Emily Dickinson versus Paris Hilton

Mark Helprin discusses the decline of serious political discourse in America in his excellent book Digital Barbarism. Earlier generations were more patient, “primed to deliberate rather than merely to react.” He summarizes his argument by comparing Emily Dickinson and Paris Hilton.

That is not to say that all Americans were models of dignity and concentration, but by and large they were quite different from what we are now. … Rather than a massive comparison, suffice it to say that although today not everyone is like Paris Hilton, and in the nineteenth century not everyone was like Emily Dickinson, each of these is far more characteristic of her age than would be the other, and that this is self-evident along with all it implies.

Related post: Place, privacy, and dignity

15 thoughts on “Emily Dickinson versus Paris Hilton

  1. “Earlier generations” were not more patient, they just didn’t have a choice. There’s no “decline of serious political discourse in America” it’s just a lot more from more people who are crackpots and it’s moved from mainstream media to the web.

  2. Patient or just use to slow change? More patient perhaps, but also more tolerant … of injustice, poverty, racism, and prejudice.

  3. I agree that previous generations had fewer choices. The did not deliberately choose a low-tech lifestyle the way the modern Amish do. But I believe they were more patient. If you look at transcripts of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, for example, it’s hard to imagine a contemporary audience listening to anything so long and thoughtful.

  4. Rob,
    It’s not really fair to judge previous ages by contemporary moral standards. You have to play with the cards you’re dealt – in 200 years they’ll be saying the same about us.

    Anyway, John’s point isn’t about societal morality on an absolute scale and I think it’s hard to dispute. Pick up anything written 100+ years ago – from a newspaper to a novel to a science journal – and you’ll find longer, more complex sentences and a larger, richer vocabulary.

  5. Of course they were more patient, and I completely agree with Rob. It was out of necessity.

    Gabe wrote:

    It’s not really fair to judge previous ages by contemporary moral standards. You have to play with the cards you’re dealt – in 200 years they’ll be saying the same about us.

    Obviously society will change. We might be judged for (for the sake of argument) eating meat or polluting, or for drinking out of metal. But it’s not as though they’ll look back to the 1800’s and decide that that’s the way to communicate (if it happens to be similar, it will be mere coincidence).

    Pick up anything written 100+ years ago – from a newspaper to a novel to a science journal – and you’ll find longer, more complex sentences and a larger, richer vocabulary.

    Yes, and you’ll also find plenty of examples of overly florid language. Language evolves whether we like it or not. I also disagree that modern science journalism exhibits simplistic writing. In fact, have a look at this excerpt from SciAm’s 50-100-150 feature from March 2009:

    MARCH 1859
    “In Africa there is a tribe of huge monkeys known by the name of Gorillas. Their existence has been known to white men for some years, but none have ever been taken alive. They live in the lonely retired seclusions of the forests, and the males are capable of coping in fight with the lion. The skull of one is in the Boston Museum, sent thither by the Rev. Mr. Wilson, a missionary. Last year, the body of one was sent from Sierra Leone to Prof. Owen, packed in a cask of rum. The males have a horrible appearance; they attain to a stature of five feet, with wrists four times the size of a man’s. Their strength is prodigious; one can wrench the head off of a man with his hands as easily as a person can husk an ear of corn.”

    I find it to be almost condescending, despite words like “thither” (which would be replaced by “there” in modern writing). You’ll find words like “seclusion” and “prodigious” in modern writing as well.

  6. As far as patience, or perhaps endurance for contemplation…
    It seems as though a person can acquire (and similarly, lose) this endurance by engaging in certain activities with a moderate amount of determination over time.

    As a representative from the younger generation (I am 28), when considering myself within the wider context – I must say that the relevant activities that I tend to engage in rank pretty low on the ‘endurance building’ scale. That is, outside of schoolwork and related academic activities, I spend *much* more time reading blogs rather than reading Emily Dickinson, and I view the state of the world more frequently through web pages rather than pouring over transcripts of executive, legislative, or judicial debates.

    This audience hasn’t come out and said it yet, so here it is:
    Of course my generation is notorious for ferociously engaging in trivial media outlets and maintaining simplistic dichotomies about the world. Yet, I don’t think that these horrible creations of modern society are the only the only thing wreaking havoc on our attention spans. We are really embedded in a world of more choices, and more outlets from which to express ourselves [Rob Lempke].

    What is less clear are the real consequences of this new lifestyle.

  7. tdstephens3: Excellent points (and I’m from your demographic; I turn 33 next month).

    I think that one other thing to consider is that while we are inundated with immediate, populist media, so probably were citizens in the 1800’s. We don’t tend to look at those media, however, because for the most part, we consume “classics” and other erudite works from that time, rather than everyday sources.

    Scholars of that period in history certainly come across those media, but the general public doesn’t. We consume a small subset. Likewise, future scholars will see the whole context of our period in their history, but most people will consume only a few items from our time that make it to the top of the heap (which will almost certainly surprise us).

  8. tdstephens3: I have no objection to blogs. I read a lot of blogs and obviously I write one. But I do see a danger in only reading blogs. I think we need to read books as well in order to keep our attention span from atrophying, to get a longer-term perspective, etc.

    John Moeller: I agree that we have access to the best writing of previous generations rather than a representative sample. But I have heard that the letters from civil war soldiers, for example, were remarkably well written.

  9. I have no doubt that previous generations were more patient, and more virtuous and better-mannered overall. What in our society encourages people to be patient? In the old days, at least, people would say that patience is a virtue, along with the implicit understanding that virtues were to be encouraged.

    But there is a funny incident I can’t resist. One of the kings of France — maybe Louis XIV, but I don’t remember — was to take a carriage somewhere, which arrived just in time for him. He later commented in a letter, “I almost had to wait.”

  10. I disagree with the premise. History is very much biased toward concentrating on the notable, and the timeless, and too it has been biased extremely toward the elite, the literate, the connected. The western world is exceedingly more literate and has much greater access to tools of communication than it did even 10 years ago, let alone a generation or two, making such cross-generational comparisons prone to failure.

    As well we have a sentimentality toward the past which causes us to often ignore the unflattering aspects of history. A century ago black-faced minstrelsy was a predominate form of entertainment. Is that the more civil, less-barbarous world we want to live in? The modern age is certainly more “vulgar” in the traditional sense, meaning that the proclivities of the common-folk are dominant and mainstream, but that vulgarity has always been there, just hidden and subjugated due to the socio-economic stratification of the times. When we look back at the 1850s or the 1950s the archetypes we take as representative of those eras are typically wholly historically inaccurate. (The average American in Dickenson’s time was an illiterate farmer, to imagine that she is representative of that era is historical ignorance writ large.) In the same manner we overinflate the cultural importance of modern individuals and events that have a high degree of temporary notoriety, missing out on a lot of the subtler, more fundamental and, perhaps, salutary changes in popular culture in the present era.

    That’s not to say that I think our society is perfect, only that this particular brand of comparison is unfair and almost certainly inaccurate. I would like to see greater degree of civility, for example, but I think the prevalence of incivility in the modern age owes as much to technology giving the uncivil access to the world’s ear as it does to any absolute change in the character of the average individual.

  11. A couple comments have inferred that literacy is much higher now than 150 years ago. I’m not sure that’s true, especially if you have more than a minimal definition of what it means to be literate. I imagine literacy rates were higher in the past than is commonly believed, and I’m sure they are lower now than is commonly believed.

  12. Fair enough, I’ll concede that point. My reading supports your literacy thesis.

    However, sans the literacy argument, Wedge still has a good point. There’s a common sentimentality for the past, especially regarding literature. I find it disturbing that these arguments for “everything was better in X era/decade/period” often neglect any progress that we’ve made as a society.

  13. We’ve been watching Paris Hilton’s BFF. Where do they find these people? They are from another world!

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