Donn Piatt: Gadfly of the Gilded Age. By Peter Bridges. Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 2012.
The word ‘gadfly’ references those whose probing questions challenge constituted authority. It can also mean an annoyance of either insect or human form. Gilded Age journalist Donn Piatt (1819-91) was a social critic and a crank–the sort of man who made nervous friends and powerful enemies, both of whom sometimes wondered if he was fully human. His personal hubris was that he often failed to pick allies and foes wisely and displayed a penchant for attacking the perceived shortcomings of friends with the same vitriol normally reserved for one’s opponents.
Former Foreign Service officer Peter Bridges presents a well-researched portrait of a man who is often hard to stomach. Piatt’s unusually spelled first name was a product of his Huguenot heritage, and a modern psychologist might suggest he also inherited a persecution complex from his French Protestant ancestors. He made his greatest impact in newspapers, especially The Capital, published in Washington, DC. Piatt fancied himself a corruption-hating editor and investigative reporter, though “editorialist” probably better describes his partisan slash-and-burn approach to politics. Although Piatt was deeply opposed to slavery during the antebellum period, he was also a lifelong Democrat who found Whigs annoying and Republicans contemptible. He was especially rough on Republicans and fellow Ohioans U. S. Grant and Rutherford B. Hayes, but a list of former Piatt friends that came to despise him includes Thomas Nast, Mark Twain, and Walt Whitman, each known to be contrarians in their own right.
Bridges is occasionally critical of Piatt, but he also clearly admires him and finds him humorous, both judgments open to question. Bridges too often takes Piatt at face value and rationalizes his pig-headedness; he also shortchanges analysis through a gossipy writing style that induces abrupt continuity breaks. One longs for deeper critiques of some of Piatt’s more ridiculous opinions, among them that Jefferson Davis was more honorable than Grant, and that the greatest Union Civil War generals were George H. Thomas and William Rosecrans! Piatt had strong opinions on many subjects, but decades after the Civil War he rehashed tactics and command decisions that few Americans could recall. A dispassionate assessment might be that by the end of the Grant administration, Piatt had become the classic Gilded Age “kicker.”
Piatt was also a lobbyist and a political self-seeker who longed for a diplomatic posting, but what does it tell us when the only political plum he ever received came from Grover Cleveland: a $40-per-annum appointment as postmaster for Mac-o-cheek, Ohio, near where Piatt erected a family castle? (And what does it say when Piatt felt this post as conferred the gravitas necessary for making suggestions on how to improve the postal service?) Bridges admits that Piatt was “muckraker” and a “gadfly,” but also insists that his “years of useful service to the American republic” were analogous to those of Lincoln Steffens, Ida Tarbell, and Upton Sinclair (195). This strikes me as overly charitable, given that those individuals backed assertions with evidence far more substantial than heated rhetoric. To be sure, Piatt exposed hypocrisy and corruption during the Gilded Age, though it wasn’t all that taxing to unearth malfeasance in the Grant administration, nor was it page one news that members of Congress were embroiled in graft.
In 1889, when the 69-year-old Piatt asked Mark Twain to contribute to Belford’s Magazine, Twain simply ignored his letter. By then Donn Piatt had already been confined to the margins where most Gilded Age historians store him. When I think of under-examined Gilded Age editors and reporters, my thoughts run more toward John Swinton, T. Thomas Fortune, Myron Colony, and Patrick and Mary Ford. Donn Piatt has his fascinations, but he should be studied as a transitional figure in journalism’s shift from partisanship to (outward) objectivity. He was ultimately less a gadfly than a limited lifespan fruit fly.
Robert E. Weir
University of Massachusetts Amherst