William Cobbett and observations

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The mind is truly amazing and one of its unique abilities is the way it filters extraneous information allowing us to function uninterrupted unlike an overloaded circuit breaker that abruptly shuts down. And although we are constantly bombarded both internally and externally, our minds ability to sort allows us to carry on. However, as we sort we are also apt to miss certain things which do not always take a prominent position of importance. Traveling in a vehicle requires us to look forward, as when we are the driver of car in contrast to times we don’t look around at all but rather stay to ourselves, such as riding in a subway. Here wondering eyes that happen upon another may be considered nosy or even rude.

There are specific moments however when observing one’s surroundings is initiated with a more than a casual interest; when something is new, when we are lost, or when we reminisce; otherwise many are quite content simply getting to and fro from one destination to another without taking additional time out for the sights. For example our observations become enhanced if we are in a location that we have never ventured, such as on a vacation. We are more relaxed, allowing our minds to examine the new, the different, and the picturesque. Our senses are heightened; we permit curiosity to take over and our adventurous spirit to be released.

When we are lost our observational skills resemble those of Sherlock Holmes. We look for clues, familiar sights, locations, people that may lead us back on to the correct path. The physical beauty of our surroundings are irrelevant and no matter how much the sun may be shining upon the landscape, our observational mission is primarily directed to uncovering where we have gone astray.

Then there are those of us who return to places and locations after so many years away; here we find that our observations are directed into comparison mode. We endeavor to find a street, a house, even a tree that once existed and when it is not there we try to make sense out of the new thing in its place. We rummage through our mind comparing our yesterday with today.

How quickly does the day go by. How often have we arrived at a destination and the very act of traveling was like a dream since we are so preoccupied with matters at hand or matters that are weighing on our mind we don’t even remember the act of getting from one place to another. How curious is it that one can go through a season and not remember seeing the buds awakening on the winter trees, or the migration of robins returning, or even the full moon against the black sky even when it was directly over head.

Perhaps all this filtering is like censorship and we have managed to censor what may be the most remarkable part of our days. Perhaps we need to turn off our “auto pilot” just so we don’t miss the show.

William Cobbett by John Raphael Smith Today’s blog returns the esteemed thinker: William Cobbett (1763-1835) English born political reformer, writer, and editor. Although he is not widely read today, he is not a man to be dismissed. His outspoken editorials and mouthpiece for the general population during England’s Industrial Revolution, one finds him dodging prison and “escaping” to the United States for a period of time. His ability to connect to people may have originated from his innate and keen ability to observe. From 1821 to 1836 Cobbett traveled on horseback through rural England whereby he documented his observations of daily life and surroundings.

From his book titled Rural Rides I bring you a sampling of his work. Though it is but a brief passage, it is written with rich details whereby we too have become an observer. I present to you, Mr. Cobbett…

“This, to my fancy, is a very nice country. It is continual hill and dell. Now and then a chain of hills higher than the rest, and these are downs, or woods. To stand upon any of the hills and look around you, you almost think you see the ups and downs of sea in a heavy swell (as the sailors call it) after what they call a gale of wind. The undulations are endless, and the great variety in the height, breadth, length, and form of the little hills, has a very delightful effect.—The soil, which, to look on it, appears to be more than half flint stones, is very good in quality, and, in general, better on the tops of the lesser hills than in the valleys. It has great tenacity; does not wash away like sand, or light loam. It is a stiff, tenacious loam, mixed with flint stones. Bears Saint-foin well, and all sorts of grass, which make the fields on the hills as green as meadows, even at this season; and the grass does not burn up in summer.—In a country so full of hills one would expect endless runs of water and springs. There are none: absolutely none. No water-furrow is ever made in the land. No ditches round the fields. And, even in the deep valleys, such as that in which this village is situated, though it winds round for ten or fifteen miles, there is no run of water even now. ..”

Second image: National Portrait Gallery (London) William Cobbett by John Raphael Smith ,chalk, engraved 1812

Esteemed thinker: William Cobbett

lovers Advice is something we often receive freely even if we want it or not. Most people readily hand it over and wish nothing more in return except perhaps to be acknowledged that they are “correct”. It can be solicited without our intention such as through one’s appearance; “Your hair would look better combed,” or it can open up a world of advice by way of a simple question such as…. “Do you think I could wear this to the office?”

Advice is given in many forms. It can be written, spoken, and even offered as a gesture. For example rather than saying “my advice to you is ….” one may receive a “thumbs down”.

Those seeking advice have relied upon the famous such as Anne Landers and Dear Abby, the curious such as palm readers, and even the impersonal such as horoscopes. Yet no matter the advice one receives, no matter the way it is given, ultimately it becomes the decision of the seeker to make, and for that we bid “good luck!”

NPG 1549,William Cobbett,possibly by George Cooke Today’s blog introduces a lesser known English political journalist, the esteemed thinker: William Cobbett (1763-1835). Born in Farnham, Surrey County England, this author, satirist, journalist, and editor may not be a household name today, however it is to be noted that he was a champion of the people; fighting for reforms and exposing corruption in both the Church and Parliament during 18th and 19th century England. Through his writing in pamphlets, newspapers, and books he called for radical reform regarding poor working conditions for laborers and farmers.

Cobbett’s newspaper journal, The Political Register, was widely read by the working class people. As a result of his public outcries, he became an enemy of the government and fled to the United States in 1817 rather than being arrested for “sedition”. Here he lived on Long Island and wrote his most famous work, Grammar of the English language. Upon his return to England, in 1831 he continues to publish his radical newspaper and though running for the House of Commons, is defeated.

And so, we will now turn over the post to William Cobbett. The selection takes a bit of a turn from his political activism. From his series of Letters Advice to Young Men, and (incidentally) to Young Woman, you may be surprised to see that he too has some thoughts for those seeking love.

“… There are two descriptions of Lovers on whom all advice would be wasted; namely, those in whose minds passion so wholly overpowers reason as to deprive the party of his sober senses. Few people are entitled to more compassion than young men thus affected: it is a species of insanity that assails them; and, when it produces self-destruction, which it does in England more frequently than in all the other countries in the world put together, the mortal remains of the sufferer ought to be dealt with in as tender a manner as that of which the most merciful construction of the law will allow.

The other description of lovers, with whom it is useless to reason, are those who love according to the rules of arithmetic, or who measure their matrimonial expectations by the chain of the land-surveyor. These are not love and marriage; they are bargain and sale. Young men will naturally, and almost necessarily, fix their choice on young women in their own rank in life; because from habit and intercourse they will know them best. But, if the length of the girl’s purse, present or contingent, be a consideration with the man, or the length of his purse, present or contingent, be a consideration with her, it is an affair of bargain and sale…

Let me now turn from these two descriptions of lovers, with whom it is useless to reason, and address myself to you, my reader, whom I suppose to be a real lover, but not so smitten as to be bereft of your reason. You should never forget, that marriage, which is a state that every young person ought to have in view, is a thing to last for life; and that, generally speaking, it is to make life happy, or miserable; for, though a man may bring his mind to something nearly a state of indifference, even that is misery, except with those who can hardly be reckoned amongst sensitive beings. Marriage brings numerous cares, which are amply compensated by the more numerous delights which are their companions. But to have the delights, as well as the cares, the choice of the partner must be fortunate…”

First image: The lovers: New York : Published by N. Currier, c1846 lithograph, hand-colored.
Second image: National Portrait Gallery UK Painted circa 1831 by artist George Cooke (1781-1834)

Esteemed thinker: Jacob A. Riis

Jacob riis “A picture speaks a thousand words…” An adage that we have all heard, all recognize by its metaphoric content; but I wonder… is this the rallying cry of the photojournalist? For when we are witness to that “split second” moment caught on film, it is forever documented. With the camera being in our hands as early as the 1800s, we are able to step back in time and literally spy upon our days-gone-by; often its effect has the ability to embellish or diminish our perception of the past.

Early photographers like their counterpart the early journalists and writers often became the champions of the disenfranchised; describing and photographing parts of society that were often ignored, brushed aside, or even invisible to the public who were not in immediate contact of those less fortunate.

And so, today’s blog introduces the esteemed thinker: Jacob A. Riis (1849-1914) social reformer, writer, and photographer that brought to light the plight of the city’s poor. Riis himself was an immigrant that arrived in New York City in 1870 from Denmark. Having taken many different jobs, he became a police report and began to document the slums of New York City. Through his writings and photography he became a change agent, fighting for reform, for better housing, sanitation, care for the poor, and especially the children. He believed that all men who were moral citizens, regardless of economic status, should have an opportunity to better their lives and break free from poverty. His book of 1890, How the Other Half Lives created public uproar and intitiated a movement for change.

huddle riis From one of his many works titled, The Battle of the Slum, we cannot help but be moved by his firsthand account. Here is Mr. Riis in his own words….

“… The slum is as old as civilization. Civilization implies a race, to get ahead. In a race there are usually some who for one cause or another cannot keep up, or are thrust out from among their fellows. They fall behind, and when they have been left far in the rear they lose hope and ambition, and give up. Thenceforward, if left to their own resources, they are the victims, not the masters, of their environment; and it is a bad master. They drag one another always farther down. The bad environment becomes the heredity of the next generation. Then, given the crowd, you have the slum ready-made…”

“…High rents, slack work, and low wages go hand in hand in the tenements as promoters of overcrowding. The rent is always one fourth of the family income, often more. The fierce competition for a bare living cuts down wages; and when loss of work is added, the only thing left is to take in lodgers to meet the landlord’s claim. The midnight visit of the sanitary policeman discloses a state of affairs against which he feels himself helpless. He has his standard: 400 cubic feet of air space for each adult sleeper, 200 for a child. That in itself is a concession to the practical necessities of the case. The original demand was for 600 feet. But of 28,000 and odd tenants canvassed in New York, in the slumming investigation prosecuted by the general government in 1894, 17,047 were found to have less than 400 feet, and of these 5526 slept in unventilated rooms with no windows. No more such rooms have been added since; but there has come that which is worse…”

housing riis