under the pseudonym David Grayson, he published nine books of homespun essays about country life and human generosity, and they sold over two million copies worldwide. In an earlier blog post, I wrote about Baker’s admission that he wrote the Grayson books, ending 10 years of speculation.
It turns out that Phillip Whitespace also had a hand in creating David Grayson. In 1906, Baker, shown at right, was working at the American magazine. “One day, the cry went up for copy,” he recalled. “The editorial staff got together and questioned each other as to what each could do for the magazine. We promised to look over what we had in our barrels and if possible make some additional contribution to the magazine.”
For years, Baker had kept notebooks for jottings that he never expected to be published, and in 1906 he refashioned them into a series of essays that were later collected in books. He created the persona of David Grayson, a compassionate rural philosopher, whose writing style was quite different from the hard-charging Baker. Appreciative letters to the magazine poured in by the thousands.
“At the time, I certainly felt that the articles I was writing under my own name were of far greater importance than the David Grayson sketches,” Baker recalled. “Strange, isn’t it, how rarely one knows what is important and what is not?”