Category Archives: The More Things Change…

In Media Res (1991 Edition)

Speaking of workspaces . . .

I opened my e-mail this morning to find a photograph (seen below) from my pal Marron, with whom I shared an office in my first years on Capitol Hill in the early 1990s.  She and I (and usually two, sometimes three, others) worked in this office in the U.S. Senate Dirksen Building — a building that had all the charm of a 1960s-era high school — from 1990 until about 1995. It was here that we first learned that airplanes were on their way to the Middle East for the opening volleys of first Iraq war, where she and I answered phones over Columbus Day weekend during the infamous Clarence Thomas hearings, and where we generally worked long into the night when the Senate was in session. Marron and I could also get into quite a bit of trouble together; we took great delight in pranking our fellow staffers, and each other.  (Marron once crashed our office phone system by forwarding every phone in the office to my direct line.)

Anyway, if you think from watching television or movies that the life of a Hill staffer is glamorous, and that we all work at enormous oak desks in offices lined with gigantic bookshelves crammed with leather-bound books and framed prints of the Founding Fathers on the wall, well . . . not so much.  Here’s me in my workspace in 1991 or so, as photographed by Marron from her desk across from me (you can see her own inbox in the foreground):

(Click on it if you want to embiggen it and enjoy me in all my twentysomething glory.)

Yeah, that’s me with a head full of hair.  Shut up. Given the way I’m dressed, the Senate was likely in an extended recess, when we didn’t have to wear our usual suits and could come in a bit more casually dressed.

Sitting on the desk in front of me is one of those gigantic old IBM desktop computers.  Back in the early 1990s, the only people in our office who had desktops were the low folks on the totem pole — and that’s because we were using them to draft responses to constituent mail, which we could then save onto an inner-office network, where anyone with a desktop could pull them up. And let me tell you, we worked those things hard, responding to about 10,000 pieces of mail each month.  (And as Marron reminded me in her e-mail  accompanying this photo, it wasn’t too long after this picture was taken that my computer monitor actually caught fire.)

All other office business — including a rudimentary e-mail system — was carried out on computers we called The DeeGees — old green-screened Data General computers, hooked into a central system that made it possible to share files and send messages. Mine was on the desk’s return,  just behind the clunky IBM.  (If you think your computer currently takes up too much space on your desk, try having two.)

The bookshelf to the left in the photo was my filing system — and you can see that, even then, I was still a black binder kinda guy. There was an old dot-matrix printer in the space just behind the bookshelf, where our assistant press secretary would print out wire stories once each day, making a loud zzzt zzzt zzt! for about 30 minutes.

The television you see — which we used to monitor the Senate floor — wasn’t mine or Marron’s;  it belonged to another staffer we all called Joe T, who had one of the two desks next to the window. And on the wall?  Not Founding Fathers, but Georgia O’Keeffe prints (the one behind my desk was a painting of the Taos Pueblo)  and framed photos of New Mexico scenery.  And it looks like I also had a small promo poster for Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta taped to the wall just above my DeeGee.

Finally, it appears there’s a pile of papers on the desk in front of me.  Some things never change. Apart from the hair, of course.

The Sagging Book Market (of 1819)

Think the beating the book market is taking by a slumping economy is a new phenomenon?  Think again. 

Writing in the latest issue of the journal Common-Place, Fordham University professor Edward Cahill discusses how the rise of easy credit in the early nineteenth century led to a devaluing not only of paper money, but eventually of literary currency as well — culminating in the financial panic of 1819 and the collapse of countless booksellers.  Left standing among the debris was Washington Irving’s Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon. “But if the appearance of the Sketch Book marked the economic development of American literary culture,” Cahill says, “it was also haunted by widespread economic unrest.” 

Cahill goes on to explain why The Sketch Book was not only a survivor, but also provided elegant commentary on — and a bit of a eulogy for — the early 19th century publishing industry. Eventually, Cahill concludes, “elite literary culture would be inextricably tied to popular culture, despite many protests to the contrary.”   Well put.  Once again, almost in spite of himself, Washington Irving shaped our perceptions of popular culture.

Professor Cahill’s article,  “The Other Panic of 1819: Irving’s Sketch Book, Literary Overproduction, and the Politics of the ‘Purely Literary,'” can be found right here.  Go get it.

"A Time of Unexampled Prosperity"

From “The More Things Change…” Department, as we watch the financial drama unfurl on Wall Street and in Washington, DC, I thought I’d share with you a remarkably prescient essay Washington Irving published in 1855, as part of the collection of stories in Wolfert’s Roost.

In this particular essay, “A Time of Unexampled Prosperity,” Irving alludes to the Panic of 1837, a financial crash that was the result of unchecked speculation, and plunged the American economy into a rumbling pseudo-depression that lasted until 1843. Within two months, failures in New York alone totalled nearly $100,000,000 — the equivalent of about $2 billion today.

Sound familiar? Here’s Washington Irving’s essay, “A Time of Unexampled Prosperity,” in its entirety (it’ll take you no more than five minutes to read, and trust me, it’s worth every second):

In the course of a voyage from England, I once fell in with a convoy of merchant ships bound for the West Indies. The weather was uncommonly bland; and the ships vied with each other in spreading sail to catch a light, favoring breeze, until their hulls were almost hidden beneath a cloud of canvas. The breeze went down with the sun, and his last yellow rays shone upon a thousand sails, idly flapping against the masts.

I exulted in the beauty of the scene, and augured a prosperous voyage; but the veteran master of the ship shook his head, and pronounced this halcyon calm a “weather-breeder.” And so it proved. A storm burst forth in the night; the sea roared and raged; and when the day broke, I beheld the late gallant convoy scattered in every direction; some dismasted, others scudding under bare poles, and many firing signals of distress.

I have since been occasionally reminded of this scene, by those calm, sunny seasons in the commercial world, which are known by the name of “times of unexampled prosperity.” They are the sure weather-breeders of traffic. Every now and then the world is visited by one of these delusive seasons, when “the credit system,” as it is called, expands to full luxuriance, everybody trusts everybody; a bad debt is a thing unheard of; the broad way to certain and sudden wealth lies plain and open; and men are tempted to dash forward boldly, from the facility of borrowing.

Promissory notes, interchanged between scheming individuals, are liberally discounted at the banks, which become so many mints to coin words into cash; and as the supply of words is inexhaustible, it may readily be supposed what a vast amount of promissory capital is soon in circulation. Every one now talks in thousands; nothing is heard but gigantic operations in trade; great purchases and sales of real property, and immense sums made at every transfer. All, to be sure, as yet exists in promise; but the believer in promises calculates the aggregate as solid capital, and falls back in amazement at the amount of public wealth, the “unexampled state of public prosperity.”

Now is the time for speculative and dreaming or designing men. They relate their dreams and projects to the ignorant and credulous, dazzle them with golden visions, and set them madding after shadows. The example of one stimulates another; speculation rises on speculation; bubble rises on bubble; every one helps with his breath to swell the windy superstructure, and admires and wonders at the magnitude of the inflation he has contributed to produce.

Speculation is the romance of trade, and casts contempt upon all its sober realities. It renders the stock-jobber a magician, and the exchange a region of enchantment. It elevates the merchant into a kind of knight-errant, or rather a commercial Quixote. The slow but sure gains of snug percentage become despicable in his eyes; no “operation” is thought worthy of attention that does not double or treble the investment. No business is worth following that does not promise an immediate fortune. As he sits musing over his ledger, with pen behind his ear, he is like La Mancha’s hero in his study, dreaming over his books of chivalry. His dusty counting-house fades before his eyes, or changes into a Spanish mine; he gropes after diamonds, or dives after pearls. The subterranean garden of Aladdin is nothing to the realms of wealth that break upon his imagination.

Could this delusion always last, the life of a merchant would indeed be a golden dream; but it is as short as it is brilliant. Let but a doubt enter, and the “season of unexampled prosperity” is at end. The coinage of words is suddenly curtailed; the promissory capital begins to vanish into smoke; a panic succeeds, and the whole superstructure, built upon credit and reared by speculation, crumbles to the ground, leaving scarce a wreck behind:

“It is such stuff as dreams are made of.”

When a man of business, therefore, hears on every side rumors of fortunes suddenly acquired; when he finds banks liberal, and brokers busy; when he sees adventurers flush of paper capital, and full of scheme and enterprise; when he perceives a greater disposition to buy than to sell; when trade overflows its accustomed channels and deluges the country; when he hears of new regions of commercial adventure; of distant marts and distant mines, swallowing merchandise and disgorging gold; when he finds joint-stock companies of all kinds forming; railroads, canals, and locomotive engines, springing up on every side; when idlers suddenly become men of business, and dash into the game of commerce as they would into the hazards of the faro table; when he beholds the streets glittering with new equipages, palaces conjured up by the magic of speculation; tradesmen flushed with sudden success, and vying with each other in ostentatious expense; in a word, when he hears the whole community joining in the theme of “unexampled prosperity,” let him look upon the whole as a “weather-breeder,” and prepare for the impending storm.

Sounds like something right out of the op-ed pages of today’s New York Times, doesn’t it? Trust me, when Irving’s good, he’s very good. Click here to read Wolfert’s Roost in its entirety.