1851 media diet – a review

I was on an 1851 media diet in late 2021 and early 2022. I was reading “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”, (1852), a chapter a week to match its serialization 170 years before and added a media diet to it: most (but not all) of my reading, news and music also had to come from at least 170 years ago.

I modelled my media diet on what Thoreau said in “Walden” (1854) just a few years later: that most people in his town of Concord read just the Bible, the newspaper and cheap, contemporary fiction. So that is what I did, though the fiction would be a cut above since the trash fiction of 1851 has not survived, just the classics, like “Jane Eyre”, “Moby Dick”, and “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”. And I read non-fiction too.

What I read:

  • Bible: King James Bible, a chapter a day
  • news: The Economist, Frederick Douglass’ Newspaper
  • books:
    • Harriet Beecher Stowe: Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852): a chapter a week
    • Thoreau’s 1851 journal.
    • Frederick Douglass: Speeches, 1841-51
    • Nov 2021: Phillis Wheatley: Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (1773)
    • Dec 2021: Olaudah Equiano: Interesting Narrative (1789)
    • Jan 2022: James W.C. Pennington: The Origin and History of the Colored People (1841)
    • Feb 2022: 
      • Charlotte Bronte: Jane Eyre (1847)
      • Thoreau: Civil Disobedience (1849)
    • Mar 2022: 
      • Sojourner Truth: Narrative (1850)
      • Melville: Moby-Dick (1851)
    • Apr 2022: finish reading “Moby-Dick”.
    • May 2022: Josiah Henson: Life.
    • Jun 2022: read half of Martin Delany: The Condition, Elevation, Emigration and Destiny of the Colored People of the United States, Politically Considered (1852)

What I listened to: Mainly classical music, like Beethoven, Mozart and Chopin, which I just could not get into for the most part.

Remarks: I was left with two main impressions:

  1. How the King James Bible loomed over everything – except for The Economist. Religiously, morally, even down to its taste in English. Charlotte Bronte and Frederick Douglass clearly breathe the same Anglo-Protestant air. The Authorized King James Bible was their Iliad, their Koran, their Dante. Its only rivals were Shakespeare and the Book of Common Prayer – the two main things this media diet lacked in hindsight that it should have had.
  2. How narrowly ethnic it all was! It was like reading 16th century Ukrainian literature or something. Their world seemed to be shrunk down to the Anglosphere of the past 300 years or so – to 8% of mankind and 6% of history. This is seen best in the Bible itself: the King James translation is a heretical Protestant translation and, as stripped back and watered down as that was, they twisted it and stripped it down even further so that only two passages mattered in the end – what I call the Slaveholder’s Bible. But, if you are going to limit yourself only to the newspaper, cheap, contemporary fiction, the King James Bible – and to pastors who depend on Sunday collections, giving them every reason to tell you what you want to hear – this is what you get. And now it is even worse than that for most people in the US.

– Abagond, 2023.

See also:


1851 media diet – a review