Wednesday, June 21, 2017

The Remarkable Henry Mayhew

Henry Mayhew
Yesterday, I quoted a couple of good long sections from London Labour and the London Poor by Henry Mayhew, which was originally produced as a serial and then compiled as a "Cyclopedia" of Victorian street life.

London Labour and the London Poor eventually became 2 million words in four volumes, and contains a jaw-dropping directory of characters and trades.

Mayhew was writing about the invisible people of Victorian England -- the knife and scissor sharpeners, match sellers, dog meat sellers, knackers, metal scrappers, prostitutes, pickpockets, umbrella and stick sellers, water vendors, chimney sweeps, rat-killers, and sandwich sellers.

Mayhew's genius -- and his historical contribution -- is that he shoved the background into the foreground, and the effect is every bit as astonishing as when a pinch of beach sand or a tablespoon of pond water is put under a microscope.

Mayhew's work is remarkable for the fact that he finished it. Mayhew was not a notable finisher. He started and abandoning half-written works, almost blew up his house while trying to manufacture artificial diamonds, and was associated with the start of several failing journals and at least one successful one -- Punch -- form which he was ousted as editor after only a few months.

Things took off, however, when in September of 1849 he was sent by the Morning Chronicle to report on a cholera outbreak in the slums of Bermondsey.  His reporting was sufficiently luminous, that the Chronicle's editors soon announced a new series of articles which would provide "a full and detailed description of the moral, intellectual, material, and physical condition of the industrial poor throughout England" with Mayhew as the Metropolitan Correspondent writing the series.

Mayhew's work was popular in his day, and it has stood the test of time. as he not only had an eye for observation and an ear for voice and story, but he paired it all with whatever census and government records he could find in order to present a full tapestry of Victorian street life -- a tapestry that other writers, as well as historians and sociologists, have been  drawing on for over 165 years.

Mayhew was, quite simply, the Studs Terkel of the Victorian era, or rather Stud Terkel was the Mayhew of his, weaving biography and story, autobiography and data, detailed observation and economic and social connections into a rich stew that hangs together as a whole and offers delight in its parts. Mayhew understands the value of lists, scent, color, diversity, and background.  Nothing is presented as static -- the world is connected, and if you pull on any one thing you find it is connected to everything else, from rain to storm sewers, from horses to dogs, from tossed cigarette butts to tobacco pipe.

While Mayhew loved statistics and economics, odd jobs, scams, and strange repurposings, his clear delight is the original. odd, and quirky characters he meets along the way, all of which he presents in their own voice telling their own stories.

To say I find Mayhew a delight is an understatement; he is a veritable goldmine of story, character, data, and history.  More from him to come! 

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