Today’s want is too fabulous for just one commentator. So, without further ado, I present comments from two.
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Basically, I see the “drowned man” want as a perfect example of mid-nineteenth-century faith in science, technology, and progress. The emphasis on measurement, for example, and on the technical and procedural details of the process, offers a “real world” example of the mindset portrayed in nineteenth-century speculative fiction (think of Dr. Frankenstein, or the works of Jules Verne). Scientific experimentation is open to amateurs in all walks of life, and a “scientific” way of proceeding ensures effective results—whether in the lab, on the farm, or in the household. How many agricultural manuals and manuals of “domestic science” share Youmans’ mindset as shown in this “want”?
In contrast, Youman’s can-do attitude (“Missing corpse? I’m so on it.”) makes me think of the can’t-do attitude I share with many modern Americans (“Missing corpse? If they haven’t posted about it on Gawker yet, I don’t know anything about it”).
In the days of slow travel and even slower communications, people were really on their own. A lost swimmer today would be the realm of official search parties, helicopter pilots, and professional divers—not a mad bomber risking a Tarantino-esque tidal wave of gore on the off chance that an explosion might free a hung-up corpse.
Self-sufficiency was clearly more common for Youman and his contemporaries—they were up for sowing the grain, making the soap, and shoeing the horse, even if they needed a book to tell them how. On the other hand, we modern types are so embedded in and dependent on our culture and government that self-sufficiency is the most terrifying of boogeymen. No 911? No Price Chopper? No income tax return? No thanks.
This entry actually makes me think of today’s crazed proliferation of end-of-the-world-ism. From The World without Us to vampire apocalypses to yet another rehash of Nostradamus’s more dire prophecies (complete with “tasteful” reenactments), you can’t read a book or turn on a television without running into doomsday portents. At the heart of this fascination with the end of all things, I think, lurks a fond dependency on the status quo that Youman probably couldn’t even imagine.