Hon. News to Novels
Prof. Jean Lutes
December 18, 2006
The Life of Dorothy Dix and Her Columns as Evidence of the Inherent Flaws
In the Form of the Advice Column
In her early days as a newspaper woman Elizabeth Meriwether Gilmer wrote a reflection in her “Sunday Salad” column on advice columns. She called them “literary freaks, that would be vastly humorous if they were not also pathetic” (Kane 62). Years later, readers would recognize Gilmer, better known by her pseudonym, Dorothy Dix, as the grandmother of the advice column. At the peak of her popularity during World War II, Dix received over 1,000 letters a day from readers. Her column was published in 273 newspapers world wide and was read by an estimated 60 million people (Weatherspoon 10). Dix’s enormous popularity is evidence of her success as an advice columnist. Thus examining her columns can help define the components of any successful column and the character of a successful columnist. At the same time, however, the components of Dix’s successful columns also reveal inherent flaws in the nature of the advice column as a form of journalistic expression. In comparing Dix’s columns with Nathaniel West’s novella Miss Lonelyhearts, it can be seen that the same flaws inherent in Dix’s columns were responsible for Miss Lonelyhearts’ fall.
Primarily, Dix’s responses serve as proof that advice columns must provide a solution, above all else, that is satisfactory to their readers. Ideally, the solution should be the best advice readers would think of themselves. Dix liked to reference this mission through a quote that described Abraham Lincoln, “When he spoke the common people heard themselves think out loud” (Kane 134). Dix’s formula for these universal answers undoubtedly developed from her own personal experience. She stated, “I have had a variegated and troubled life myself, so that the problems [my readers] put to me are often those I have experienced” (Washburn 20). And even if she had not experienced specific events herself, Dix’s own experiences had taught her how to find happiness in hardship.
After her mother’s
death at a young age, Dix’s father remarried, and at age eighteen she married
her step-mother’s brother, George Gilmer.
He suffered an “incurable mental illness,” was moody, and unable to hold
a job (Abramson 39). While trying to support herself and her husband, Dix had a
nervous breakdown. As she regained her
strength at a resort on the
Authors Hartnett Kane and Ella Bentley explain Dix’s solution as having two alternatives. She would either advise readers to “1) different modes of behavior or 2) acceptance of the situation in which they found themselves” (Kane, Arthur 1). As an example of the first approach, Dix advised a boy who was perturbed by his girlfriend’s ill manners that, “They certainly need some one to teach them manners and grammar... There is nobody who could so effectively impart this information as the boy friend with whom they are trying to make a hit” (“Young Girls”). Depending on the nature of the situation, and the amount of information given, Dix had the ability to determine how much action the writer was capable of. In an instance where a widow enumerated that she had a lot of money but was considering marrying an alcoholic for companionship, Dix advised her to leave the relationship immediately since, “If a woman has money, there is nothing to hinder her from setting up her own individual home” (“Widows”).
However, at the same time, Dix understood that action was not always an option for those with little money or those who were bound to their families. In these cases, she approached the solution by suggesting that individuals change their outlook on life. For example, when three elevator operators wrote in wondering if the monotony of operating an elevator could drive them insane, she responded, “We get interest and excitement out of our work just in proportion to what we put into it. The whole human drama goes on under your eyes. Look for it and you will no longer find your job monotonous” (“Child Bride”). This ideal of individuals making their own happiness was paramount in Dix’s “Dictates for a Happy Life.” The first piece of advice on this list is: “Have a will to happiness,” and at least seven of these ten dictates focus entirely on mind-set and not action (“Miss Dix’s” 1). Maurine Beasley interpreted Dix’s perspective on the woman’s place based on this convention of altering mindset. Beasley highlighted that Dix often advised acceptance of the woman’s place rather than revolution: “Gilmer advocated personal fulfillment by living bravely in the midst of difficulties rather than striving for social changes to implement feminist goals” (6).
Similarly, the title character in Nathaniel West’s Miss Lonelyhearts, attempted to encourage individuals to make their own happiness. He asserted, “Every man, no matter how poor or humble, can teach himself to use his senses. See the cloud-flecked sky, the foam-decked sea...” (West 26). Yet, it is Lonelyhearts’ personal inability to find an answer or happiness for himself that makes his responses incredibly insincere. As the son of a reverend, Lonelyhearts left college idealistic and confident: “they had believed in literature, had believed in Beauty and personal expression as an absolute end. When they lost this belief they lost everything” (West 14). Lonelyhearts’ idealistic life kept him from formulating a personal solution and an answer to offer to his readers.
Even Dix, despite her two-pronged solution approach, did not have the answer to every problem. This inability of a single individual to have all the answers is evidence of the first inherent flaw in the nature of the advice column. Dix accepted her short-comings, once telling a colleague, “If I ever reach the day I think I’m right about everything, promise me you’ll shoot me!” (Weatherspoon 10). Another colleague reflected on her curiousity and desire to learn more throughout life: “She would give me a look: ‘I never heard of it. Tell me about it.’... As I spoke, I realized she was soaking things up and that sometime... she’d pull it out of her mind” (Kane 63). Dix accepted her lack of universal knowledge and was not afraid to make it clear to her readers that she was only one individual and did not always have the answer. Rhetorically she asked her readers, “Lacking a love detector, how are we to tell which love is going to last and which one is the real, true, blown-in- the-bottle one?” (“What Sort of Love Lasts?”). The inability of the columnist to provide a solution in response to all of their readers’ questions is the first flaw inherent in the nature of the advice column. It is a flaw born of the fact that the columnist is only human.
Despite this flaw, however, Dix firmly believed in the validity of her advice. This confidence of the writer in their ability to improve the lives of those who write in for advice is imperative for the success of a column. For Dix, this confidence was born of her early experiences and her success at maintaining happiness for herself despite hardship. She explained, “If I had drawn back, or faltered, whatever power I might possess to help others would be lost. I could not aim them to be strong unless I were strong” (Weatherspoon 8). She remained strong and happy, and it is that internal strength that Dix used to justify her place as advice-giver. As Dix later stated, “It is only the women whose eyes have been washed clear with tears who get the broad vision that makes them little sisters to all the world” (Beasley 6).
As a “little sister to all the world,” Dix maintained a tone of matronly confidence throughout her columns. In evaluating the tone of Dix’s columns in relationship to Dear Abby, researchers observed, “Dorothy Dix tended to be more authoritative in her answers and less likely to be challenged by readers” (Kanervo, Jones, White 11). When a bunch of high school girls wrote Dix asking whether they should quit school to get married, Dix replied with authority: “Perhaps if I... knew as little of life as you do, I might be foolish enough to think about quitting school and getting married, but being older... I would urge you by everything that is in my power to say to put off your wedding for five or six years” (“Child Bride”). Dix often makes such judgment calls without hesitation, telling an abandoned child who is now an adult that she owes their parent nothing (“Young Girls”) or blaming the man for his woman not taking pride and enjoyment in her chores (“Viewing Homemaker’s Job”).
Dix’s confidence kept her from sugarcoating reality, as did her conviction that, “Sometimes one wants strong meat and not omelette soufflé” (Kane 63). Undoubtedly, readers admired this affinity for straight-forward honesty. One man explained Dorothy’s success in terms of this confidence, reflecting, “You’ve got a backbone that makes you say just what you think, and a funnybone that makes it easy for us to take” (Weatherspoon 10). However, the inherent flaw in this “backbone” is that Dix’s confidence and no-nonsense approach led readers to turn to her not as companion but as a Christ-figure. This Christ complex is the second flaw inherent in the nature of the advice column. The columnist cannot grant absolution, and Dorothy Dix, despite her experience and assurance, was not Christ. Nevertheless, she began to achieve that kind of religious significance in society.
One woman wrote
into Dorothy Dix after the picture that accompanied her column in the papers
changed, saying that this alteration was, “‘almost like trying to pray to a new
God!’” (Kane 296). Only adding to this confusion,
Dorothy intermittently used her columns as a venue for religious references. On one occasion she advised a man who was
concerned about his wife’s infidelity, but not his own, by referencing a
quotation in the bible: “‘Let him that
is without sin among you cast the first stone.’ You have the words of the Great
Teacher to direct you. If she forgave
you, why shouldn’t you forgive her?” (Kane 281). She would also use sermons she had heard as a
jumping off point for her own discussion, occasionally even arguing against
what the preacher had said. Her article
“The Reason Men Do Not Marry,” begins, “The other night a famous
Even more appalling was that ministers began to turn to Dix for guidance. “Other ministers, she learned, used her columns as themes for sermons, and one devoted five successive pulpit talks to her discussions on marriage” (Kane 224). Dix’s columns addressed issues that were relevant for the times, and were perhaps a good way for religious authorities to recognize the problems that their parishioners needed addressed. Nevertheless, even Dix acknowledged that, “my desk has been a confessional at which men and women open their hearts...” (“Public Ledger” 1). In some cases, Dix referred readers to a minister to provide religious guidance (Kane 196) but in others she accepted her place as a Christ-figure with ease, offering advice with confidence and assertion.
In contrast, Lonelyhearts’ religious background and his own loss of faith prevented him from being able to accept his place as a Christ-figure in the eyes of his readers. His loss of faith alone, led to confusion on the boundary between right and wrong: “If he could only believe in Christ, then adultery would be a sin, then everything would be simple and the letters extremely easy to answer” (West 26). In addition, Lonelyhearts’ answer to problems had always been God. His solution, unlike Dix’s, relied entirely on faith, to the point at which he could not respond to his readers genuinely without involving God: “By avoiding God, he had failed to tap the force in his heart and had merely written a column for his paper” (West 49). Miss Lonelyhearts’ inability to determine right from wrong or find an answer that does not involve God is only complicated by his place as a Christ-figure. Shrike parodies the way in which Lonelyhearts acts as Christ, mimicking a prayer to “Miss Lonelyhearts” in the beginning of the novella (West 1) and referring to Lonelyhearts as “the master” (West 53) towards the end of the book. West emphasizes the Christ complex as a flaw inherent to the nature of the advice column by emphasizing the way Lonelyhearts’ position as Christ combined with his loss of faith and loss of an answer, contribute to his fall.
However, despite her authoritative tone and position as a Christ-figure, Dix never abused her public or took advantage of the power she had over such a large portion of the population. When others suggested that Dix turn her column into a contest and offer a prize for the best letter, she refused seeing as it would “endanger the anonymous nature of her correspondence, and kill people’s confidence in her” (Kane 154). Similarly, she avoided the lure of turning her mailbox into a marriage bureau (Kane 182) and even put off secretarial assistance until later in her life. Eventually, she did have one secretary, Ella Arthur, but even then form letters were rarely used, and Arthur would often respond individually with variations based on years of studying Dix’s work (Kane 260). Above all, Dix was devoted to her task, asserting, “I can’t do this lightly” (Weatherspoon 10).
Dix’s responsibility was certainly not light work. She often had the task of offering comfort and reassurance to those considering suicide (Kane 8-9) or convinced that it was not God’s will for them to have surgery for a stomach disorder (Kane 195-6). Quite literally, Dix had lives in her hands and her complete devotion to her job revealed the seriousness of the work. In 1905, Dix entered into a long period of illness due to her attempts to respond to all of her letters while covering murder trials. While the coverage of these trials increased her fame, Dix, “believed in the worth of her advice columns, felt that they actually helped individuals with their problems, although she discounted any social utility in her reporting of famous murder trials” (Beasley 1). Dix eventually gave up reporting on trials to focus her energy entirely on her columns. She reflected, “I had been glad to do them, but now I had gotten more and more interested in those letters from readers, and more and more concerned with them” (Kane 213). This commitment to her correspondents caused the advice column to dominate her life.
“Her columns and the letters had become her life... they grew ever closer until they were almost identical” (Kane 235). One friend reflected that Dorothy could not escape the columns even in conversation. “‘I’d sit there with her, and then suddenly I’d realize I was talking to an institution’” (Kane 235). When Dorothy’s relationship with George Gilmer ended, she turned to the columns for comfort and relief. “As always, these letters from other anguished men and women helped restore her balance” (Kane 246). But just as the boundary between Dorothy’s life and her work became cloudy, her readers were also breaking the boundary between columnist and correspondent.
As Dix’s success and popularity grew, she received gifts from individuals thanking her for advice that saved their marriage, invitations to spend Christmas with families across the country, and an estimated one marriage proposal per week (Weatherspoon 11). A 65 year-old bachelor on a Nebraska farm wrote in, “I don’t know what your circumstances might be, but by your good common sense, sympathetic advice and splendid writing all the time, I am sure you would suit me all right if I would suit you” (Kane 181). The public could not separate the individual Dorothy Dix from the photo and letters they read in the paper. The intimacy that Dorothy shared with those who wrote to her resulted in a breach of their columnist-correspondent relationship. That breach of boundaries is the third flaw inherent in the institution of the advice column.
Similarly, Miss Lonelyhearts finds himself unable to escape the position of the columnist even in his own life. In his relationship with Shrike’s wife he realizes, “In return for an ordinary number of kisses, he would have to listen to an extraordinary amount of complaining” (West 20). This position begins to haunt his very existence.
The boundary between Miss Lonelyhearts’ life and his columns is broken down as the letters he could once joke about start to dominate his thoughts. Lonelyhearts explains his dilemma to Betty saying, “He sees that the majority of the letters are profoundly humble pleas for moral and spiritual advice... He also discovers that his correspondents take him seriously” (West 32). Lonelyhearts can no longer laugh off the letters he is receiving and is instead deeply affected by the suffering. He responds in various ways to the plague of despair, at one point even twisting the arm of a small old man: “He was twisting the arm of all the sick and miserable, broken and betrayed, inarticulate and impotent. He was twisting the arm of Desperate, Broken-hearted, Sick-of-it-all, Disillusioned-with-tubercular-husband” (West 18). Lonelyhearts is haunted by the suffering and in response to this plague he goes farther than Dix ever did in breaking the boundary between correspondent and columnist- he has a relationship with Faye Doyle.
Faye writes in, just as Dix’s correspondents did, requesting to breach the written relationship and seek personal connection: “I don’t feel bad about asking to see you personal because I feel almost like I knew you” (West 25). Lonelyhearts agrees to this blatant breach of journalistic expectations because of his inability to connect with readers through his writing alone. “The completeness of his failure drove him to the telephone...” (West 26). Their intimate relationship and Lonelyhearts’ eventual interference into the lives of Peter and Faye Doyle reveals the danger of the intimate written connection.
However, despite its dangers, the intimate connection between readers and columnist is imperative for a column’s success. The success of Dix’s columns was dependent on her ability to maintain that intimate relationship with a variety of individuals around the world. While it is a popular misconception that Dix’s audience was primarily females under the age of 25, Kanervo, Jones, and White assert that, “Miss Dix received as many letters from young women and men seeking advice… as she did from older adults, parents, and grandparents” (11). Her success depended on her ability to transcend time and to appeal to both men and women, old and young. To one man who demanded how a seventy-six year old woman knew anything about the young, Dix responded, “I might venture to say I know as much about the young as I do about anything on earth. How? They tell me, in their letters” (Kane 284).
It was not uncommon for Dix to express a feminist view, stressing the responsibility of the husband to his wife’s happiness: “I think that the chief thing that is the matter with wives is husbands” (“What’s the Matter”). But at the same time, Dix acknowledged the wife’s place in the home and commitment to her children. She asserted, “An able-bodied woman should be ashamed to ask her husband to help with the housework after his hard day’s labor is over” (“Why a Man”). She even went as far as to blame juvenile delinquency on the mother: “the real reformation has to be worked by a mother with a stiff backbone and a good, strong, right arm” (“Mothers Needed”).
Dix’s advice transcended class boundaries. She stated, “The bank president’s wife is as interested in holding her husband’s love as the postman’s wife is in holding hers. The governor is as ambitious for his children as the milkman. I get as many letters from the highly educated as from those who never saw the inside of a high school” (Washburn 2). And as times changed, Dix endeavored to stay up-to-date and relevant with her responses. Weatherspoon articulates Dorothy’s incredible feat: “Her life spanned the Civil War, Reconstruction, the Victorian Era, the turn of the century, the restless twenties, and two world wars and their aftermaths” (Weatherspoon 10).
But the flaw inherent in Dorothy’s ability to maintain such a large audience lies in the nature of the advice column as profitable for newspaper circulation. Dix said casually, “‘You know, it’s nice that these people pay me the way they do. It means so much to me, I might do it for nothing” (Kane 301). Still, the fact can not be ignored that Dix was not, “doing it for nothing.” By 1916, Dix was making more than $35,000 a year due to the enormous popularity of her columns and her coverage of murder trials (Weatherspoon 7). To her credit, Dix left reporting on trials which she thought, “chiefly built circulation for Hearst newspapers” (Beasley 4). However, she still lived an extremely comfortable life, decorating her home with North African coffee tables and sleeping in a magnificent French bed (Weatherspoon 9). She underplayed this success but the wealth accumulated from the success of her columns cannot be ignored. This is another flaw in the nature of the advice column: it is sympathy in the name of profit.
This flaw is highlighted similarly in Miss Lonelyhearts. Lonelyhearts approaches the job as columnist with the idea that “it might lead to a gossip column, and anyway he’s tired of being a leg man” (West 32). Even Shrike highlights the nature of the column as a profitable endeavor when he advises Lonelyhearts to, “Remember, please, that your job is to increase circulation of our paper. Suicide, it is only reasonable to think, must defeat this purpose” (West 18). To approach a vulnerable and emotional concept like suicide from the callous perspective of profit is evidence of how combining profit with advice and compassion perverts it. While Dix never approached her columns with money in mind, this inherent flaw in the nature of the advice column is still unavoidable.
examining Dix’s columns reveals the components of her success, it also
demonstrates the unavoidable flaws that are inherent in the advice column as a
form of journalistic expression. Comparing
these flaws to the fall of Miss Lonelyhearts in West’s novella, it becomes
clear that Dix’s success is really due to her ability to handle these defects
in her journalistic form with poise and control. Even the grandmother of the advice column
could not escape the flaws of this form of expression, making it all the more
clear that these flaws still have the ability to victimize columnists today.
Abramson, Phyllip Leslie. “Dorothy
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---. “Dorothy Dix.” “Mothers Needed in Homes.” Dorothy Dix Collection. Felix G. Woodward
---. “Dorothy Dix.” “What Sort of Love Lasts?” Dorothy Dix Collection. Felix G. Woodward
---. “Dorothy Dix’s Letter Box.” “Why a Man Is Justified in Refusing to Marry
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---. “The Reason Men Do Not Marry.” The New York Times. 14 Feb. 1904: 29. Proquest Historical Newspapers. Falvey Memorial Library,
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Kanervo, Ellen, Ted Jones, and Jeff White. “One Hundred Years of Advice: An Analysis of the Style and Content of Dear Abby and Dorothy Dix.” The Dorothy Dix Collection. 27 September 1991. 28
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West, Nathaniel. “Miss Lonelyhearts.” Miss Lonelyhearts & The Day of the
Inga Filippo, the head of the circulation and reserves department at Austin Peay State University for graciously copying Dorothy Dix’s columns and mailing them to Villanova.