Tuesday, October 23, 2012


I finished reading this fascinating history book by Matthew Goodman last night. The sub-title is: The Remarkable True Account of Hoaxers, Showmen, Dueling Journalists, and Lunar Man-Bats in Nineteenth-Century New York. Whew! That's a mouthful but it does pretty much sum up what this well written and researched book is all about.
I first became aware of The Sun and The Moon when I heard a review of the book on NPR a couple of years ago. It sounded interesting so I tracked down a copy and gave it a read. It's the story of one Richard Adams Locke, the editor of The Sun, a daily penny newspaper in New York City in the 1830s. Locke wrote a series of articles describing the astounding scientific discovery of life on the moon. And not just any life. We're talking unicorns, bipedal beavers, woolly bison and most astonishingly of all, winged man-bats. The series was a huge success and caused the circulation of The Sun to skyrocket making it the most widely read newspaper in the world at the time.
Of course the story was bunk but it was well told with just enough "scientific" facts and figures to make it seem slightly plausible. The story was written as an account of the findings of astronomer John Herschel who was at the time engaged in lunar observations at an observatory at the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa. Herschel was a real person, as was his observatory but that's where the facts end and the fiction begin.
The "moon hoax" as it came to be known was so popular the series was reprinted in other newspapers in both New York and other American cities as well as being reprinted in its' entirety in pamphlet form several times over. At the end of the book, Locke's real motivation for writing the series (besides remuneration) is revealed by the author.
But The Sun and The Moon is also a story about the birth of mass media in the United States. In the early 1800s, the six-penny newspapers in New York City were written for and read by the merchant class as the papers contained important business news and information. The Sun and other "penny" papers, went after the common man and captured readers with stories that emphasized crime, scandal and sex. Soon, the penny papers came to dominate the New York newspaper scene and a city (and later, an entire nation) of regular newspaper readers came into being.
Also included in this fabulous tale are such larger than life figures as Edgar Allan Poe (who was convinced that Locke had plagiarized one of his stories) and P.T. Barnum who was quite an expert on hoaxes and "humbugs" himself.
The Sun and The Moon is a fascinating account of a pivotal moment in the history of American mass media. Amidst the colorful characters and wild stories lies a compelling look at a city and it's citizens and how they consumed the news of the day. Highly recommended.

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