Blogging in the 19th century

Nineteenth-century American newspapers were highly bloglike in their habit of reprinting their peers’ squibs, in order to rebut or amplify them. For example, on 12 November 1848, the New York Atlas reprinted this paragraph from the Salem Observer:

Can the New York Atlas be correct in the statement, that four-sixths of the female patients in the lunatic asylums of our country are wives of clergymen?—Salem Observer.

In response, the Atlas insisted that it had “received its information from a gentleman, who is a preacher of the gospel, who has paid great attention to the subject, and who is unquestionably correct.” And then the Atlas editor explained why the claim was not just plausible, but to be expected:

The woman does not live, who can be happy in seeing her husband freely mingle with other women—pressing their hands, smiling on them, and receiving, in return, their flatteries and caresses. Even if that husband be a clergyman, . . . it makes no difference. The wife . . . knows that her husband is like other men—that he has passions and weakness; and she becomes the victim of jealousy, and either dies of a broken heart, or becomes the inmate of a madhouse.

Substitute cascading style sheets for spousal sanity, and replace clerical chastity with copy protection, and it’s the sort of exchange that happens in the blogosphere hourly.

Memo to myself

In the car the other day, Peter used his cellphone to leave a message for himself on his office voicemail. It’s interesting, in a Nicholson Baker-ish way, that there is already a convention for how to leave such messages. After all, they are pretty new. I think I first started leaving them while I was working on my dissertation, so mid to late 1990s; I left them from payphones, if I happened to be downtown when a revision occurred to me. It felt awkward, mostly because I wasn’t sure how to address myself. Now everyone knows: in a monotone, in the imperative mode, with cryptic succinctness.

On the other hand, why so parsimonious? This isn’t a linguistic context that our ancestors faced in the Pleistocene, so natural selection has had no hand in shaping the etiquette. It isn’t clear to me that it really is more economical to speak in such a stilted, artificial way. It saves effort to write in telegraphese, sure, but writing is more cumbersome than talking, and it takes effort to drain a sentence of all tonal nuance. Is it just fear of being overheard and thought dotty that prompts one to drop the social niceties?

“Memoirs of a Geisha,” one-upped

From a column titled “Things We Would Say More Of, If We Had Room,” in the 16 November 1850 issue of the magazine Home Journal, edited by the notoriously heterosexual, pre-Wildean dandy Nathaniel Parker Willis:

The wife of the Pasha of Belgrade, the account of whose murder of her eunuch we translated lately from a French paper, has been sentenced to five years imprisonment. The reader will remember that she was formerly Mrs. Millingen, wife of the physician who attended Byron in his last illness.

Some notes on the genre

Like every other blogger in America, I read the article in the New York Times this morning about the mishaps of confessional blogging. That isn’t a weakness of mine, mostly because I have forbidden it to myself. But it caused me to realize that I have forbidden myself so many vices, that blogging seems an awfully constrained genre.

Most of my self-imposed taboos stem from the fact that I’m not being paid to write this blog. Without pay, it seems imprudent to devote time and energy to research, and without research, one does not dare to make too many statements of fact. Occasionally a genuine piece of news does fall into one’s lap, without effort, but if one is a professional writer, one must then try one’s best to take it to market. (And here perhaps is the greatest peril of blogging for a professional writer, that you don’t always know which interest is going to bloom into a full-fledged article or worm its way into your next book, and so an item may seem safely ephemeral and amateur, and yet later you might regret having committed yourself to an assertion about it.)

Thus one is left with opinions, preferably about things outside one’s area of expertise. But if one isn’t being paid, it seems prodigal to make enemies unnecessarily. And so one is confined to positive opinions of contemporaries, and free opinions of the dead. Before I had tried it, I wouldn’t have imagined that the lack of an editor would be so limiting.