Washington Irving, “Salmagundi” (1807–1808)

My friend then proceeded to inform me that for some time before, and during the continuance of an election, there was a most delectable courtship or intrigue, carried on between the great bashaws, and mother mob. That mother mob generally preferred the attentions of the rabble, or of fellows of her own stamp, but would sometimes condescend to be treated to a feasting, or any thing of that kind, at the bashaw’s expense. (208)


Salmagundi was a short-lived periodical written by Washington Irving with the help of his brother. Much like the letters of Jonathan Oldstyle, the Salmagundi was a cooperative effort between the Irving brothers. The articles in each issue are extremely varied, including poetry, stories, commentary by the editor “Launcelot Langstaff” or the Captain of a Ketch, “Mustapha Rub-a-Dub Keli Khan,” or other sketches and stories. Many of these characters are drawn from Irving’s life and social circle. In spirit they remind the reader of the letters of Jonathan Oldstyle in that they are a reflection of a culture coming to know democracy and eager to debate the profound, the serious, and the mundane within the commons. As much as the Federalist Papers, the Salmagundi is a product of the American Revolution, and the emerging unique American political and cultural identity. It should be more commonly studied, in part because reading them is so pleasurable.

The completed Salmagundi consists of twenty issues, published over a little over a year (January 24, 1807 to January 25, 1808). They are all divided into a few parts and each total around 15 pages each (I am not sure how much each issue would have been in the original type). They were meant to be read in short bits, probably in the company of others or in a public space. The “public use of reason” fills up every page. They are essentially political documents, posing as social satire.


Most issues open with commentary by Launcelot Langstaff, introducing the characters that have submitted articles and occasionally talking about his encounters with various denizens of the city, focusing on their conversations about politics and social life. We can notice a few things about these commentaries. First, Langstaff is interested in publicizing private conversations, although they are fictional, they seem to be rooted in real experiences and considerations of the day. In the age of universal surveillance, much has been said about the importance of privacy and the unjust interference into private lives. On the other side of the question is the necessity of a vibrant public life that seems to undermine privacy for the public good. We accept this for public figures. Their affairs and hypocrisy are considered socially relevant in a democratic society. Does this not privilege those leaders? Suggesting that they are more important to a democracy than the average person. I wonder if there is a larger argument to be had about the role of the privacy, the commons, and public discourse. Better to have your private life exposed than to lose the commons of public discourse.

As a piece of evidence that that authors of the Salmagundi hold no private thoughts sacred, consider the February 24, 1807 edition, which has at its core the exposure and publication (without consent it seems) of the private travelogue of one Jeremy Cockloft, the Younger. The only justification for this invasion of his privacy is that the notes “may not prove uninteresting to my readers.” (94) This journal is exposed with the same irreverence as the day-to-day oddities of the New York Assembly Hall. Despite saying later that “whether we write, or not write, to be none of the public’s business,” the authors are shameless in putting nearly everything they can into the public record. (189) Mustapha Rub-a-Dub makes a comment in one of his letters arguing that all people want their place in the sun, if only for a moment. As a text, the Salmagundi suggest that this was possible in a democratic society.

One of the most memorable figures in the Salmagundi is Mustapha Rub-a-Dub Keli Khan, who befriended Langstaff while he visited America. He wrote letters back to Tripoli, but they were not sent off before being translated by Will Wizard (another contributor to the Salmagundi), who knows all languages. The early United States was no stranger to European travelers commenting on the new republic and its absurdities. Rub-a-Dub’s comments seem to build on these other Old World observations of the United States. He serves to ridicule American government systems, pomposity, and disorderly society. It is hard for an American not to feel proud at his comments about American women “boxing the ears” of their husbands or the order from below created by the militias. Here is his conclusion on the military: “Such, my friend, is the gigantic genius of this nation, and its faculty of swelling up nothings into importance. Our bashaw of Tripoli, will review his troops of some thousands, by an early hour in the morning. Here a review of six hundred men is made the might work of a day! With us a bashaw of two tails is never appointed to a command of less than ten thousand men; but here we behold every grade from the bashaw, down to the drum-major, in a force of less than one tenth of the number. By the beard of Mahomet, but every thing here is indeed on a great scale.” (120)

Yet for all the mockery and fun and satire of the Salmagundi it a celebration of a young republic and the democracy that was being lived out on the streets and public spaces. It also broached serious political and international questions such as women’s rights, suffrage, impressment at the seas, government corruption, and even social class.

Washington Irving, “Letters of Jonathan Oldstyle Gent.” (1802–1803)

There is nothing that seems more strange and preposterous to me than the manner in which modern marriages are conducted. The parties keep the matter as secret as if there was something disgraceful in the connexion. The lady positively denies that any thing of the king is to happen; will laugh at her intended husband, and even lays bets against eh event, the very day before it is to take place. They sneak into matrimony as quietly as possible, and seem to pride themselves on the cunning and ingenuity they have displayed in their manoeuvers. (7)

To get my feet wet with Washington Irving, I will start small, with the nine satirical letters of “Jonathan Oldstyle,” published in The Morning Chronicle in 1802 and 1803. As I understand it, they were edited by Irving’s brother who must have known that the content was satire, but they were more ambiguously presented to the audience. In this way, the political and social satire of these letters is more advanced than much of the satire we see today, which is satire on its face and presented in clearly satirical venues (Comedy Central, for instance). I think it would be nice if the many daily newspapers printed a bit more subtly exposed satire than much of the drivel on the lifestyle pages.

By this point in this project, I reckon I am incapable of not seeing anarchist tensions in the bulk of American prose. In these letters, it comes across as an a type of vernacular conflict between the old and the new, set primarily in the theatres but also in other arenas of the American commons. Accounts such as these certainly make me pine for the vibrant commons of the past. While I often find “Johnathan Oldstyle” hopelessly old-fashioned (or course that is Irving’s intention), I wonder if I am not part of this generation’s “Oldstyles” At least in Irving’s day they could struggle about the proper way to present oneself when engaged in the public sphere or the content of its discourse. Today we lack much of a public square at all, being reduced to the scraps of Internet memes and the faux public space of contemporary coffee shops. In both the macro and the content, the letters of Jonathan Oldstyle are of the public. Whether we take them seriously or not, we read them awakened to the richness of the vernacular and contested public sphere.

Listen to Oldstyle complain of the popular fashions and to his ears vulgar flirting among the youth.

But now, our youths no longer aim at the character of pretty gentlemen: their greatest ambition is to be called lazy dogs—careless fellows—etc. etc. Dressed up in the mammoth style, our buck saunters into the ball-room in a surtout hat under arm, cane in hand; strolls round with the most vacant air; stops abruptly before such lady as he may choose to honor with his attention; entertains her with the common slang of the day, collected from the conversation of hostlers, footmen, porters, etc. until his string of smart sayings is run out, and then lounges off, to entertain some other fair one with the same unintelligible jargon. (6)

The rich levels of vernacular conversation are striking to me. The origin of vernacular conversation among the “pretty gentlemen” is learned from the underclass and carried into the ballrooms with no small degree of pomp to be spread to the ears of young women. Quite wonderful actually.

Most of the letters deal directly with the theatre, one of the most important public institutions for white men of early America. It is important to note that the content of the performance was deemed relevant to readers and author alike. They were, in other words, part of the public conversation. More memorable, however, is Oldstyle description of the audiences, fully engaged in the public conversation and putting on display their own styles for public consumption. They are as much a part of the show as the people on the stage.

I am attracted not to any particular comment or observation of Oldstyle as much as I am fascinated by the document itself, which imagines (or documents…for us it can only be imagination) a more vibrant, creative, and engaged relationship with the commons.

NOTE: I am considering taking this blog in a new direction. I feel I am close to a general interpretation of American letters from an anarchist perspective. Plus, I am quickly running out of Library of America volumes to analyze. (I live in Taiwan and lack access to the libraries that may solve this problem.) I would like to continue to do what I can with the canon, but also look more broadly at questions of American character in other areas of life, especially history. Maybe take a closer look at American anarchists as well. I also need to finish my various Philip K. Dick projects. We will see what the future will bring.

Aldo Leopold, Writings from the 1910s and 1920s, Managing the Commons

In 1909, Aldo Leopold earned his Master of Science degree and begins work in the US Forest Service in the American southwest, then the Arizona and New Mexico territories. His first jobs there included leading forest survey teams. Around 1915 Leopold became involved in the game management. By 1920, Leopold is actively involved in forest erosion and other land questions in the region. Throughout the later half of the 1920s, Leopold moves around taking a position in Wisconsin at the Forest Products Laboratory of the US Forest Service. By 1930 he is well known among game management workers, is on the cusp of publishing his major textbook on the subject and being published nationally. His field journals also show that he travelled to wilderness areas in Canada and the Midwest during these years.


There are few things we can say about Leopold’s early career from this summary. First, Leopold was closely tied to the Progressive-era conservation movement and its institutions, such as the US Forest Service. During the early twentieth century, the service became more focused on protected forests rather than its earlier role of measuring and doling out the government-owned forest resources. Another thing we notice is that Leopold moves toward his “land ethic” as early as 1930, which we see in his evolving interests. While first focused on the management of wildlife for human use (“game management”), he eventually began to see the land itself as fragile (his studies of erosion). By the later 1920s, although continuing his work on game management, started writing on the importance of protecting the wilderness.

Leopold was a state actor throughout these years as well. He responded to, and tried to shape, policy regulating forests. The most important question he grappled with the question of the commons. At least since Gerald Winstanley and the movement of the Diggers in 17th century England, the survival of the commons has been one of the most important questions facing revolutionary movements. As Peter Linebaugh argued in The Magna Carta Manifesto, the Charter of the Forest has been at least as important as the Magna Carta in ensuring our rights to the “common treasury.” It is not a betrayal of those rights to confess that the questions of the commons is vastly more complex now than it was in the time where it amounted to rights to hunt on the king’s land.

Apache National Forest: Leopold's workplace in the early 1920s.

Apache National Forest: Leopold’s workplace in the early 1920s.

I went through Leopold’s collected works from the 1910s and 1920s, consisting of essays, speeches, manuscripts, field journals and letters. We see that he was constantly concerned with the competing interests of different groups. Now while taking a deer or some firewood from the king’s land in medieval Britain did not have any impact on other people, Leopold was dealing with real competing interests in the national forests, between “game farmers” and “wild lifers,” and between humans and the wildlife itself. Leopold’s sentiment in this period seemed to be that these were not necessarily unbridgeable divides. The correct rules and the right policies are all that is necessary to prevent the overuse of one resources or preserve the wilderness for the use of all. The protection of access to all required some form of regulatory state. In a 1919 essay on this subject her wrote: “We can immediately draw one conclusion from the foregoing discussion of the proposed commercialization of game-meat and hunting privileges, and that is that to grant the wishes of the radical Game Farmers would be tantamount to adopting the European style of game management. A wide-open market, almost universal game farming, commercialized shooting privileges, and some incidental overflow shooting for the poor man – is this not the sum and substance of the European system? It is. And the European system of game management is undemocratic, unsocial, and therefore dangerous.” (202) Now, while the market seems to be dangerous to democratic access (which for Leopold includes sustaining access for even minority uses – such as wilderness hunting – not just the most popular use), he knows some broader understanding of market logic is necessary. If the state will protect some land for hunting, for instance, it will need to manage the wildlife populations there, according to some market logic. Ultimately, a state-regulated market is his stop-gap solution, because at least that would protect democracy and minority rights. This is all discussed again, with more foreboding, in “Goose Music,” a manuscript from 1922, in which Leopold predicts that majority recreations, like golf, will swallow up the wilderness from people who enjoy hunting and fishing. In another place, Leopold concedes a bit of seeing like a state when he argues that protecting wilderness is just another form of “land use.”

Superior National Forest, which Leopold visited in 1925.

Superior National Forest, which Leopold visited in 1925.

Does such “management” of forests, even if it means just keeping some places off limits, require a centralizing agency like the US Forest Service? This century has proven that the largest threats to the environment have come from external and relatively disinterested players. Carbon polluters in the global north who externalize the costs of climate change to the poor, corporations who strip-mine mountains for investors hundreds or thousands of miles away, or states committed to industrial development who destroy the lives of thousands for “development projects.” Centralized power may provide some force to conservation efforts, but it is more often much more damaging than a few too many hunters or tourists. I suspect local, vernacular control over resources might be better, but in even this area Leopold introduces an important, and very American problem: the booster spirit.

In an essay, “A Criticism of the Booster Spirit,” Leopold shows how indifferent local governments can be to their own environment during their quest for a loosely defined “prosperity.” The goal of boosterism is to attract capital, tourists, industries, and “growth” to your town using advertizing campaigns, speakers, favorable taxation policies, institutions and parks. While promoted by the local governments, it is almost always indifferent to the local needs (economic or ecological). “The booster is intensely provincial. A year ago he demanded a National Part for New Mexico. He did not know where or how, but he knew jolly well why: A National Park would be a tourist-getter of the first water, and tourists are to be desired above all things. They come, they see, they spend, and they are even known to come back.” (240) Leopold thought this was an American perversion, but the “booster spirit” is now global. In Taiwan, local “development” projects are often concerned with attracting Chinese tourists, conferences, or investment. Some are now calling for a free trade zone to compete with the recently-opened Shanghai free trade zone. Boosterism is interested only in the short-term, attracting this years tourists. What suffers, of course, is the local population, vernacular economies, and “sound economic reason.” As Leopold says, the booster, although provincial is completely oblivious to the land, the animals and the forests of the place they are promoting, unless they promote interest in the town.

I suppose the solution is not to focus first on the local or the national or the global causes to the systematic destruction of nature, but to move away from market-driven conceptions of nature.