One of the wonderful things about the internet is how it plays the Glass Bead Game with one, bringing together disparate trains of thought in unexpected ways. In this case, it was my running across a piece about the church in Texas that discourages vaccinations--and the resulting disease outbreak--immediately before finding, once again, Henry David Thoreau's rant about the uselessness of the telegraph.
But, this time, "whooping cough" had a very different valence. And so I reacted much differently than when I first studied the passage in English class at the Sidwell Friends High School in the late 1970s…
As we all know, the mid-nineteenth century Massachusetts transcendentalist author and activist Henry David Thoreau’s response to the telegraph was: “get off my lawn!”:
We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas, but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate. Either is in such a predicament as the man who was earnest to be introduced to a distinguished deaf woman, but when he was presented, and one end of her ear trumpet was put into his hand, had nothing to say. As if the main object were to talk fast and not to talk sensibly... perchance the first news that will leak through into the broad, flapping American ear will be that the Princess Adelaide has the whooping cough….
But this time I thought: Whooping cough before modern public health and vaccinations was a vicious beast. Of the 500,000 children in any yearly age cohort in the United States in 1840, 100,000 would catch and 10,000 would die of whooping cough--a mortality rate of 10% of those infected and of 2% of the population. Worldwide today we lose 300,000 children a year to whooping cough--0.3% of each cohort.
Perhaps Henry David Thoreau is making a deep point about the human urge to form ties of affection, respect, and deference with the powerful; about how this makes us more unequal and less free; and about the role of modern modes of communication in helping the powerful and the rich “manufacture consent”, to coin a phrase.
I doubt it.
Perhaps it is at basis a misogynistic point--that the lives of women and the children they care for are or should be of no consequence to anyone outside their immediate family, and how dare a telegraph message attempt to make them so!
Perhaps it is at basis a misanthropic point--that his equipoise should not be disturbed by knowledge of potential tragedies far away.
Certainly Adelaide’s relatives would appreciate learning and would pay good money to learn about the state of her health via telegraph, even were she not a princess.
Texas may not have had much important to learn from Maine. But in the summer of 1860 Texas had a great deal to learn from Chicago: the Republican Party National Convention meeting at the Wigwam nominated Abraham Lincoln as its candidate for President. The chain of events thus started would kill 25,000 and maim 25,000 more of the then-100,000 white adult male Texans and would free all 200,000 African-American Texans within five years.
Maine may not have had much important to learn from Texas, but telegraphs reporting relative prices of Grand Bank codfish in Boston, Providence, New York, and Philadelphia were of great importance to Maine fishermen setting out.
Ever since the development of language one of humanity’s great powers is that our extraordinary drive to talk and gossip truly turns us into an anthology intelligence: what one of us in the group knows, if it is useful, pretty quickly becomes known by nearly everyone. The telegraph enlarges the relevant group from the village or township or guild to, potentially, the entire world. And that matters.