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July 15, 2009

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Write Like It's 1856

Writing up the new Oxford Historical Thesaurus, Jason Kottke laments the lack of an advertised online version: “what a boon it would be for period novelists to able to press the ‘write like they did in 1856’ button.”

So, being a total dork, and already in love with the not-even-shipping OHT, I tweet:

I want a “write like they did in 1856” button!

and then:

Actually, not a “write like ANYBODY in 1856” button. I want a “write like Flaubert” button. (Quiz: what writer in 1856 would you choose?)

This is harder than it sounds. 1856 might have seen just about the greatest confluence of writers ever. Do you want to write like Flaubert, Baudelaire, or Hugo? Tolstoy or Dostoevsky? Melville or Whitman or Dickinson? The Rosettis, the Brownings, or George Eliot? In nonfiction, you could write like Darwin, Marx, Carlyle, Mill, Schopenhauer, Lincoln, or Emerson.

All that said, I’m sticking with Flaubert. That’s the year he finished and serialized Madame Bovary. (The next year, he went on trial for obscenity, and won, on the grounds that he wasn’t a pornographer, but a genius. This changed everything for modern literature.)

Gustave’s my guy. Who’s yours?

P.S.: On the Oxford University Press page for the historical thesaurus, it includes a link for an online version - it’s almost certainly going to be subscriber-only, and the link ends up with placeholder info for now. But it will happen.

Posted July 15, 2009 at 6:18 | Comments (13) | Permasnark
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Collaborations, Worldsnark


If someone made me a write-like-George-Eliot-button, I would . amazing things for them.

I assume the same technology could be used to make me a "de-1856-ify this page" Javascript bookmarklet, right? ;-)

Yeah, but it'd be kind of like when you translate a page into one language and then translate it back - you'd get all sorts of weird artifacts in there, a palimpsest that wouldn't completely make sense. In short, it would be pretty cool.

I would also regularly Hugo-ize the news, then auto-tune it, so it would play like an exquisitely painful rendition of Les Mis.

Speaker of the House!
Gave an interview!
Justifying the Democrats' Public Health Plan!

Oh man, I think you're on to something with 1856. I took a quick stroll around Wikipedia - looking for my favorite published work - and found no less than four ongoing wars, all with very romantic sounding names like the Crimean War and the Second Opium War and the Taiping Rebellion(!). And in the US - a war in Utah, rebellion in Kansas, lynchings in San Francisco, Indian wars in Washington, and an island destroyed and split apart into separate islands by a hurricane in Louisiana (the island was named 'Last Island').

Collaborative fiction set in 1856? Listen, I'm fishing for a new book project, here...

Okay, so everyone knows that Tolstoy met Hugo in Paris. What this book presupposes is... maybe they met Lincoln there, too?

Regarding the Taiping: Rebels of the Heavenly Kingdom will always be one of my favorite adolescent novels, even beating out its cousin Bridge to Terabithia.

Don't forget that the Awadh valley has just been annexed by the British empire, the Sepoy Mutiny is about the happen, and Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar has just pushed through the Widow Remarriage Act and the new reformed Bengali Alphabet, setting the stage for the Bengali Renaissance and the Indian independence movement. Commodore Perry is opening up Japan, Australian colonists are starting to govern themselves and the Sultanate of Zanzibar is being founded.

Something in homage to this type of history might be interesting.

While I wouldn't want to write like George Eliot, exactly, I do try to think as she did.

With all respect to Jason Kottke, a few decades' more reading will unobtrusively download the "write like 1856" facility into attentive minds.

Whenever I think of George Eliot, (and as a disclaimer, I've only read Middlemarch) the phrase "imaginative sympathy" pops into my head. She had the same critical acuity that Flaubert did - but so much more caritas. Only Tolstoy and Shakespeare rival her.

But when it comes to craft, Flaubert's as good as it gets. There are only a handful of writers who can astonish me over and over again, with every single sentence: Joyce, Flaubert, Garcia Marquez, maybe Nabokov.

That link with the sample page pdf finally made it clear to me that the OED is needed to take full advantage of the HTOED. Was anybody else wondering about that? Also, the HTOED doesn't have antonyms, so better have Roget's on hand too. Yes, this needs to be digitized. "Mashup" is not yet in the OED.

Posted by: Jake on July 16, 2009 at 09:27 PM

There are those little mini-definitions before synonyms in each of the entries - do those not do it for you?

Re: Tim, not to take full advantage, they wouldn't. Scenario:
You're searching the HTOED and are ambushed by a strange word. How did THAT get in there? What's the etymology? Forms? Who on earth used it, in what context? If you dare recover it from obscurity, you'd better be secure in your usage! For all that, you need the big guns (click to open in a new tab). If the HTOED isn't pregnant with such scenarios, well, that's no fun.

Posted by: Jake on July 17, 2009 at 09:00 PM

Well, this is *really* just evidence that the full OED is necessary to take full advantage of the English Language. A proposition with which I would unconditionally agree.

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