A few days ago a country gentleman, at a coffee-house, having a news-paper in his hand, said to another  who sat next to him.  “I have been looking some time to see what the M—y are about about, but I cannot find where those articles are put, not being used to the London papers.”  To which the other answered, “Look among the robberies.”

I’ve been spending the week at the Library Company, working on Philadelphia newspapers for my single-year project.   There are always lots of things to say about using newspapers as sources, but two things have been weighing on me this trip.

First of all, the organization of “news” in these papers replicates the double-consciousness that Bailyn and Clive famously argued was the peculiar burden and benefit of the provincial, whether that provincial was located in Scotland or North America.

What I mean is that the “local” components of newspapers in both Edinburgh and Philadelphia (meaning advertisements, political news, and the usual calendar of anniversaries and celebrations are distinctly subordinate to the London news, which includes the comings and goings of royalty and the royal family, the ups and downs of the ministry, military and especially naval operations, and even the internal divisions of the opposition.  (In the year that I’ve been following, I was curious about how much space was devoted to the internal jealousies of the Whig grandees or even among Wilkes and his rivals at the Society for the Bill of Rights.)

The other side to this is the relatively small space given over to local events, at least in the period I’m looking.  When London news seems to dry up, the papers seem to contain mostly advertisements (which of course have their own appeal and interest to the historically minded).

The other property of these papers that’s really impressed me is the complete fragmentation of the temporal horizon of these papers.  For one thing, the Philadelphia papers seem to consistently operate with a 3-4 month lag time in relation to their London news.

The putative issue date of any Philadelphia paper acts only as a convenience, whereas the reports contained therein refer to a multitude of observations, “intelligences,” “reports,” letters and extracts of letters, from correspondents from all over the world: Ancona, Constantinople, Lisbon, the Hague, Bridge-town, and so forth.  These reports contain a baffling mixture of more or less up-to-date reports, but everyone seems able to make allowances for the distance traveled and the difficulties of transmission.  One interesting gesture of verification found in these items is to inform the reader of the names  of the Ship and Captain that carried the news, along with the date.

All this is probably old hat to the historians who work with these sources all the time, but I’ve been interested in elaborating concretely on arguments like Benedict Anderson about the temporalizations made possible by print distribution on an imperial scale.  It’s tempting to say that it made possible a certain kind of simultaneity never before seen, as provincial cultures tried to emulate metropolitan fashion, dress, customs, etc., largely by using information like the newspapers to “keep up” with the changes happening offshore.  But the condition of being a provincial is to experience those changes as taking place elsewhere, while the changes happening around one go largely unnoticed.


2 responses to “newspaperland

  1. David Harley

    Rather than simultaneity, it is perhaps more helpful to think in terms of a folded network.

    If a net is laid flat, the easy distances are not far short of a straight line, even though travelling from corner to corner is a tedious journey.

    If the net is folded, there can be rapid travel over distances that would normally be far apart.

    Regular packets or stagecoaches from one place to another could make books, news, small objects, and images of many sorts travel very quickly between remote towns.

    John Donne could buy a 1610 book by Galileo and see a 1610 manuscript by Kepler in time to refer to them in a long anti-Jesuit poem published in 1611 . Great natural historians such as Gesner were at the centre of webs of information from trusted colleagues, who might well find it difficult to exchange information directly.

    “Multi pertransibunt et augebitur scientia.”

    So too with seaborne communication. London books could travel easily to Boston, Mass. Whether he ordered them sent or brought them back from London in May 1692, Increase Mather was able to use, in his response to the Salem events, a range of texts he would have been unlikely to own previously, such as John Webster’s sceptical “Displaying of Supposed Witchcraft”. The latest Paris fashions could travel to New Orleans in the form of dolls. Collinson’s garden at Mill Hill, near London, could receive plant specimens from his collectors in North America.

    Even Australia became closer to London, in network terms, than many geographically nearer places. The first European sighting of a platypus was in 1797. The pelt arrived in England in 1798. The first scientific description was published in 1799. A book by an eyewitness of the first sighting was published in 1802. Apart from a missing skull, the specimen is still at the Natural History Museum in London.

    “Is Little Nell dead?”

    By contrast, people with wide-ranging curiosity but living far from the nodes could find it difficult to keep abreast unless they had good connections to supply information and also secure arrangements with booksellers or apothecaries at each end. In effect, they had to create their own ripple in the net.

  2. Dave Mazella

    Thanks, David, for these suggestions. I suspect the “folded network” metaphor works much better for our period than “simultaneity.”

    There is also an interesting metaphorical parallel between these forms of communication and the famous passages of Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, where the animal spirits are “set a-going, whether right or wrong, ’tis not a half-penny matter,—away they go cluttering like hey-go mad; and by treading the same steps over and over again, they presently make a road of it, as plain and as smooth as a garden-walk, which, when they are once used to, the Devil himself sometimes shall not be able to drive them off it.”

    Come to think of it, Sterne’s TS is filled with examples of communication (mis) directed at various speeds, whether by horse-back, gossip, or maids rushing down the hall.

    But yes, simultaneity, I think, is somehow a holdover from a certain tacit attitude towards the apparent synchrony of writing captured in print.