Saturday, January 3, 2009
The Sun and the Moon: The Remarkable True Account of Hoaxers, Showmen, Dueling Journalists, and Lunar Man-Bats in Nineteenth-Century New York
Matthew Goodman, The Sun and the Moon: The Remarkable True Account of Hoaxers, Showmen, Dueling Journalists, and Lunar Man-Bats in Nineteenth-Century New York (2008)[*****]. In the interests of full disclosure, I should note right up front that Matthew Goodman is the husband of one of my best friends and Earlham roommate, Cassie. Having said that, I fear no prejudice from the connection, because this book is fabulous all on its own. It is the intertwined stories of the rise of the tabloid press in New York City in the 1830's, and a marvelous hoax perpetuated by John Adams Locke, the editor of the first and most successful penny paper, The Sun. This hoax convinced most of New York, and eventually the rest of the country and Europe as well, that the noted astronomer John Herschel had invented a "hydro-oxygen telescope" which allowed him to view the moon up close, and that he had found remarkable creatures, including biped beavers that lived in houses, and intelligent -- and apparently immodest -- man-bats. Both of these stories are interesting in and of themselves, and well-told, but Goodman's real genius is to place these stories in various social, religious, scientific and political contexts that both animate them and give them tremendous relevance today. These contexts include the abolitionist movement, and the vicious racism of most of New York and its press; the role of the press and in particular the newspaper in society; the tension between religious faith and scientific inquiry; the quest for intelligent life in the universe; and the thirst most of us share for sensationalism and the bizarre (and our willingness to fork over a lot of money to have that thirst quenched). Woven through this story are several intriguing supporting characters, including Edgar Allen Poe, who was certain Locke had plagiarized his own moon story Hans Phaal (which was itself in large part plagiarized); and P.T. Barnum, who was touring at the time with a slave woman whom he claimed to be the 160 year old nurse-maid of George Washington. The Sun and the Moon is a story meticulously well-researched, imaginatively and entertainingly told, very nicely written, and well-worth reading.