Tuesday, 12 February 2008

This Is How Very Important He Was Whenever I tell people I'm working on Herbert Spencer, they tilt their head and ask: "What does The Faerie Queen have to do with American literature?" "Absolutely nothing," I reply. "I'm working on Herbert Spencer, not Edmund." "Who was Herbert Spencer?" "Only the single most important intellectual force of the Nineteenth Century." "If you say so." And I do. Because he was. Only I can't prove it fast enough to prevent their attention from drifting to more significant matters. (Like their work.) Now I can. Here, reprinted in its entirety, is an article from the front page of The New York Times (6 December 1903): He was the Britney Spears of his time! Except instead of being a useless pop singer, he was an Intellectual Titan! Two days earlier—and also on the front page—the Times had reported: The question, of course, is "For whom is Spencer's condition causing 'grave anxiety'?" The answer is, well, everyone.* Point being, HERBERT SPENCER WAS SO IMPORTANT THE TIMES PUBLISHED A FRONT PAGE ARTICLE SAYING HE HAD HAD A BAD DAY SO STOP LOOKING AT ME FUNNY AND TALKING ABOUT THE FAERIE QUEEN ALRIGHT? *In an 1893 article entitled "Herbert Spencer's Health," the Times had to assuage the fears of an anxious nation: It will be gratifying to his numerous admirers in the United States to learn, on the authority of a letter received from him a few days ago by a friend in this city, that his condition is not as bad as has been represented ... As soon as he is able he will resume work on the "Sociology," which he temporarily abandoned to complete the "Ethics." Granted, this update only merited a mention on page 4, but you see my point: Spencer was so important that The Paper of Record felt compelled to tell its readership not to worry, the Sociology would be finished. (Spencer is a man with many qualities; foremost among them, the finishing of ambitious books.) That says quite a bit about the intellectual culture of the time (though not as much as you might think). (Or that I'm letting on.)

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