I’m reading the diaries of Aaron Burr, on the recommendation of Freddy, who sent me a truly amazing excerpt I’ll get to in a bit. I’m reading them very casually, kind of letting them wash over me, and it’s been a weirdly interesting and relaxing experience. I can hardly follow anything that happens because a lot of it is cascades of names he never bothers to explain; also a lot of the included correspondence is in code, because he wrote it at a time when he was sort of fleeing America incognito after being apprehended in a plan to conquer Mexico and become its emperor (????). There also are so many holes in my ability to picture what he’s describing, because of the classic phenomenon where we don’t write down that which does not need to be said. Somebody told me once this is why the discipline of history exists—because of all the stuff nobody thought to write down; that’s what we’re trying to recover or understand. My classic example of this is that no one ever bothered writing down anything about going to the bathroom—how did it work, e.g. at the Paris Opera in 1830, where were all those hundreds of champagne-swilling people taking shits? Was there a room filled with chamber pots? What about the ladies’ elaborate gowns and such, how did they manage it all? Even just at private homes, how did it work? If you were at a dinner party at someone’s house, where and how did you go to the bathroom—was there a room set aside for that purpose or did you go into someone’s bedroom or what? So far as I know, no one at the time bothered to sit down and really explain all this in detail, so we’re stuck with our imaginations. As always, if anyone reading this has a sourced answer to my question please do not hesitate to let me know.
Anyway, Burr’s diary is filled with such moments of questioning. Much more so than Samuel Pepys’s diary—because Pepys really just relates DATA; he’s less interested in cultural stuff. When he does relate cultural or personal stuff it’s obviously riveting—e.g. the famous time he sat on his own balls; his belief that a lucky rabbit’s foot cures his farts; his conviction that sitting with his back to a drafty hallway gave him kidney stones; the fact that every year on the anniversary of his successful kidney stone surgery he throws a “stones party” for all his friends; when the Great Fire of London happens and he’s primarily worried about his wheel of parmesan cheese, which he buries in the yard and thus saves. But really the vast majority of Pepys is just balance sheets and notes about purchases and beating his servants. Burr however is a great student of culture, he finds it all fascinating, and he records all kinds of interesting observations about the cultures he travels through. The problem is that his own culture is so opaque to me that I can’t always tell what he’s marveling at or why. Sometimes what he describes sounds so bizarre I think I must be misunderstanding him. For example he describes the way upper class Swedes eat dinner: first, everyone stands around the table in silence for a full minute, thanking God privately for the food. Then they eat, which sounds pretty normal, but then at the end of the meal, everyone stands up simultaneously, picks up their own chair but without turning their back to the table, and elegantly scoots the chair all the way back against the wall. Then they go have brandy in the sitting room. That sounds so weird to me—and it’s clearly weird to Burr, too, because he’s writing it down like “look at this crazy thing they do here.” Here’s another one, also in Sweden:
Do remind me to give you a dissertation on locking doors. Every person, of every sex and grade, comes in without knocking. Plump into your bedroom. They do not seem at all embarrassed, nor think of apologizing at finding you in bed, or dressing, or doing—no matter what, but go right on and tell their story as if all were right. If the door be locked and the key outside (they use altogether spring-locks here), no matter; they unlock the door, and in they come. It is vain to desire them to knock; they do not comprehend you, and, if they do, pay no manner of attention to it…Notwithstanding all my caution, I have been almost every day disturbed in this way, and once last week was surprised in the most awkward situation imaginable. So, madam, when you come to Svenska, remember to lock the door and take the key inside.
I wonder what “the most awkward situation imaginable” was. Was he shitting? Or having sex. Those seem the two likeliest possibilities; both indeed seem awkward.
Burr was a radical weirdo, and had this great daughter, Theodosia (she’s the “madam” he refers to in that journal entry). He was really into Mary Wollestonecraft, and raised Theodosia according to radical child-rearing principles—he also raised her exactly as he would have raised a son; he thought there should be no difference between the sexes when it came to education. So she learned a bunch of languages and science and politics, and he spoke frankly to her about everything, not just political stuff but also his own life—his love life! His various amorous pursuits! They were best friends. When he flees to England (when the diaries start) he’s psychotically worried about her health and keeps writing her these hysterical letters about which doctor to trust and how she should not under any circumstances travel to North Carolina. And in between these fatherly missives are all these weird letters about political subterfuge written in code, or letters where they are pretending to be other people. And then sometimes a letter from Theodosia being like “you must be neater when you write in cipher; I could not read the last letter at all.”
He takes with him on his journey an actual giant painting of Theodosia, which he unrolls, re-frames, and hangs up at each new place he moves to. He’s constantly fretting about the painting, worrying that it’s been damaged in a move or worrying that it seems to be fading. He’ll move to a new town, and immediately seek out a painter to do restoration work on it, then he writes her letters about how many compliments the painter paid to her image. He shows her to Jeremy Bentham and is gratified by Bentham’s approval—what a good, smart girl! Bentham wants her to translate his book into French, what an honor, you must set to work on it at once, also please send Bentham several handfuls of good American nuts he will find interesting.
The diaries are written for Theodosia, with the intention of her reading them later, once he’s returned from this long trip abroad. It’s really cute, because for long stretches they’ll just be a normal journal but then suddenly he’ll slip into saying “you,” like “you would have laughed to see it, dear madam,” and you realize the whole time he’s writing in this journal he’s thinking of her, thinking of the details that would interest or amuse her.
The diaries are also a harrowing and wonderful window into early nineteenth-century life, which sounds both relaxing and hair-raising depending on which aspect you’re thinking about. Relaxing honestly just because of the lack of cell phones and internet; everyone reads SO MUCH and there’s a lot of just sitting around. But also stressful: there’s a part where he takes a coach somewhere and a trip that’s supposed to take three hours takes ten because the coachmen are both drunk and have both brought their girlfriends, and they stop at every single inn to party even though Burr is cursing them roundly the whole time. There’s another part where he takes a ferry at 10 at night, and at the ferry house on the other side there’s no fire, bed, couch, or food, so he just settles into a wooden chair and gets some sleep. Just a normal day! He acknowledges that it wasn’t great, but it’s also clear that this situation is nowhere near as dire/unacceptable as it would be to, say, me for example. I want to cry just thinking about it. Arriving somewhere at eleven at night after a freezing long-ass journey and then just sitting in a cold dark room, in a wooden chair, crossing my arms and trying to get some z’s, no snack, no glass of beer, no blanket?? Good lord. There’s another part where he takes a boat somewhere and they get lost and it starts pouring rain so all the passengers just lie down in this open boat and go to sleep in the rain. Again, he’s like “I never passed a more wretched night” but I feel like if this happened to me I would never stop talking about it, the most absurdly hideous night of my life. For him it’s way more normal.
In one very weird entry he describes the hassle caused by him not understanding the culture of Hamburg, where apparently you have to pay money every time you leave or come back through one of several town gates. He can’t figure it out:
After five you pay four sch. for passing the Hamburgh gate. Did not dare to walk very far for fear of egarèing. Forgot that I should want money to get back. Stopped at the gate and obliged to pawn my pencil. Home to get money, which borrowed of mademoiselle. Back to redeem my pencil, and then walked again about Hamburgh. Home at nine, and now was stopped at the Altona gate, an exigence for which I had made no provision. Obliged again to pawn the pencil.
I truly can’t imagine what pawning the pencil is all about. Pencils must have been cool and fancy? What were pencils in 1808 like?
Reading this stuff is also really bringing home to me for the first time what correspondence must have actually felt like back then. When you read the collected letters of some historical person, you’re reading them all at once, so there’s an immediacy to the correspondence that would not have been the way it felt in real life. But the way the editor has arranged this edition, the letters are peppered throughout the journal, and you get more of a feel for how the time passes between them. Think about it—Aaron Burr writes an agonized letter to Theodosia about the state of her health. He says you must come to England immediately, the climate is better for you here, and I’ve secured a great doctor who is convinced he can cure you. Here’s how you get the money to pay for the trip; here is who to talk to about the journey; here are all these details about what to do when you arrive, I’ve left word with such-and-suches all up and down the coast so wherever you end up disembarking you’ll have someone to help you. Write me at once with whatever details you settle on. Then Burr seals up the letter and starts looking for someone trustworthy to deliver it, and waiting for a ship that’s happening to sail to America—not something that happens every day! Once he finds a gentleman who is not only planning on taking the next boat to America but is further planning to travel afterward to someplace reasonably close to where Theodosia is, he entrusts the letter to him, then goes about his business and hopes for the best. Now what happens? MONTHS PASS. The boat takes a month or two just to cross the ocean. The boat may sink or be captured—this happens once with a boat carrying a very precious bust of Jeremy Bentham that Burr wants Theodosia to have, and they both bemoan its loss incessantly. If it arrives safely, then the gentleman makes his way to wherever Theodosia is, and she gets her letter. Sometimes these letter-bearing people end up carting the letter all over hill and dale because the recipient has moved, or their own travel plans change and they aren’t able to make it to the recipient as soon as they’d thought. Theodosia finally gets her letter (think of it—one day you’re sitting there, wondering if your dad is dead or alive, and there’s a knock on the door and a stranger is like “my compliments madam” and hands you a battered-ass piece of paper he’s been carrying in his trunk for two months), she reads it, writes back answering all his questions and posing more questions of her own, and then the same thing happens on her end—she has to wait for a boat sailing to England, and a trustworthy gentleman who is taking the boat and reasonably sure he might be traveling to wherever Burr is. And Burr himself is moving around wildly this whole time—from London to Germany to Sweden, leaving word wherever he goes about where letters should be sent. These vast networks of people with all kinds of information about where various people may be found, if a letter comes for them. Letters passed from person to person to person—oh, you’re going to Hamburgh? Wait, I have a letter here for Aaron Burr, do you know him? Would you mind carrying it to him? I think he’s in Hamburgh still—and in this fashion perhaps another month or two passes. So by the time Burr gets Theodosia’s response to his agonized letter, maybe as much as four months have passed!!!!! And when it finally arrives, her letter literally just says “I’m actually feeling better; I’m not coming to England, that’s crazy.” Meanwhile he’s spent four months telling everyone she’s coming, finding a house for her to live in, securing servants, finding a tutor for her son. SO WILD.
Also wild is that during those four months, they are both still writing additional letters! Every time you discovered a boat that was going to America or England, you’d be like damn, I have to get a letter on there! So, after he sends off the agonized letter, he receives several letters from her, that have been written in the interim between him sending the letter and her receiving it; he’s also continuing to write letters to HER, that are just normal updates about what’s going on since the agonized letter. So it gets very confusing, keeping track of the conversations that are all happening on different delayed timelines. You read the agonized letter, then you read two placid letters from Theodosia about what’s going on back home, where she doesn’t mention his agonized letter, and it’s so weird until you remember, oh yeah, she hasn’t gotten it yet.
This has made me finally understand why they all kept copies of all their letters, including the ones they themselves wrote. You need to have a vast file in order to keep track of your correspondence! This is also why they’re all very diligent about saying at the top of the letter which letter they’re responding to. “I have just received your letter of 1 September.” So then you go over to your file and flip through it and find the copy of your own letter from months ago, and re-read it, so you can remind yourself of all the questions you asked, so that you can understand this letter you’ve just gotten.
It’s all very stressful. I don’t think I really ever REALLY FELT how unbelievably transformative the telegraph must have been. Because also think of it—the news itself could only travel as fast as the harrowingly slow journey I narrated above! So, has England declared war on us? We don’t know—have to wait a month or two until somebody from over there finally makes it over here and tells us. Or the British navy suddenly shows up and attacks us. In the meantime, lets ramp up our navy just in case, and should we take some of these British merchant ships prisoner? If England HASN’T declared war, then that would be a very bad and stupid thing to do; if she has, however, we would be glad later that we’d done it now. Hmmmmm we must have a meeting of Congress.
Similarly, the simple act of coordinating normal social life was very different. You’re sitting at home eating boiled eggs, and then a servant comes in who has been sent by somebody to see if you’re home. You say yes, I’m home, so the servant leaves again and in a little while the person who sent the servant comes over and you hang out for awhile. Or maybe you’re eating the eggs and the person themselves comes in. Oh, you’re home! Great, can I join you in those eggs? By all means my dear sir. Sometimes someone pops by and you’re still in bed so they leave word they’ll come back later. Are you supposed to wait for them? Or what?? When is “later?” None of this seems to trouble them. People constantly all day long are popping in and out of each other’s houses: I came by but you were out, I’ll come by later; oh I came by because I missed you earlier, but you were out, and when I came home I found I’d just missed you. Multiple times he gets invited to a dinner party, gets all dressed up, makes his way to the house, only to find it locked up and no one there; the party was canceled but no one found him in time to tell him. All of this is no big deal, absolutely just part of a normal day. They also socialized A LOT, a lot more than I feel like we do. He almost never eats any meal alone, and there are gatherings and parties every night. Just the whole milieu seems so different—none of these people (upper class americans/europeans) had jobs to speak of, not the way we have jobs, so they have lots of free time and also aren’t sick to death of each other by the end of the day. They also stay up fantastically late—Burr goes to sleep at two or three in the morning, and a regular dinner party with women and children present will go til midnight.
There’s a hilarious part where he’s dressing, the door opens, a beautiful young woman comes in who he’s never seen before, and starts trying to talk to him. She asks him if he speaks Swedish, German, Dutch, or Spanish; he says no. He asks her if she speaks French or English; she says no. So using gestures she conveys that she’ll come back later with someone to translate. He never mentions this woman again. Who the fuck was she????
There are also of course the requisite appalling details about personal health, hygiene, and medicine. There’s an unbearable journal entry where he casually reports that in the night he awoke being eaten to death by bugs; he gets up, lights a candle, and sees that “the bed was alive.” So he goes to sleep on the couch but the bugs wake him up there too, so instead he just reads all night. Ho-hum. Also the tale of the toothache—he gets a toothache one day (which he ascribes to having worn a flannel waistcoat the previous day; although I BELIEVE this is a joke) and at first I was reading it like, yeah, I bet you have a toothache, you disgusting eighteenth-century man. But it got so much worse than what I was expecting. First, he tells Theodosia that “because it is an under-tooth, and hollow,” he packs it with “camphor and opium” and goes to sleep. Excuse me what??? What’s an under-tooth, and why/how is it hollow?? Anyway this treatment backfires because in his sleep he swallows all the opium and it makes him “sick and stupid.” He says he’s hesitant to have the tooth pulled, because “it’s the most important of the ones I have left.” UGHHH it is so stressful to think about teeth in this era. Anyway he can’t find the first dentist that gets recommended to him, so he asks around for another dentist. When he arrives, he finds that the dentist is a WOMAN! Burr of course is very liberal-minded so this doesn’t bother him, he merely comments on it being unusual. She yanks out his tooth (“I submitted, and she drew the tooth very quick and perfectly well. Paid one ducat”). Says he arrived home in ten times as much pain as when he went out. His landlady brings him relief by packing the bloody hole with “figs boiled in milk.”
I also don’t understand how they all drank so much. He details every meal he eats and with whom, because it’s interesting and he’s also interested in how much stuff costs—he wants to paint a picture for Theodosia when he gets back (he’s also desperately broke all the time). And I’m serious, these people drank like fishes! They drank multiple bottles of wine WITH BREAKFAST. Then also with lunch and dinner and after dinner. And yet they all seem very industrious and active. I can’t figure it out. Was wine like 1% alcohol back then?
I’m telling you only the interesting parts; the vast majority of the diary is just lists of people he sees and updates on info I don’t understand. There’s something really relaxing about it. I’ve been sick for a week, and reading these long lists of details about numbers of bottles of wine drunk and whether the bed was stuffed with feathers or straw is soothing somehow. I’m almost through volume one, and there has so far been NOTHING to equal the amazing excerpt that enticed me to read the diaries in the first place, check this out:
I did go to bed at 10, promising myself a rich sleep. Lay two hours vigil; that cursed one single dish of tea! Note: My bed had undergone a thorough ablution and there were no bugs or insects [this was the night after “the bed was alive”]. Got up and attempted to light candle, but in vain; had flint and matches but only some shreds of punk which would not catch. Recollected a gun which I had on my late journey; filled the pan with powder and was just going to flash it when it occurred that though I had not loaded it someone else might; tried and found in it a very heavy charge! What a fine alarm it would have made if I had fired! Then poured out some powder on a piece of paper, put the shreds of punk with it and after fifty essays succeeded in firing the powder; but it being dark, had put more powder than intended; my shirt caught fire, the papers on my table caught fire, burnt my fingers to a blister (the left hand, fortunately); it seemed like a general conflagration. Succeeded, however, in lighting my candle and passed the night till 5 this morning in smoking, reading, and writing this.
And also this amazing gem, from his travels in Germany:
As I was writing the concluding line of the preceding page last evening (about 1 o’clock) an ill-looking fellow opened my door without knocking, and muttering in German something which I did not comprehend, bid me put out my candle. Being in no very placid humor at the moment, as you see, I cursed him and sent him to hell in French and English. He advanced and was going to seize the candle. My umbrella, which had a dirk in the handle, being near me, I seized it, drew the dirk, and drove him out of the room.
!!!! But then he realizes that he’s in a foreign country, and furthermore a country under some sort of military law (I forget what war they would have been involved in at this time), and reflects that maybe they have laws regarding lights at night that he’s unaware of. At that point he hears soldiers in the street, and he’s like, oh shit, that guy must have gone to get soldiers, I really can not afford to be arrested right now (he’s constantly being harrassed by police wherever he goes, being somewhat of a persona non grata both at home and abroad due to the whole treasonous emperor of Mexico plan). He blows out the candle and hunches over in his room, peeking out the window, but it turns out it’s just a normal patrol of soldiers, unrelated to him, and they continue past the inn. So that’s a relief—but then you remember, wait a minute, then who was the guy who came in muttering in German?? Who Burr then drove out at knifepoint??? No explanation ever arrives.
Anyway it’s been fun but I need to finish it (there’s a whole second volume!) and also I need to finish the other books I’m reading. My attention is being spread too thinly and it is leading to slovenly reading habits and poor retention rates. Currently reading:
– Geoff Mann, Disassembly Required: A Field Guide to Actually Existing Capitalism
– Diaries of Aaron Burr (two vols.)
– Richard Holmes’s bio of Percy Shelley
– This bell hooks/Cornell West book of conversations I keep reading the first page of
– Mary Beard’s history of Ancient Rome
– Thorstein Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class
All of them are fascinating. I’ve made it the furthest in the Mann book because that stuff feels more acutely important to my life/work than the others. Sidenote, my old man has been reading books about how the foundation of the State (and thus a lot of our problems, though not all of them surely) is totally based on CEREAL, the cultivation of cereal grains. Literally, these are books about how BREAD is the origin of state power. Is there nothing holy in this life?? Beautiful bread????
Things I Have Learned So Far From Those Books
– the main things Adam Smith wasn’t able to anticipate that led to his theories not working out (namely, that people would hoard money, an idea that to him would have made no sense)
– the later ideas that transformed Smith’s fairly communal/holistic theory into the brutal abstract individualistic one we’re stuck with today
– what “mercantilist” means; more nuanced understanding of the labor theory of value; some stuff about Gramsci
– In addition to all that info on Swedes and nineteenth-century dentistry and mail delivery and pencil-pawning, I have learned that Arron Burr met Mary Shelley when she was 15, on a visit to her famous father; he describes her as clever
– Percy Shelley was both worse than I had been picturing him and also much better
– Oxford in the eighteenth century was garbage and not run by intellectuals at all
– bell hooks and Cornell West are really good friends who laugh and make jokes together and then talk about their faith
– Thorstein Veblen was hilarious and a great failure and his failure was part of his political statement
– The Ancient Romans argued about their own ancient history; e.g. there were arguments thousands of years ago, amongst historians—themselves trying to get a handle on even more ancient history—regarding whether or not Romulus and Remus were really suckled by a wolf or whether the word wolf in the legend somehow represents a mistranslation of the word “prostitute”
– Ancient Romans were stressed out by all the raping and violence in their own ancient history, and were always trying to come to terms with it, and prove that for example the rape of the Sabine women wasn’t really a rape but was much more of a gentlemanly exchange situation
– Ancient Romans SELF-IDENTIFIED as “mongrels,” as a nation made up of immigrants, because their founding legend is that Romulus or Remus (whichever one killed the other, I can’t remember, seems like it must be Romulus) set up a military camp and then put out a call all across the land, being like “hey, criminals and castoffs and weirdos, come build a city with us,” and so all the misfits came and founded Rome together. This identification of Roman-ness with a melting-pot sensibility never left them
– The worst thing you could accuse a ruler of in Ancient Rome was wanting to be a king. Instant career-killer. They hated kings!!! Even though later they had emperors, which went against their whole culture
– They had domesticated cats