In Amusing Ourselves to Death Neil Postman relates how on August 21, 1858, Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas met for the first of their seven famous debates. The arrangement provided that Douglas would speak first for an hour, then Lincoln would take an hour and half to reply, and then Douglas would get half an hour to rebut Lincoln’s reply. This seems incredible to us in our age of televised debates broken into two or three minute increments, but this debate was actually shorter than previous debates. In a debate on October 16, 1854, for example, Douglas delivered a three-hour address. Lincoln said that he would require at least three hours to respond, so the two debaters sent everyone home for dinner so that they could return refreshed for four more hours of debate.
Mid-nineteenth century America was a world in which people would rearrange their social lives in order to spend hours listening to two men that weren’t particularly prominent at the time. Is there an audience of Americans today could endure seven hours of talk? Even five? Three? Especially without pictures?
According to Neil Postman, the level of engagement as well as the degree of concentration and logical thought to follow a seven hour debate were made possible by Americans’ devotion to reading. Consider, for example, New England during the colonial period. There is decent evidence that by the mid-seventeenth century the literacy rate for men in Massachusetts and Connecticut was somewhere between 89% and 95%, which was quite probably the highest concentration of literate males to be found anywhere in the world. And Americans not only could read, they did read! Between 1682 and 1685 Boston’s leading book seller imported 3,421 books from one English dealer. These books were intended for consumption by approximately 75,000 people. When Thomas Paine wrote Common Sense it sold arguably 400,000 copies in a population of three million. A book publisher in 1985 would have to have sold twenty-four million copies to do as well.
Visitors to the United States in the 19th century repeatedly remarked how impressed they were by the high level of literacy and its extension to all classes. But not only did people read at high rates, they also regularly attended lecture halls that bolstered the written tradition. When visiting the United States in 1853, the Englishman Alfred Bunn reported that practically every village had its own lecture hall. In his words, “It is a matter of wonderment to witness the youthful workman, the overtired artisan, and the worn-out factory girl all rushing after the toil of the day is over into the hot atmosphere of a crowded lecture room.”
The regular reading and public lectures that Americans attended were not without effect and they fundamentally impacted the customs of American citizens. After visiting America in the early nineteenth century, Alexis de Tocqueville remarked that “an American cannot converse, but he can discuss, and his talk soon falls into a dissertation. He speaks to you as if he was addressing a meeting; and if he should chance to become warm in the discussion, he will say ‘Gentlemen’ to the person with whom he is conversing.”
According to Postman, America was dominated by the printed word and oratory based on the printed word more fully than any society we know of. And this centrality of the printed word formed the character of Americans. Consider the act of reading for a moment. It is a process that encourages rationality. When something is written it is sequential, propositional in character, requiring one to follow the line of thought; it requires one to classify, make inferences, and reason; to uncover lies, confusions, or generalizations; and detect abuses of logic and common sense. This created what Postman dubbed “the typographic mind.”
This typographical mind was present in all areas of life. Unlike modern advertisements, advertisements from this period generally assumed that potential buyers were literate, rational, and analytic. The goal of these advertisements was to convey information and to make claims in propositional form. That doesn’t mean these claims were always true, but they were framed in such a way as to make them either true or false.
Last year I came across a Life magazine from the early 1940s. While this period is later than the one Postman refers to, I was struck by the fact that every advertisement in the magazine included an essay of 500-700 words. While it is true that these advertisements were often dramatic in nature, appealing to one’s hopes, dreams, and fears as opposed to a sober conveyance of necessary information about the product, these advertisements, as did the articles in the magazine, all of which were written on serious topics at a very high level, still show that the printed word was held in high regard at this time.
Consider for a moment the effects that this type of culture would have on education. Children immersed in books, trained from a young age to read widely and sustain their attention for prolonged periods of time on intricate and complex arguments and then rationally assess and evaluate them would be well-positioned to excel in academic pursuits. Indeed, the conditions that produced a typographical mind were so widespread and embedded in American culture that a man like Lincoln could read, understand, and integrate authors like Shakespeare into his speeches and litigate and debate against men with the very best formal educations despite having attended school for only one year.
Likewise, this society produced Laura Ingles Wilder, a young woman raised on the frontier with very little formal education who wrote a best-selling series of books that has been beloved by countless Americans for more than a century. Some modern scholars believe this series had to have been written by someone other than Laura Ingles because they doubt that someone with her limited education could have written so well. But no contemporary doubted her authorship; their society supported self-education, so there was no reason to think that a person could not be both unschooled and well-educated.
Next week I’ll compare this typographical mind with the type of mind produced by a society dominated by images.