November 09, 2003

Whitman: the first warblogger

Plato may have invented the weblog, but I think that the warblog should be traced back to Walt Whitman.

I've just read Whitman's Democratic Vistas. It's not much like other political essays. It reads more like a semi-random collection of the best pieces from a couple of years of passionate, long-winded blogging, strung together by associative links. And apparently that's just what it was:

"[T]hough the passages of it have been written at widely different times, (it is, in fact, a collection of memoranda, perhaps for future designers, comprehenders,) and though it may be open to the charge of one part contradicting another -- for there are opposite sides to the great question of democracy, as to every great question -- I feel the parts harmoniously blended in my own realization and convictions, and present them to be read only in such oneness, each page and each claim and assertion modified and temper'd by the others."

I reckon that the blogosphere is part of the "copious, sane, gigantic offspring" that Whitman hoped for. Like Whitman's essay, most warblog postings "are not the result of studying up in political economy, but of the ordinary sense, observing, wandering among men, these States, these stirring years of war and peace."

As the obligatory language hook, let me point out that Whitman has something to say about the connection between linguistic prescriptivism and class prejudice:

"The People! Like our huge earth itself, which, to ordinary scansion, is full of vulgar contradictions and offence, man, viewed in the lump, displeases, and is a constant puzzle and affront to the merely educated classes. The rare, cosmical, artist-mind, lit with the Infinite, alone confronts his manifold and oceanic qualities -- but taste, intelligence and culture, (so-called,) have been against the masses, and remain so. There is plenty of glamour about the most damnable crimes and hoggish meannesses, special and general, of the feudal and dynastic world over there, with its personnel of lords and queens and courts, so well-dress'd and so handsome. But the People are ungrammatical, untidy, and their sins gaunt and ill-bred."

These days, the rich are thin, and the People's sins are more likely to be plump and ill-bred, but Whitman's observation about the intrinsically snobbish tendency of "taste, intelligence and culture" is still valid. This is why linguists, though overflowing with normative impulses about grammar and usage, normally restrain themselves. Or rather, try to express themselves very carefully.

Posted by Mark Liberman at November 9, 2003 09:52 AM