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Blogging in the 17th century


Before Glenn Reynolds, there was Samuel Pepys—Secretary of Charles II's Admiralty in the days when Britannia undeniably ruled the waves—whose voluminous diaries have been resurrected as a brilliant weblog, through the unremunerated efforts of one Phil Gyford.

"I thought Pepys' diary could make a great weblog," Mr. Gyford explained to the BBC. "The published diary takes the form of nine hefty volumes—a daunting prospect. Reading it day by day on a website would be far more manageable, with the real-time aspect making it a more involving experience."

(If, however, you grow impatient with the daily doses of the Samuel Pepys weblog, you can download all nine quarto volumes—1,250,000 words (or a zipped 2.4 megabytes) from Project Gutenberg.)

The mundane comings and goings of most peoples' lives are painfully dull, but Pepys never seems to have enjoyed an unremarkable day. To wit:

[August 5th 1663.]  All the morning at the office, whither Deane of Woolwich came to me and discoursed of the body of ships, which I am now going about to understand, and then I took him to the coffee-house, where he was very earnest against Mr. Grant's report in favour of Sir W. Petty's vessel, even to some passion on both sides almost.  So to the Exchange, and thence home to dinner with my brother, and in the afternoon to Westminster hall, and there found Mrs. Lane, and by and by by agreement we met at the Parliament stairs (in my way down to the boat who should meet us but my lady Jemimah, who saw me lead her but said nothing to me of her, though I ought to speak to her to see whether she would take notice of it or no) and off to Stangate and so to the King's Head at Lambeth marsh, and had variety of meats and drinks, but I did so towse her and handled her, but could get nothing more from her though I was very near it; but as wanton and bucksome as she is she dares not adventure upon the business, in which I very much commend and like her. Staid pretty late, and so over with her by water, and being in a great sweat with my towsing of her durst not go home by water, but took coach, and at home my brother and I fell upon Des Cartes, and I perceive he has studied him well, and I cannot find but he has minded his book, and do love it.  This evening came a letter about business from Mr. Coventry, and with it a silver pen he promised me to carry inke in, which is very necessary. So to prayers and to bed.

And so in this fashion, day by day, through the restoration of the monarchy, war with the Dutch, fire,  plague and (as the previous passage makes clear) numerous towsings and carousings

From time to time, Pepys resolves to cut back on his drinking and womanizing and pay more attention to his business. For example, this entry on Dec. 31, 1661, "I have newly taken a solemn oath about abstaining from plays and wine..." But by Feb. 17 he's back to his rough and rowdy ways: "And here I drank wine upon necessity, being ill for the want of it."

Pepys may have had his faults as a husband and as a public servant. But as a journalist (in the older sense of that term), he is unparalleled. As Pepys' biographer, Sir Arthur Bryant, wrote:

Pepys possessed the journalist's gift of summing up a scene or a person in a few brilliant, arresting words. He makes us see what he sees in a flash; his Aunt James, "a poor, religious, well-meaning, good soul, talking of nothing but God Almighty, and that with so much innocence that mightily pleased me"; and his sister Pall, "a pretty good-bodied woman and not over thick, as I thought she would have been, but full of freckles and not handsome in the face." He could describe with wonderful vividness a great scene: as, for example, the day Gen. George Monck's soldiers unexpectedly marched into a sullen City and proclaimed there should be a free Parliament ….

Above all, Pepys possessed the artist's gift of being able to select the vital moment. He makes his readers share the very life of his time.

How many bloggers—even the best—manage to do that today?

Posted by Rodger on December 16, 2004 at 02:21 PM | Permalink


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