Monday, May 28, 2007

The Iconoclast

Ed Kemmick, that putrid purveyor of pussyfooted prognostication, waxes nostalgic for the days when newspaper vituperation was in style. Such nostalgia (which I share, as the borrowed motto at the top of this page indicates) always draws me to "Brann and the Iconoclast," an account of the life of William Cowper Brann, whose Iconoclast was published in Waco, Texas, but gained international circulation. Brann's gift for invective was often turned against religion, a sensitive target in a town that was the home of Baylor University.

Of one popular preacher of the day (whose syndicated column appeared in 3,500 newspapers), Brann wrote:
The Tyler Telegram humbly apologizes for having called that wide-lipped blatherskite, T. DeWitt Talmadge, "a religious faker." Next thing we know our Tyler contemporary will apologize for having inadvertently hazarded the statement that water is wet. When a daily newspaper tells the truth, even by accident, it should stick to it instead of crawling on its belly in the dust to humbly ask pardon of the Devil. The Iconoclast will pay any man $10 who will demonstrate that T. DeWitt Talmadge ever originated an idea, good, bad or indifferent. He is simply a monstrous bag of fetid wind. The man who can find intellectual food in Talmadge's sermons could acquire a case of delerium tremens by drinking the froth out of a pop bottle.

When Baptists in Nacogdoches, Texas, wrote Brann to tell him they had pressured the local news agent to quit selling the Iconoclast, Brann wrote back, "... contumacious recalcitrants are invariably boycotted in business by the hydrocephalous sect which boasts that it was the first to establish liberty of conscience and freedom of speech in this country, yet which has been striving desperately for a hundred years to banish the last vestige of individuality and transform this nation into a pharisaical theocracy with some prurient hypocrite as its hierarch ..."

Unlike the nameless cowards whose anonymous comments so often pollute blog posts, Brann faced the consequences of his poison pen. After recovering from a kidnapping, beating and near lynching by a band of Baylor students, he wrote, "I have just been enjoying the first holiday I have had in fifteen years. Owing to circumstances entirely beyond my control, I devoted the major part of the past month to digesting a couple of installments of Saving Grace presented by my Baptist brethren, and carefully rubbed in with revolvers and ropes, loaded canes and miscellaneous cudgels -- with almost any old thing calculated to make a sinner reflect upon the status of his soul ..."

Then he issued this challenge in response to those who claimed he had slandered Southern women: "I walk the streets of Waco day by day, and I walk them alone. Let these cur-ristians shoot me in the back if they dare, then plead that damning lie as excuse for their craven cowardice. If the decent of this community fail to chase them to their holes and feed their viscera to the dogs, then I'd rather be dead and in hades forever than alive in Waco a single day."

He didn't have to wait long. On April 1, 1898, he was shot three times in a gun battle on a Waco street, the fatal wound entering his back right where the suspenders crossed. His attacker, shot four times, died soon after.

No comments: