Silas Palmer Fellow Niall Chithelen Examines the Lives of Foreign Journalists in Twentieth-Century China

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Niall Chithelen is a student of History and China and Asia Pacific Studies at Cornell University.
Niall Chithelen is a student of History and China and Asia Pacific Studies at Cornell University.

By Niall Chithelen

By 1941, Shanghai was desolate and enervated. Over a few years, it had been bombed, invaded, and then occupied by Japanese forces. Randall Gould (1895-1975), consummate newsman, stuck around and continued publishing the Shanghai Evening Post and Mercury for the benefit of the dwindling foreign community. Even when a bomb exploded in his office and killed a number of his staff members, Gould did not change his reporting habits. Instead, he began carrying a gun.

Gould was not like some other foreign journalists in China, as he concerned himself with much more than just foreign interests. He traveled to meet warlords and generals, attended major local events, and sometimes ventured away from the action to write about Buddhist monks or archaeological discoveries. He was wary of dogmatism and short-sightedness, and generally looked out for China’s best interest. When others feared movements for self-determination, Gould sympathized with the Nationalists; when others were optimistic about Nationalist rule, he criticized the government’s corruption and incompetence; and then, even as he criticized the Nationalists, he warned of Japanese aggression in China for years before Japan invaded. Gould did not always make friends with this brand of reporting, but some readers sought out and respected Gould’s vivid eyewitness accounts and pithy analyses of domestic affairs. And, of course, Gould also brought to the newspapers a contagious sense of humor. When Gould’s daughter was born, the United Press ran an article that quoted his newborn, “What a tough break for a girl trying to get along. Phooie. That thing my dad!”

Early on during World War II, Gould’s ex-wife left Shanghai with their daughter. Randall stayed behind with the paper and the war. He quickly remarried—a former mistress, it seems—but the war took a toll on him. Writing to his friend Milly Bennett, Gould expressed condolences for the loss of her brother-in-law:

“Whatever he meant to you I know you liked and admired him and we get lonely and we see the good dying young and the bad, or at least mediocre (such as myself) miraculously walking between the bombs as if they were raindrops.”

Randall Gould to Milly Bennett
Randall Gould to Milly Bennett

He could not avoid death in the city, but was painfully aware that death was avoiding him. Gould had not even known Bennett’s brother-in-law, but he was writing, as he often did in his letters, more about himself than anything else. Years earlier, he had been very close with Bennett, and he often let his guard down with her, expressing a raw and clumsy sort of honesty. He had once explained to Bennett that he thought his marital infidelity might be less serious because he did not really lie to his wife about it. Even on such serious matters, Gould could never write humorlessly, but his jokes sometimes felt inappropriate. His self-consciousness and self-deprecation sometimes mixed into self-absorption; he could not resist a joke in the middle of a confession just as he could not resist relating things to himself, and, to some extent, he knew it.

Randall Gould, like many people, wrapped layers of busyness and success around a core of imperfection. Reading his newspaper clippings in the Hoover Institution Archives, I found him surprisingly insightful and entertaining. So surprised was I by his perspective that I began to shift the focus of my research. I read Gould’s biographical material. Gould was a gifted writer, and excelled early in the world of journalism; his energetic prose won him essay awards, and he became editor-in-chief of his college’s daily paper early in his undergraduate career. None of this was surprising given the rest of his career. But I was also taken by his childhood items, even when they were just curious or amusing, but not necessarily useful, like the unfailingly bright letters he wrote to his parents as a child, or the noticeable difference in size between the Valentine’s Day cards he made for his father and mother. Gould’s memorabilia were certainly more colorful than the piles of office reports and stilted correspondence that I encountered in other collections. But it was still Gould’s exchange with Milly Bennett that lodged itself in my mind.

I sympathized with Gould, admired his candor and cringed at his more misguided notions. I was driven to continue reading, not from any rational sense of historical responsibility, but rather from a deeper sense of human connection, a sense that I found to be rare but profound amongst the delicate papers of the archives. And yet the ahistorical nature of this connection disturbed me. First, I was uncomfortable forming a picture of the man based on such a narrow set of documents, but knew also that there exists no set of documents with which I would feel fully confident. What was more concerning was the sense of connection itself. I had latched onto a sentiment I understood in a world that I did not. There is a distance between ordinary thoughts of mortality and the prospect that mortality might come screaming out of the sky, and as a professor once explained in class, this is a distance no one can bridge. As a history student, I am able to access a side of Randall Gould that I would likely never have seen had I talked to him in 1941; but in writing about a time decades before I was born, I lack the benefit of sharing the world of the people about whom I write. Such a dilemma presents no easy answers, but it is a dilemma that extends beyond Randall Gould, beyond letters and bombs, and even beyond the rest of my project, into my approach to history in general. I have to recognize and present my distance from sources in a way that neither invalidates my findings, nor fails to take advantage of that unique access that I have to people’s lives.

My final realization in the archives concerned those things that Gould may never have recorded in any form. Gould drew a bit in his younger days. On an inane writing assignment, he drew himself in a hot-air balloon over a field. On a letter to his parents in which he described being overly busy at his grandmother’s place, he drew pictures of himself reunited with his family. Initially, I did not give much thought to all this—after all, Gould did not become an artist. But, looking back, I began to wonder if Gould just stopped drawing because he was able to express all of his feelings through writing, or if he was simply more successful with writing and thus left his drawing habits behind. Although the answer is not historically important in a larger sense, and I do not plan to include much of Randall Gould’s personal writing in my thesis, I cannot stop wondering—what would he have drawn on that letter to Milly Bennett?


Niall Chithelen in an undergraduate student in History and China and Asia Pacific Studies at Cornell University.