- The Form of the Times:Garibaldi and the Poetics of History
An event is a deceptively complicated object—both to define and to delineate, especially when it is still being lived. Yet, we crave defined edges. Beginnings and endings. Narrative certitude. And when the borders of space and of history prove both flexible and contested, we encounter problems of categorization. As one Times leader put it in 1860, "It is an old observation, that people ought not to be surprised that Roman and other history is debatable ground, when they know so little accurately of what is passing under their own eyes."1 This newspaper author bridges the problem of knowing the present with the problem of knowing the past so that, while historical debate might seem to arise from a unique lack of accessible information, the present proves equally plagued with uncertainty. We might assume that temporally nearer affairs should be more accurately representable than "history," but the lack of retrospective guidance leaves readers likewise unable to conceptualize the contemporary event as a cohesive whole. This problem of complete knowing does not arise simply from a failure to observe; rather, it reveals the limits of observation and representation as methods of knowing. A contemporary world event combines a lack of temporal distance with an abundance of spatial distance, declaring diachronic meaning amid synchronic chaos. Constructing and narrating an event, then, requires writers to emphasize the singularity and cohesion of a particular moment, to sever it from countless simultaneous incidents—in short, to craft it as a definitive synecdoche that represents a totalizing history. When the Times leader decries people who cannot understand "accurately" the news—the narrative of what is passing—it is, therefore, also indicating that current affairs can be, from the moment of their narration as events, history, even while they are still passing, still present.
For newspapers, the need to produce events—those touchstones of historical plots—from an array of global incidents and even rumors yoked a problem of quantity to the equally mystifying problems of spatial distance and temporal nearness. The challenge for newspaper editors, then, was how to select significant components of foreign affairs [End Page 1027] for readers and then to narrate them through an encompassing global historical perspective. The very "timing" of newspapers, as Mary A. Favret explains, acts as "a powerfully consolidating force," even when reporting ongoing war, which "without knowledge of its outcome, cannot know its own borders."2 By the mid-nineteenth century, advances in print communications meant a deluge of potentially significant information from across the globe flooded newspapers and their readers quickly, creating a crisis of meaning that required new narrative solutions. This article analyzes how one such solution—the Times's two-pronged formal strategy, which combined a network of foreign correspondents with a London-centric editorial perspective—distilled excessive data not only into news but also into history, with a historiographical form that proved portable beyond periodical media.3
Excess, however, is not just a newspaper concern. By looking at how news journalism selects, conceptualizes, and condenses masses of information, I argue, we can see how both the political present and history come into being as interlacing narratives available for transmission and even translation across media.4 As a case study, I will focus here on Giuseppe Garibaldi's famed Expedition of the Thousand, or Spedizione dei Mille, in 1860 across two densely temporal media: the Times's daily news coverage and Mary Elizabeth Braddon's year-end poem Garibaldi, published in February 1861. Considering how Garibaldi's Sicilian Expedition appeared across media reveals the forms through which we organize time and lived experience into community-shaping narratives. By reading the poem and its periodical archive together, we can see how the event—a temporal form whose function is coherence—can operate powerfully even when its source material is inadequate, outdated, contradictory, and potentially infinite. The event—and history—can emerge in medias res and operate instantly. In this sense, the event works to fulfill the "desire," in Favret's terms, "to put period to and step outside of the time of war, to contain and manage it, to behold it...