Thursday, February 03, 2011

Ah, the benefits of downtime...

One arguably positive side effect of yesterday’s ice storm-induced power outage was enforced downtime. After using up the minimal battery in my laptop to finish a pending assignment and finding the back-up battery was not charged, I turned to my teetering pile of half-read and to-be-started books. My first choice was finishing an interesting book that, because it qualifies on my list as pleasure reading, had unfortunately been overtaken by more urgent matters. During the past few months as I’ve retooled my website, I made a conscious decision not to join the legions of bloggers who focus on book reviews; no sense in competing with the masses too directly. Matthew Goodman’s The Sun and the Moon: The Remarkable True Account of Hoaxers, Showmen, Dueling Journalists, and Lunar Man-Bats in Nineteenth Century New York has made me reconsider my decision, at least this once.

Wednesday was my lucky day, lack of heat in the house notwithstanding. Not only did my off-the-grid hours allow me to digest the remaining few chapters of Goodman’s remarkable history of the evolution of new papers and journalism, and the extent of human gullibility, but I found those final pages to be a philosophical delight. I highly recommend this story to anyone with even a passing interest in any of those topics.

The majority of this meticulously researched account details the rough-and-tumble world of New York City newspaper publishing in the early 1800s. Keep a scorecard handy to track the dozen or so papers mentioned with their revolving-door owners, editors and writers, many of whom appeared on a variety of mastheads. Goodman’s central character is Richard Adams Locke who arrived in New York from England in 1832. Locke’s life would make a fascinating story on its own. The Sun and the Moon takes Locke’s adventures in NYC, most notably his 1835 “Great Astronomical Discoveries” series (memorialized as the Great Moon Hoax) for the Sun, weaves them in with Edgar Allen Poe’s literary travails and P.T. Barnum’s humbugs to provide a unique and informative perspective of the country’s early years. Slavery, religious fanaticism, and labor unions all mesh seamlessly in the riotous days explored in Goodman’s work.

Only after five years have passed, and after his journalism career has crumbled, did Locke reveal the true impetus behind his Moon Hoax. No spoilers here; suffice it to say I came away with a greater respect for Locke than the already-lofty fellow writer’s admiration evoked by earlier pages.

Interesting coincidence: in the middle of writing this, I received a wrong-number phone call for ‘Matt.’
My respect and admiration encompass the author of this volume as well. The Sun and the Moon showed me an unfamiliar moment in our history. Goodman reveals such notable figures as Poe, Barnum, and de Tocqueville as contemporaries of Locke, offering a new dimension to my understanding of their work as well. While the complex and at times overlapping and redundant events are sometimes difficult to follow, the journey is well worth the effort. Goodman’s attention to detail coupled with his wonderfully vivid imaginative recreations of the era makes for a delightful reading experience.

I look forward to Matthew Goodman’s next work on another great name in American journalism (Nellie Bly, if I remember correctly) with great anticipation.

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