Alexander Pope was the First Influencer
One day in the late Eighteenth Century, venerated English poet Alexander Pope withdrew his feather quill and ink and embraced utter stupidity. “The Dunciad” is a long-form satirical poem that effectively sheds light on insipidity of the bombastic poetic society of Great Britain, as well as the country’s anxiety over the proliferating soap-box for the not-so-public intellectual. The poem integrated itself so well into Pope’s society, and its subversion of language was so influential to the metamorphosis of literature, that he can be understood as a foil for the modern day “influencer.” “How hints, like spawn, scarce quick in embryo lie,” writes Pope, “How new-born nonsense first is taught to cry,/ Maggots half-form’d in rhyme exactly meet,/ And learn to crawl upon poetic feet” (I.58-62; p. 274), and thereby crowns his own Eighteenth Century contemporary writing as “new-born nonsense,” their words so commonplace that they might as well be referred to as “maggots.”
In short, Alexander Pope was an influencer. He used his platform of high-poetry and superlative reputation, as well as an education that allowed him to riff on the great minds of the canon like Virgil and Milton, to mock those who believed that writing should be reserved only for the stuffy intellectual. After all, how is one to qualify the influencer other than someone who literally uses their influence to change societal ethos? And, in the age of Pope that was entirely true. It is no secret that Twenty-First Century America is a heck of a lot different than Eighteenth-Century England, and the stuff that exists in the lexicon of the Georgian era probably wouldn’t make it past book publishers today. That would sort of be a tragedy, were it not for the fact that we don’t really need those publishers anymore. There is no longer a middle-man; a decider of what writing is deemed worthy, and what isn’t. Because of social media, all writing is essentially created equal. There is no longer a monopoly on language--the “new-born nonsense” no longer the precedent. Which is why I’m confident in asserting that, if someone had introduced Twitter to his Kingdom of Great Britain, Pope would have been the first to log on.
It wasn’t long after the creation of social media that all kinds of writers began to use various platforms in order to express and promote themselves. And, though we may continue to read Pope and his peers, the sphere of the celebrity writer is no longer reserved for public intellectuals like him. Instead, we have people who understand how to reach a wide audience on the internet, and it seems that Pope lit the torch for that kind of media interaction. He made clear in “The Dunciad” that he did not believe the written word should just be reserved for a select few, and the rise of social media epitomizes this practice. Now, anyone who wants to speak can speak, and speak they do.
And so, we have people like Caroline Calloway, an American self-proclaimed “Internet personality” who outrageously outlines the private details of her life--sex, drugs, parties--in vast detail in a bizarre act of performance art. Whether or not she is to your taste, personalities like her, who use their good looks or openness to attract a wide audience, have allowed for something really important: on-the-ground reporting where news outlets like CNN have failed. We are seeing this today: the coverage of the coronavirus, for example, is largely preservative for large corporations that don’t want to be exposed as being flawed. And, subsequently, human problems are being ignored. But the nurse, the janitor, or the teacher--the modern writer--takes to Twitter and sees what’s really going on. And the world is all the better for it. So, to Caroline Calloway, I’ll refer to the words of our beloved Pope: “For thee explain a thing till all men doubt it,/ And write about it. Goddess, and about it.”
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