Was there any century worse than the nineteenth? Sure life was more brutish, poor, and short back in the Stone Age, but times were so tough then it seems churlish to do anything but marvel at the general aptitude for fashioning hand axes. The 1800s, on the other hand, weren’t that long ago. We still read the novels people wrote then, listen to the music they composed, and live in the houses they built. You don’t have to prepend too many “greats” to the word “grandparent” before you run into Victorian blood relatives. If the past is another country, the 19th century is like a town just down the road.
Yeah but lock your doors when you drive through, because those people were terrifying. See them staring dead-eyed out of daguerrotypes because smiling was apparently invented in 1921. The most generous, moral and open-minded among them was still a Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard maundering on about women’s naturally childlike intellect while harpooning a whale. Hoop skirts, sexual repression, and hideous facial hair. But don’t you dare laugh, because that dork with the fussy string tie and the waxed moustache would gut you with a Bowie knife as soon as look at you. Violence was an omnipresent fact of life. The British fought the French fought the Dutch fought the Austrians for reasons that are now incomprehensible. If you were a young man you aspired to be a military officer, which meant you donned a giant plumed hat and tried to give your fellow Stratego characters gangreen with a musket.
Here in the United States we had slavery and the Indian Wars. Think Balkan ethnic cleansing from the 1990s, except happening across an entire contient. Conditions in much of the country were so primitive that there was no rule of law. People banded together in small paranoid groups and what order there was was maintained by men with pistols following brutal codes of honor. It’s the same situation that obtains in gang-ridden public housing projects today, but because back then the guns were being carried by white people the whole business is looked on with an inexplicable sense of nostalgia. People shivered in railroad cars, imagining what horrors awaited them in Denver. In crude clapboard brothels situated on the outskirts of flyblown frontier towns burly miners were serviced by prostitutes who looked like burly miners.
–I’m tired. I’m sick. I can’t remember the last time I had a hot shower or used a bathroom that was anything more than an excrement-filled ditch. Every person around me is a virulent racist, a religious fanatic, or both, and they reek. This is the worst camping trip ever. I want to go home.
–Home? You are home.
And yet, amidst all this darkness, the 19th century is the era in which mathematics finally came together. Euler’s inspired insights coalesced into Riemann’s formal rigor. Maxwell captured the essential facts of electromagnetism in four vector calculus equations whose intricacy still delights. Epsilon-delta proofs moved Zeno’s two thousand year old paradoxes into the Solved column. Georg Cantor tamed infinity. This was no steady accumulation of knowledge or localized flurry of fresco-painting. No, it was a human project that had been brewing continuously since the days of classical Greece coming into sudden and breathtaking fruition. And it was pulled off by a handful of those same prim, bewhiskered, European zombies that in every other way inspire nothing but horror.