. . . John Thelwall

. . .

"I determined to think no more of America; but to set off the ensuing morning for the village of Oakland, in quest of my dear Sophia."
- John Thelwall, The Peripatetic, 1793

Economic Wisdom
Photo by Juliet Clark

. . .

An Orator John Thelwall addressing the crowd in Copenhagen Fields, 1795 - from Caricature History of the Georges
It's all very well to compare a weblogger to Samuel Beckett or Emily Dickinson or William Blake, if by "well" we mean "ridiculous."

Closer analogies exist, however. I recommend John Thelwall to the attention of future analogy-drawers, and if the name of John Thelwall is unfamiliar, well, that's one of the reasons I think it's closer.

Thelwall was a self-educated Londoner who spent most of the 1790s working for free speech and universal suffrage (and therefore most of 1794 in prison). His unlucrative career of debating, lecturing, and publishing was launched by three volumes titled The Peripatetic; or, Sketches of the Heart, of Nature and Society; in a series of Politico-Sentimental Journals, in Verse and Prose, of the Eccentric Excursions of Sylvanus Theophrastus, Supposed to be Written by Himself, well described by the Analytical Review of May 1795:

"The author feels strongly on subjects of political oppression; and writes like an honest friend to his species... The author's design appears to have been to unite the different advantages of the novel, the sentimental journal, and the miscellaneous collection of essays and poetical effusions. The character of the language is rather of ease, than elegance.... We cannot however flatter Mr. T. so far, as to pronounce his style so peculiarly his own as to bear the distinguishing marks of original genius. It is too negligent, and, if we may conjecture, was too hastily written, to receive any characteristic impressions. It is, however, on the whole pleasing, and very naturally and forcibly expresses the writer's ideas and sentiments."
The book includes the thin and scattered pretense of a sentimental novel, but it's clear (and Thelwall freely admits in his Preface) that this "was not originally intended to form any part of the design, till it was suggested... that it might afford a prospect of more extensive circulation." (St. Martin's Press, please note that I could easily throw a couple of good incest-and-murder plots into any proposed reprint of the Hotsy Totsy Club archives.)

What the book more whole-heartedly provides is a meandering sequence of gassy mini-essays and dreadful poetry (which, according to this edition's editor, Judith Thompson, exerted great influence on Thelwall's magpie friend Wordsworth) encompassing speculative medicine, detailed sight-seeing reports, soul-searching over the extent to which a beggar deserves spare change, the causes of war and unemployment, the defects of an English education, historical anecdotes, who's better: Pope or Dryden?, the class hypocrisy of drug wars (the drug du jour being gin), self-congratulations on having gotten down from a scary high cliff, and so on, all fired up by truly blog-worthy righteousness.

A Minister in High Glee Prime Minister Pitt, who, during 1795's grain shortage, suggested that laborers who couldn't afford bread buy meat instead.
Here, for example, is how Thelwall sums up the Wat Tyler story, occasioned by a trip to Dartford, told through quotes from David Hume's "obsequious" history and interrupted by heatedly sarcastic asides:

I, for my part, am no friend to insurrections, to unrelenting vengeance, or even to sanguinary justice; but I appeal to the knowledge and common sense of mankind, whether the uniform conduct of all tyrants has not conspired to teach the world this lesson -- that when once you have got them in your power, you either must lop them off, or they will lop off you?

(And I, for my part, enjoy seeing George III called "a phlegmatic hog.") He closes with nine exclamation marks.

Always pompous, always well-meaning, occasionally insightful, and usually right -- yes, Thelwall seems a fine role model: followable, forgettable, forgivable.

     "... So, sullen fiend! to this dark cavern flies
   The man of crimes -- by hopeless pangs opprest.--
Fiend! thou art here.-- How ghastly glare thy eyes!
   While thy chill touch congeals my shuddering breast.
Come, endless Night! thy thickest mantle spread!
Ye kindred horrors! shriek around my head!"
The vehemence with which this was delivered in some degree alarmed my fellow traveller; but, for my own part, having fallen several times in conversation with persons occasionally visited by temporary fits of extravagance, I have learned to consider them as perfectly innocent, and to leave them to their own correction.

. . .

Intermediate Hedonics

“For my own part, indeed, I never permit the slight appearances of a pending shower to interfere with my engagements; being convinced, that, not only in the serious, but even in the more trifling pursuits of life, one ought not to be lightly driven from one’s purpose by casual circumstances or frivolous inconveniencies.”

Now this was a sentiment so entirely correspondent with my own, that had it been uttered by a bearded Jew, an Æthiop, or a wild Arabian, I could have hugged him to my bosom, and have hailed him instantaniously as my friend.—“For an Englishman,” continued I, “has too many caprices of his own, turning him continually out of the path of resolution, to suffer those of his climate, also, to thwart his intentions, and prevent his pleasures. And wisdom, permit me to observe, does not so much consist, as some surly old philosophers would persuade us, in despising Pleasure, as in being, as far as Human-Nature will permit, independent of contingencies and accidents in her pursuit.

“Your Peripatetic, therefore,” continued I— examining my dress, which was by no means calculated for the circle of St. James’s, “should accommodate himself accordingly.—They who would allure this universal mistress by the spruceness of their exterior, may dread lest the threatening shower should damp their ardour; but he, who depending only on the vivacity of his own fancy, and the sprightly effervescence of his passion, dares boldly approach her in a threadbare coat of rusty sable, has nothing to dread less formidable than an absolute storm in the centre of a houseless heath….”

- The Peripatetic by John Thelwall

. . .

The Peripatetic again

Georgina Green writes from Oxford:

Just wanted to point out that The Peripatetic is narrated by a character, not by Thelwall himself. This makes it more sophisticated than your account suggests, allowing for irony etc.

Nevertheless, I like your analogy and its good to see Thelwall getting some attention.

Unlike, say, Defoe or Sterne, Thelwall confessed that the explicitly novelistic element of his "novel" had been an afterthought, and I'd presumed on that confession and on his personal history.

Green is right to correct me it was an unwarranted presumption. The Peripatetic was written in that glorious era when Clark Kent, mild-mannered law enforcer, would duck into a coffeehouse to don the libelproof byline of Superbus before writing wrongs. Pseudo-fictional narrators who allowed for a wide range of auctorial distancing were just as much a convention of the time's discursive prose and verse as of its fiction, and the convention matters just as much in The Peripatetic as in "Mr. Yorick"'s Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy.

It was silly of me to miss that, given how it bolsters the weblog comparison.


Copyright to contributed work and quoted correspondence remains with the original authors.
Public domain work remains in the public domain.
All other material: Copyright 2015 Ray Davis.