- Immersing the Network in Time:From the Where to the When of Print Reading
Low-Life: or One Half of the World, Knows not how the Other Half Live, first published in 1759, is a fictional pamphlet reporting on 24 hours in the life of a cross-section of Londoners. Between Saturday night and Monday morning, prostitutes rise from magistrates’ beds, journeymen hunt for work, children kill flies, apprentices skip church, plays are rehearsed, clothes washed, bread baked, cards played, and walks taken. Written in the continuous present tense, the anonymous pamphlet draws all these incongruous actions together as one gently rhythmical stream of prose: “Old gossips in Alleys, Yards, etc. meeting with their Dabs of stinking meat fixed upon three bits of stick stuck over dirty Pudding,” become proximate with “Mothers and nurses of young children in and about this metropolis, hushing and coaxing the children under their care to sleep” and “Authors of both prose and verse, whose Wives and Children’s clamorous Tongues prevent their studying in their own apartments, … walking about the Remote Parts of the Town, with Memorandum books and Pencils in their hands.”1
If there’s a rhythm this style of description imposes, the text also draws attention to one its characters collectively manage to ignore. According to the author, who dedicates his work to Hogarth, Low-Life is: “[A] true Deliniation of the various methods, which People in and about this Metropolis, have ingeniously contrived to murder not only common Time, but that Portion of it, which is more immediately consecrated to the Glory of their great creator.”2 “London,” he goes on, “is so utterly absorbed by Places of Entertainment, and Inventions … as to destroy that inestimable Jewel, TIME.”3 Wasting Sunday involves, then, the erasure of an intermittent pulse that Low-Life aims to restore.
Perhaps the most obvious way to respond to Low-Life as a literary historian is to see it organizing the day into a sequence of hourly intervals, the shape its twenty-four chapters take.4 We know that clock time was being introduced to a general population in the 1700s: historians and critics including Foucault, E. P. Thompson, Benedict Anderson, and Stuart Sherman have argued for its centrality to eighteenth-century life. Anderson’s emphasis on “homogenous empty time” as the container [End Page 299] of the nation as social organism might, for instance, explain Low-Life’s arrangement of bodies not physically present to each other as the joint occupants of hours described in prose.5 Sherman argues in depth for the applicability of the clock’s language—the “series within series, concentric and cumulative, beginning with small intervals clicked out at the clock’s core, and radiating outward to the markings on the dial, to encompass a whole system of measurement and calibration”—to what he calls the diurnal form, the sequentially narrated life commensurate with a series of pages.6 In these terms, Low-Life’s sequence of hours might be seen as corresponding to the space of the codex book, making print itself an antidote to the “wasting” of time the text derides. “Attempting,” as the narrator claims, “to deliver the actions of every Hour as they really pass; omitting nothing, however trifling it may seem,” Low-Life conforms closely to the logic Sherman finds governing diary keeping and daily news early in the century.7
But neither Anderson nor Sherman’s approach can account for Low-Life’s emphasis on Sunday as a refuge from the tick-tick-tick of modern existence and its routine forms of entertainment. Set on a Whitsunday at Midsummer, Low-Life focuses on a constellation of bodies extraordinary because so many workers are freed momentarily from paid employment. The author presents his own text to this audience of potential part-time readers, hoping that it will not be just “one instance among the many I have endeavored to stigmatize, of the misemployment of time.”8 But what role has a secular satire like this to play in what, in eighteenth-century terms, would be called the “redeeming of time”? How does a text’s alignment with the pattern of the week serve its...