Exploring Typographic Man: Two Excerpts

The last excerpts last night may have gotten a little ahead of where I wanted to be as I chronicle notes for this book.  So I'm going to take a couple of steps back and record some observations, one of which I'm still evaluating, but which I find persuasive.

from Amusing Ourselves to Death
Neil Postman

It may be true, as Frederick Jackson Turner wrote, that the spirit that fired the American mind was the fact of an ever-expanding frontier. But it is also true, as Paul Anderson has written, the "it is no mere figure of speech to say that farm boys followed the plow with book in hand, be it Shakespeare, Emerson, or Thoreau." For it was not only a frontier mentality that led Kansas to be the first state to permit women to vote in school elections, or Wyoming the first state to grant complete equality in the franchise. Women were probably more adept readers than men, and even in the frontier states the principal means of public discourse issued from the printed word. Those who could read had, inevitably, to become part of the conversation.

While I find much in this that is suggestive and interesting, I somehow doubt the main contention that it was because women could read the Wyoming granted the franchise.  A better guess to me would be that Wyoming was filled with a lot of men who really, really wanted women to come to Wyoming and offering the franchise was a small price for domestic and connubial bliss.  Let's face it, men just aren't that complex--although sometimes we play complex creatures on TV.

And then we have a comment in praise of lawyers, one in particular:

This was especially true of Daniel Webster, and it was only natural that Stephen Vincent Benét in his famous short story would have chosen Daniel Webster to contend with the Devil. How could the Devil triumph over a man whose language, described by Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story, had the following characteristics.

. . . his clearness and downright simplicity of statement, his vast comprehensiveness of topics, his fertility in illustrations drawn from practical sources; his keen analysis, and suggestion of difficulties; his power of disentangling a complicated proposition, and resolving it in elements so plain as to reach the most common minds; his vigor in generalizations, planting his own arguments behind the whole battery of his opponents; his wariness and caution not to betray himself by heat into untenable positions, or to spread his forces over useless ground.

I quote this in full because it is the best nineteenth-century description I know of the character of discourses expected of one whose mind is formed by the printed word. It is exactly the ideal and model James Mill had in mind in prophesying about the wonders of typography. And if the model was somewhat unreachable, it stood nonetheless as an ideal to which every lawyer aspired.

It is a rare lawyer today who aspires to anything other than a fatter fee or a prominent place amongst his contemporaries.  Not none, but on the whole Shakespeare's notion regarding treatment of lawyers might make, overall, for a better society. But, to aspire to highly reasonable, illustrative, and concrete reasoning.  How outré, how bizarre!  What does that profit a man or a lawyer?

Comments

  1. And, yet was "it only natural that Stephen Vincent Benét in his famous short story would have chosen Daniel Webster to contend with the Devil."?
    In the Great Dartmouth College Case Webster argues the validity of the contract -- the enduring power of such a document. In life, Dan'l probably would not have taken the case and certainly not the case of a poor farmer. Yet, maybe after seven years of prosperity Mr. Stone could have paid a large fee.

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  2. Dear Mr. Cooke,

    Only adding umber to my already dismal view of lawyers. You are most probably correct.

    shalom,

    steven

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