The Arts, the Senses, and the Imagination
by Robert Millar on January 29th, 2014

As I write this I have before me a somewhat crumbling copy of Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, dated February, 1884, which came into my possession quite unexpectedly last summer. In leafing through it, I have been filled with admiration for the surprising quality of both the writing and the illustrations, most of which are engravings of quite a high standard. On closer inspection I have noticed that I can detect the physical traces of the weight of the printing press in the form of slight depressions in the paper’s surface where the printing plates have driven the ink into it ---- so different from the slick products of today’s copying machines. In thinking about the sheer forcefulness of this very physical act of printing, I have found myself almost transported to an earlier era. A time when literary publications were not nearly as prolific as they are now. A time when the quality of their production wasn’t characterized by glibness, insubstantial content, and glossy presentation as is often the case today. A time when both deliberate craftsmanship and effort were necessities. Imagine travelling back in history to the days before television, before movies, even before the widespread use of photography. Consider how in the long run these media have had the cumulative effect of transforming a society that had primarily been informed by the written word to one that came to depend more and more on photographic images. In the wake of that effect I sometimes wonder whether the word has ever made a complete comeback.
In 1884, when pictures in printed publications were still quite rare, it was common for writing to be more verbose in order to relay in words what was missing in images. There were more words, and the writing style aspired to some degree of eloquence --- even in the monthly magazines. But readers were not in a great hurry in the 1800s. They looked forward to finding a quiet corner in the evening and having a good diverting read, one that not only provided a succinct story or concise facts, but also an engaging sense of place, time, and atmosphere. They enjoyed full immersion in the world conjured up by the writing, relishing a diversion from their everyday lives. Verbosity and eloquence were seen not as impediments, but as assets that held the promise of a full experience.

When we enter the pages of Harper’s Monthly of 1884, we are obliged to decelerate from our 21st century pace to make time and room for all the “extra words,” so critical for providing vivid context in both fiction and nonfiction, to work their spell. In the opening travel article, see how the text saunters along, gradually and colorfully easing us into an episode of armchair exploration.
The illustrations, too, can be quite striking, each one crafted from scratch to amplify an aspect of the writing, each one a small work of art in itself.
The general writing style you have just experienced was typical of authors of the 19th and early 20th centuries, and it is evident to an even greater extent in the works of the novelists of the time, like Wilkie Collins, Charles Dickens, Elizabeth Gaskell, the Bronte sisters, and George Elliott, to name just a few. Along with the Harper’s Monthly I also received an original copy of a popular novel from 1876 entitled Rose Turquand, by Ellice Hopkins, a social reformer and author. Look how slowly and picturesquely it begins setting the scene. There is no way we can hurry through this painstakingly descriptive novel if we wish to absorb all that it has to offer. Instead we must listen carefully to the familiar voice of our “inner narrator” as he or she gives life to the text, all the while allowing the words to fully blossom into imaginary scenarios and circumstances.
Reading these works has provided me with an opportunity to step back from the ethos of our time and dwell at least momentarily in that of a bygone era, and I have to admit that the process has been both pleasant and instructive. The pace of the experience has been slower, but the rewards have been noticeably richer because of the time, attention to detail, and artistry that is evident in the work. I have found myself somewhat resenting the accelerated pace of life so characteristic of our time, along with some of the resulting compromises in quality that we have accepted on many fronts. Why in our headlong trajectory through history do we often seem to discard some of the best aspects of the past while uncritically embracing so much of the new, a considerable amount of which often leaves much to be desired? It’s harder to find the high level of literary endeavor that was taken for granted in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Expediency, modern stylistic considerations, and perhaps even a shortened attention span have led us into producing mostly succinct text. It seems that in magazines at least, it’s now almost as if we “illustrate” photos with text, reversing the long-standing relationship between text and image. Our society can lay claim to many legitimate accomplishments and improvements to the general quality of life for which we are all grateful, I’m sure. And I hasten to add that there are still fine authors and quality publications out there. But in paging through the veritable cornucopia of magazines and books available in our bookstores today, I often wonder if what we may have gained in accessibility we may have lost in quality, artistry, and even literacy along the way.

Posted in POETRY AND LITERATURE    Tagged with literature, victorian, Harpers Magazine, Rose Turquand, the novel, Ellice Hopkins, engravings, history, 19th century, literacy, quality, writers, fiction, magazines


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