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Communication of Ideas: The Americas and their Influence

Communication of Ideas: The Americas and their Influence

The Americas were first settled from Asia by successive waves of migrants who crossed the Bering Sea from Siberia to Alaska during the last Ice Age using a land bridge, the frozen sea, and possibly open boats. Estimates as to when this began range from twenty thousand to one hundred thousand years ago. By 8000 b.c.e. settlements had reached the southern tip of South America. The new arrivals came as hunter-gatherers, but over the millennia many adopted agriculture and a few groups built civilizations comparable to what had developed earlier in ancient Mesopotamia, Egypt, and the Indus Valley.

Pre-European Communication

Anthropological research suggests a rich and historically deep tradition of oral communication among early Amerindian people in which linguistic diversity appears to have been considerable. Even within the usually accepted language groupings of North AmericaEskimo-Aleut; Athabascan, or Na-Dene; Algonquian-Wakashan; Aztec-Tanoan; Hokan-Siouan; Penutian; and Arawakanmany dialects existed, a consequence of regional diversity and the linguistic fluidity of primary oral cultures.

The communication of ideas among the first Americans, however, was not limited to spoken language. Smoke signals and the tom-toms, immortalized in Hollywood film, actually existed. The latter could transmit a variety of messages via rhythmic signatures in ways that resemble how bugle calls have been used by military groups in more recent history. The result was a form of communication over distance whereby messages could travel faster than messengers, an accomplishment often first attributed to telegraphy. Another form of long-distance communication developed by Native Americans, although they were probably not the first to come up with the idea, emerged in the nineteenth century when mirrors acquired in trade were used to flash messages across the plains. This practice inspired the United States Army to develop the heliograph, in which the signal mirrors were adapted to transmit Morse code.

One of the more remarkable achievements in communication developed by Native Americans is Plains Sign Language (PSL). It served as a lingua franca, enabling communication between tribes speaking different dialects and in some cases completely different languages. PSL is not a series of rudimentary gestures, but a full-fledged semantically open system capable of sending a virtually infinite variety of messagesit has even been used to recount episodes from the Bible. Most PSL signs are, to use the classic semiotic categories, either iconic (resembling what they represent, such as crossed fingers standing for a tepee) or indexical (where, metonymically, a part stands for the whole, as when a continuous circular motion of the index finger represents a wagon). Although the third semiotic category, the symbolic or arbitrary sign (the dominant one for spoken language), is rare in PSL, it is not altogether absent; we find it, for example, when a part of the body such as the knee or elbow is used to represent a concept. PSL's exploration of the interface between spoken language and the nonverbal communication of gestures has prompted wide and enduring fascinationit has been studied by philosophers of language and appropriated by Boy Scouts.

New World Civilizations

It was once believed that to have civilizationa political state with a centralized government, ruling bureaucracy, complex division of labor, agricultural surplus, and monumental public workswriting had to be in use. The Americas have yielded a major exception to this rule: the empire of the Incas. Centered in Peru, this extended in a north-south direction from Ecuador to Chile, and eastward into part of the Amazon Basin. Keeping track of this enormous social experiment depended not on writing but on a communication medium capable of doing some of the same things. The Incas used the quipu, a series of woolen or cotton cords of different length, thickness, and color that could be braided and knotted in various ways. Each of these elements represented information. This enabled the quipu to be used for a variety of complex tasks, such as the recording of a census or the calculation of economic output, tribute obligations, and taxes. In conjunction with the Incan oral tradition, quipus were even used as mnemonic devices, to assist in recounting aspects of historical succession.

In contrast to the Incas, the two great Mesoamerican civilizations, the Aztecs and the Maya, developed writing. More specifically, they created a form of writing similar to, but not as elaborate as, Egyptian hieroglyphics. Numerous images and occasionally abstract signs (as opposed to the more streamlined and economical characters of an alphabet) were used to represent parts of speech rather thanas is the case with Chinese script, for exampleobjects and concepts. It could be argued that precursors of writing in the Americas can be found in rock art (petroglyphs) and in images (pictograms) drawn on animal skins; several buffalo hide inscriptions actually tell a story. However, the possibilities inherent in freeing writing from purely iconic representation allowed it to be used for much more elaborate forms of communication. Nowhere in the Americas has this been demonstrated more than in the case of the Maya.

Mayan history spans roughly the first millennium c.e. The Maya wrote on durable mediastone and parchment (animal skins). Although lacking metal tools, the wheel, or domestic draft animals, Mayan culture nonetheless developed ideas of considerable sophistication. Their mathematical and astronomical knowledge rivaled that of the Babylonians and surpassed that of the Egyptians. One result is a calendar of staggering complexity and accuracy. The lunar month was calculated at 29.53020 days, which compares favorably with our current reckoning of 29.53059 days. Mayans viewed world history in terms of cycles of creation and destruction. (The current cycle, or long count, places the next destruction of the world on 23 December 2012.)

For reasons that remain a source for much archaeological speculation, classic Mayan civilization collapsed dramatically in the ninth century, whereas the fall of the Incas and Aztecs did not occur until the Spanish conquest. Although this appears to have been a case of self-destructionan environmental degradation hypothesis has gained increasing supportthe Spanish did administer a coup de grace of sorts. Under the auspices of the Catholic Church, almost all the surviving Mayan codices (parchment books) were destroyed. The few that remain, such as the famous Dresden Codex, provide a revealing, if only partial, view of Mayan thought and culture.

Colonial America

Whether the quest was for riches, as in the Spanish incursion into the New World, or for a life free from the constraints of the homeland, which motivated the settlement of most of Anglophone North America, religion played an important role. When the Spanish decided to follow plunder with colonization, taming the indigenous peoples through religious conversion became an imperative. In 1539, less than one hundred years after Gutenberg's invention of moveable-type printing, the bishop of Mexico established the first printing office in the New World. Books of religious instruction helped Franciscans and Jesuits spread Catholicism. They made religious conversions at a rate that far surpassed the later efforts of Protestants in North America, largely because of Catholicism's greater capacity to accommodate indigenous beliefs. The teaching of literacy was not a high priority in Catholic proselytizing at this time, except for those natives destined for ordination.

The seventeenth-century Puritans, in contrast, attempted to teach peoples under their purview to read various religious texts translated into the languages of the tribes in question, but the project was eventually abandoned. The Latin alphabet has only limited phonetic utility when used to transcribe nonIndo-European languages. In 1821, however, the Cherokee Sequoya devised an indigenous writing system by modifying the Latin alphabet to represent syllables of the Cherokee language. Often referred to as an alphabet, this eighty-five-character script is, technically speaking, a syllabary. At one point it was even used for newspapers; after falling into disuse, it is now enjoying renewed interest. Other Native American groups, such as the Cree and Inuit, have also developed syllabaries.

Whether brought by Puritans, Quakers, Mennonites, or any of the other Protestant groups that settled North America, the influence of the Reformation was profound. Idolatry was rejected and vernacular literacy was encouraged so that all could have direct access to the word of God. Imported Epistles were soon supplanted by Bibles, psalm books, and catechisms minted in America after print shops were set up (1640) in Boston and Cambridge. The literacy rate in colonial New England at this time has been estimated at about 60 percent for adult males, with a figure of about half that for women. It was somewhat less in the southern colonies50 percent for males and 25 percent for femalesgiven the more agrarian (and, in some places, Catholic) nature of the South, where the education system tended, apart from the segment that catered to the elite, to be less well developed.

The eighteenth century saw a gradual rise in colonial literacy, along with the publication of texts besides those relating to religionschoolbooks, professional and technical manuals, and eventually the political tracts that would inspire the American Revolution. By 1790 American editions of English works began to appear, to be followed in several decades by a national tradition of fiction and poetry. Throughout the eighteenth century, books were relatively costly. Access to them was abetted by the establishment of subscription libraries, the prototype being the Philadelphia Library Company, established in 1731, largely through the efforts of Benjamin Franklin. Newspapers also facilitated the dissemination of ideas throughout the century, beginning in 1700 with Boston postmaster John Campbell's hand-copied news sheet, which went to print in 1704 as the Boston News-Letter. Within a generation a dozen such publications were available, and throughout the remainder of the century growth would be exponential.

In the decades leading up to 1776, a growing volume of printed matter urged resistance to British authority. Perhaps the most notorious document in this regard is Thomas Paine's Common Sense, published as the revolution began, on 9 January 1776. Although the ideals of those advocating independence included free speech and a free press, pro-British newspapers expressing Loyalist sentiments were often suppressed. By the time of the revolution there was near universal literacy in the northern colonies. Nevertheless, the importance of the oral tradition cannot be discounted. What was read was discussed and augmented by speeches in taverns, meeting halls, and other public places.

The Penny Press

In the 1830s American newspapers began their emergence as a true mass mediumone that disseminates the same information to large numbers of people. In the colonies or early republic a successful newspaper attracted only a few thousand readers at most. After the revolution, advertising helped finance newspapers, and many, if not most, had the word Advertiser in their title. Circulation was dependent on subscription. Early in the nineteenth century, partisan politics began to play an increasingly important role as papers aligned themselves with political parties in response to the debate between Federalists and Anti-Federalists. No matter what political constituency these journals served, the associated business interests determined their emphasis. Subscribers were generally well-off and had to sign on for a year at a cost of six cents an issue.

The arrival of the penny papers changed the industry. The idea began in New York and within a decade had spread to other metropolitan areas. Benjamin Day's New York Sun (1833), James Gordon Bennett's New York Herald (1835), and Horace Greeley's New York Tribune (1841) were sold on the street for a penny and reached a readership many times that of the partisan press. Many readers were immigrants, members of the traditional middle class, or from a nascent literate working class. These papers were not without political leanings, but they were not party-funded (advertising revenue helped defray costs) and were quite capable of shifting an allegiance if a candidate's platform displeased them. Local news, along with crimethe more sensational the betterhuman interest stories, and coverage of late-breaking events such as the war with Mexico made the penny papers immediate as well as informative. Journalistic practice shifted from the interpretation of an event, in some cases long after the fact, to speedy, descriptive reporting. Eventually the penny papers added coverage of the arts, theater, sports, and general entertainment.

Several theories have been put forth to explain the success of the penny press. On the technological side, steam power and the rotary press facilitated mass production. The use of steam in rail and ship transportation and improved roads speeded the movement of news. By the mid-1840s that movement was no longer limited to the available means of transportation, given the advent of the electric telegraph, which prompted the formation of news agencies such as the Associated Press (1849). News was becoming a commoditythe fresher the better. Nevertheless, it must be noted that the advent of the penny press itself preceded technological influences that contributed so greatly to its success. On the human side, a literate urban population was expanding and was feeling a greater sense of empowerment through the electoral process. Being informed through regular access to news helped give direction to that empowerment.

Yellow Journalism

Penny papers dominated news reporting until the end of the nineteenth century, when they were outdone at their own game by the journalistic innovations of Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst. Beginning in midcentury, though, there were alternative visions of what a newspaper should be. The most notable such experiment was Henry Raymond's New York Times, sometimes referred to as an example of the "information press." Beginning in 1851, the Times eschewed the base populism of the penny press and used a matter-of-fact style to report urban news, public-interest stories, and business activities. On the eve of the Civil War the Times became associated with the Republican Party and its antislavery position. Perhaps the paper's finest hour in its first half-century of operation occurred in the 1870s, when it helped expose the infamous New York municipal corruption ring headed by William Marcy "Boss" Tweed.

The challenge to the penny press and the information press posed by Pulitzer and Hearst gave rise to what became known as "yellow journalism." The term itself, which evokes notions of sensationalism and scandalmongering, derives from a cartoon character bent on exposing corruption, the Yellow Kid, drawn by Richard Outcault for Pulitzer's New York World. Pulitzer, a Hungarian immigrant, took over the paper in 1885. His numerous innovations included a populist, pro-labor and pro-union position; campaigns to expose municipal corruption and injustice; advocacy of an increased tax burden for the wealthy; investigative journalism that tackled everything from phony psychics to the dire conditions in a mental hospital; and publicity-seeking stunts to improve circulation, such as sending Nellie Bly on her legendary seventy-two-day trip around the world in 18881889.

Pulitzer also streamlined the prose style of his papers (he would acquire a chain of them) by avoiding colloquial and esoteric terms and shortening paragraphs and sentences. Headlines, barely discernible in the penny papers, now spanned columns. Visualsdiagrams, cartoons, along with the reproduction of photographs using the new halftone processearned a prominent place. This helped make Pulitzer's papers appealing, especially to immigrants for whom English was a second language.

Hearst admired these innovations but believed they could and should be extended further. In 1895 he took over the New York Journal and began a battle for circulation supremacy with Pulitzer that has been described as fiercer than the Spanish-American War that both papers would cover three years later. Hearst's moneyed background allowed him to hire away part of Pulitzer's staff, including Outcault and his Yellow Kid.

Hearst's journalistic exposés were not always limited to stories relating to the public interest. Sensationalism was omnipresent. Lurid scandals that we associate today with tabloid journalism sometimes made the front page, accompanied by massive, attention-getting headlines. Hearst also had a reputation for newsmaking when mere reporting would not suffice. His most famous foray in this direction occurred when he drummed up sentiment for a reluctant U.S. government to declare war on Spain. Hearst's quip to artist Frederick Remington, who had cabled from Cuba that there was little fighting to report"You furnish the pictures and I'll furnish the war"is humorously dramatized in Orson Welles's 1941 film based on Hearst's life, Citizen Kane.

Book Publishing

In addition to religious publications, a major type of book emerging from the colonial press was the almanac. Benjamin Franklin's Poor Richard's Almanac (1732), blending self-help advice with humor, became a best-seller. Book production was centered at first in Boston and Cambridge, but by the early eighteenth century Philadelphia (where Franklin was based) became a major player. Censorship limited the variety of books that could be published, and there was no enforcement of copyright. By the early nineteenth century the industry had diversified its output, and the burgeoning commercial center of the new nation, New York, had become the center of publishing as well.

In the United States, modern book publishingfeaturing a diverse general list and home-grown authorsbegan in 1817, when James and John Harper established the firm bearing their name. They were soon followed by John Wiley, who took over his father's fledgling business in 1826. The house scored a major coup when it signed a then-unknown James Fenimore Cooperlater referred to as "America's Sir Walter Scott"who went on to become the country's first literary celebrity. In 1840 Wiley went into partnership with George Putnam, who would eventually leave to establish his own firm in 1849. In 1846 Wiley and Putnam published Herman Melville's first novel, Typee, which in turn passed to Harper's in 1849. (Melville was never a big seller during his lifetime.)

Harper's went on to become the largest publisher in America, earning considerable sums from pirating English favorites including the Bröntes, Thackeray, and Dickens. The house also produced textbooks and a magazine that bore its name, which emerged as the medium to which many people turned for Civil War coverage, especially owing to impressive visuals (woodcut illustrations). Other well-known firms that emerged during this time include Appleton (1831), Scribner's (1846), and D. Van Nostrand (1848). However, it was a small Boston publisher, John P. Jewett, working in the shadow of Little, Brown (1847) and Houghton (1848), who scored the century's biggest publishing coup. After Phillips, Sampson and Company (1850) turned down the novel rights to Harriet Beecher Stowe's serialized (in the National Era ) story Uncle Tom's Cabin, Jewett published it in 1852. The book became the biggest-selling hardcover in nineteenth-century America and had an enormous impact on the (northern) public's attitude toward slavery and its rising antipathy toward the South.

The second half of the century saw the country secure, both in its publishing industry and in the literary ability of American authors. The old houses grew and new ones sprang up as reading tastes diversified. Harper's even signed the once-pirated Dickens in 1867. In 1895, during a decade that saw a boom in American fiction publishing, Harper's secured the rights to sixteen books by Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens). Twain and several other prominent writers successfully promoted their work through a series of highly entertaining public readingsperformances, in the case of Twainthat recaptured, at least in spirit, the oral tradition of storytelling that had been so integral to the cultural life of both Native Americans and African-Americans.

See also Censorship ; Literature ; Media, History of .


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Paul Heyer

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