This is a strange book about a strange event in a strange time. In the summer of 1835, the first successful penny paper in New York published a series of articles documenting an extraordinary series of discoveries by the most famous astronomer in the world, John Herschel (son of the even-more-famous William Herschel). With the aid of a new optical technology and the pristinely clear skies over the Cape of Good Hope, Herschel had discovered life and, indeed, civilization on the moon.
The reason why these discoveries never came up in the recent 40th-anniversary celebrations of the Apollo moon landing is, of course,
the moon landings were faked by the people who would later forge Obama’s birth certificate the truth is out there pyramids were built by Atlantean space aliens from SPA-A-A-ACE they didn’t really happen. The editor of the New York Sun, Richard Adams Locke, needed money. The publisher of the Sun, Benjamin Day, wanted to increase circulation–and wasn’t averse to money either. Day paid Locke to write a series of articles about the supposed “discoveries” of Herschel. Day never admitted that he knew the stories were false, but Locke eventually confessed both that he wrote them (they were originally published anonymously), and that they were false. By the time of his confession, everyone knew this, but when the articles first appeared it seems as if almost everyone took them at face value.
It was the golden age of hoaxes. The world and people’s understanding of it were being transformed by new science and technology. The penny paper, a primitive medium to our way of thinking, allowed information (or misinformation) to spread wide and sink deep into the awareness of an urban population. People were excited by the possibilities of the new world they were entering, threatened by its dangers, and eager on both counts to learn whatever they could about it.
[Hic, haec, hoax: beyond the jump.]
Goodman does a wonderful job in painting the details of the newspaper world in New York in the 1830s and the sometimes distorted figures that passed through it (or through its notice). Along with Day, Locke and Herschel, prominent characters include the urbane and detestable James Bennett, rival editor of the New York Herald, arch-hoaxer P.T. Barnum, failed hoaxer and early sf writer Edgar Allan Poe, and the woman who would one day be known as Sojourner Truth.
Goodman tells a good story, too, and he has a cascade of good stories to tell. I was particularly struck with the outrageously cruel and prolonged prank that was played on a young P.T. Barnum by his own family, apparently setting him up for a lifetime of hoaxing other people in displaced revenge. Also of interest is the story of a murderous self-styled prophet named Matthias, whose trial was a sensation in the police columns of the penny papers and a cash cow for reporter R.A. Locke. But the centerpiece of the book is a skilled retelling of the moon-hoax series itself, intertwined with an account of the snowballing effect of the articles in the city and beyond it, until word of his “discoveries” reaches John Herschel himself in England. It is awesome.
Poe is one of my favorite writers, and it was interesting to see him enter the story, as he does tangentially. I kept thinking of Poe’s “Hans Pfall” as I read Goodman’s account of Locke’s moon-hoax, and it turns out that Poe (at least for a while) was sure he’d been plagiarized by Locke. Later he tried to run a hoax of his own in the same paper (that’s where his “Balloon Hoax” first saw light) but apparently it wasn’t a success, either because people had become harder to fool or because of Poe’s drunken appearance in front of the publisher’s building where he announced to the crowd that the story was a false and that he’d written it. Sad and creepily funny, the way so much of Poe’s biography is.
I wasn’t happy with everything in the book–because I guess I never am totally happy with anything. Goodman a couple times displays a stylistic tic which is common in historical writing: “X changed Y forever.” The History Channel used to use this phrase a lot, and you see it in almost every popular historical account of anything. Say it’s a history of juggling. Someone is sure to intone at some point, “But a development would soon occur which would change juggling forever.” Of course it did. Of course it did. If said development changed juggling for fifteen minutes and then things changed right back they way they had been, then it might be worth stressing. Otherwise, changes under discussion may be assumed to be more or less permanent. Popular historians, please take note, or I will smite you in my wrath and there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Thank you. I’ll go lie down now and resume in a moment.
Before the foregoing rant changed the course of this blog post forever (or at least until I edit it out), I was going to add that another, potentially more disorienting habit of Goodman’s is that he narrates an episode up to the appearance of an important character and then flashes back to give an account of the character’s life story up to that point. The result is a rather curlicued narrative that sometimes proceeds very indirectly toward its goals.
One last kvetch: I would have welcomed more original source material. The text of the moon-hoax articles would have made a great appendix to this book, for instance, or Poe’s “Hans Pfall” or “Balloon Hoax” (although Poe’s work is pretty widely available if someone wants it). The book has a few visual depictions of the batlike Lunar inhabitants from various sources that were pretty interesting; even more would have been even better.
Still, kvetches aside, this was a terrific read, and the material is very well-documented (although unobtrusively, in end-notes at the back of the book; there is also an excellent index and bibliography).
One point Goodman makes that’s worth stressing for readers of Black Gate: the Sun‘s moon-hoax (and some of Poe’s stories) are clearly the first stirrings of American science fiction. Some consideration of this material is essential for anyone interested in what the genre is, why it arose, and how it captures (or fails to capture) the public’s imagination. And anyone thinking of doing an American steampunk story would do well to get hold of this book and read it through. I’m not steampunkily minded, at least not since the operation, and even I kept having story ideas as hoax clashed with counter-hoax in the text.