Tuesday, January 2, 2018

The Sun and the Moon, by Matthew Goodman

Today I'm looking at a history of one of the most famous newspaper hoaxes of the nineteenth century, when Richard Adams Locke wrote a series of articles purportedly about discoveries made by Sir John Herschel with a new type of telescope that discovered the existence of life, including sentient life, on the moon. When the story it was widely circulated and reprinted in newspapers across the United States and later the world, with many people arguing over its veracity. However, this book talks about quite a few other subjects beyond the moon story, putting it within historical context.

The early nineteenth century saw developments in printing technology, which had remained fairly unchanged since the fifteenth century. Printing presses could previously only produce about two hundred and fifty copies an hour, but the invention of cylindrical presses and application of steam power meant thousands of copies could be produced cheaply and quickly. By the 1830's the United States saw the development of the penny press, daily newspapers that cost only a penny making them affordable to far more people than the six cent papers at the time. The penny press exploded newspaper readership in the United States and also dramatically changed the content of newspapers. Previously focused towards the upper classes interested in financial and international news, penny papers focused on local news, sports, true crime stories, and the introduction of humorous and not always true anecdotes.

Goodman goes into considerable detail talking about the nineteenth century institution of ''humbugs'', stories or objects that might be real or might not be, the foundation of P.T. Barnum's career. (A biography of Barnum makes up a significant part of this book as well.) And I'm pretty sure society hasn't changed much considering the popularity of urban legends and other stories that may not be true, but have just enough verisimilitude to make their veracity plausible. The thrill then, as of now, is debating whether the story actually is true and so humbugs, both in Barnum's museum and on the pages of newspapers, made endless entertainment fodder for the nineteenth century.

I have a couple of criticisms about this book, but they're fairly minor. The first is that I feel like this book kind of lacked focus. Goodman jumped between talking about Benjamin Day and his creation of The Sun, New York's first successful penny press, talking about Richard Adam Locke's life and career, P.T. Barnum's life and career, and even the life and career of Edgar Allan Poe. Granted, all these subjects are interrelated. It's difficult to talk about Locke's moon story without first talking about the newspaper it was published in. Barnum is a great example of how hoaxes were popular entertainment and how newspapers helped spread them. And Poe himself wrote a story about a voyage to the moon shortly before Locke wrote his own story. The problem is it feels like Goodman had two or three different topics he wanted to write about but he didn't have enough material to make any one of them into a book by itself so he melded them together. So yes, they're connected, but it still feels disjointed to me.

The other issue I had, and this is purely because I'm a trained historian, is that Goodman goes into purple prose territory at times, making grand, literary statements. Really the only reason I take issue with this is because I personally don't think it's proper historical writing, but that's really a personal bugbear of mine. If you're a casual reader of history it probably won't bother you too much.

Finally Goodman tries to argue towards the end of his book that Locke's moon writings were supposed to be from the beginning, as Locke claimed much later, an elaborate satire of religious astronomy. During the early nineteenth century astronomy was the science most in concord with religion and many religious figures argued that other worlds must be inhabited by beings to further increase the glory of God. Some would go on to say that these beings from other worlds would be in a state of natural grace, having never fallen to sin like humanity did, so their worlds would be paradises. The problem I have with this argument is Goodman doesn't devote considerably much time to it in his book. The inclusion of P.T. Barnum and other examples of humbugs, hoaxes, and diddles certainly undermines Goodman's assertion that Locke's work was meant to be a satire and he devotes considerably less time talking about it than the hoaxes.

Overall, I thought this book was interesting. It feels disjointed because it talks about a lot of different things which are related, but it gives a good view of the culture of nineteenth century New York. If any of the topics listed in the (fairly long) title interest you, I think this book is worth taking the time to check out.

- Kalpar

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