Blogging and Nineteenth Century Pamphlets

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Doc Searls points to this journalistic gem from Tim Rutten of the Los Angeles Times. You need to register to experience the full joy of Rutten’s “To Err Is Human, but to Think Out Loud,” but the meat of his assertion is this bit:

bloggers are basically a narcissistic throwback to an easily recognizable American type, the 19th century cranks who turned out mountains of self-published pamphlets.

The cranks had all sorts of idiosyncratic preoccupations—single tax schemes, silver-backed currency, vegetarianism and the metaphysical benefits of healthy bowels, for example.

I pontificated earlier about journalists not knowing their own history. Clearly, some of them don’t really know nineteenth century literature either. Let’s take a closer look at those nineteenth century pamphleteers, shall we?

There’s that crank Thoreau, with his nutty pamphlet “On Civil Disobedience,” or that goofy Twain guy writing about the abuses of King Leopold in the Congo (1905 is twentieth century, technically, but still . . .), or that goofy Victorian Thomas Carlyle. Aside from scholarly obsessions with nineteenth century pamphlets as primary source documents about the lives and thoughts of everyday cranks as well as the hundreds of household names who were engineers, theologians, artists, poets, essayists, abolitionists and feminists, it’s important to realize that pamphlets were published because they were popular. People, all kinds of people, read and wrote them. Sure, there were “cranks,” but the vast majority of authors were quite serious, and were perceived that way. The pamphlets were written often enough by “names” to have inspired one of the most successful and expensive literary forgery operations ever, largely executed by one Thomas J. Wise.

As a put-down, comparing bloggers to nineteenth century pamphleteers is less than effective, since so much of the intellectual life of the era was carried out via pamphlets, their publication in turn encouraged by the extensive correspondence between the authors, ultimately leading to several “schools” like the Transcendentalists in New England and the Tractarians in England. Both groups were strongly influenced by Milton, an avid pampleteer in the seventeenth century (writing, among other pamplets, Areopagitica on the freeedom of the press). Bloggers could do far worse in their search for a literary ancestor.