At the untimely age of 43, conservative blogger, impresario, web publisher, and (according to NPR) activist Andrew Breitbart has died of an undisclosed cause. Granted, Breitbart’s world lies considerably outside the normal bailey-wick of this space, but the event has put me into a contemplative mode. What sort of legacy does a man like Andrew Breitbart leave when he “shuttles off this mortal coil”? I would argue that he leaves a relatively small and diminishing legacy. Hopefully these words will not be taken as mean-spirited, unkind, or otherwise speaking ill of the dead. After all, whatever declining reputation this man might have, it is considerably greater than mine. Instead, I’d like to make a point about writerly immortality.
To consider Andrew Breitbart in the long view, one needs, I think, to consider a writer like Samuel Johnson. In Rambler #3, more than 250 years ago, Johnson has these words concerning critics:
To these men, who distinguish themselves by the appellation of Criticks, it is necessary for a new author to find some means of recommendation. It is probable, that the most malignant of these persecutors might be somewhat softened, and prevailed on, for a short time, to remit their fury. Having for this purpose considered many expedients, I find in the records of ancient times, that Argus was lulled by musick, and Cerberus quieted with a sop; and am, therefore, inclined to believe that modern criticks, who, if they have not the eyes, have the watchfulness of Argus, and can bark as loud as Cerberus though, perhaps, they cannot bite with equal force, might be subdued by methods of the same kind. I have heard how some have been pacified with claret and a supper, and others laid asleep by the soft notes of flattery.
Although these sentences challenge the simple syntax and vocabulary of the contemporary reader, the sentiments endure and resonate to this day. Now imagine that any current controversialist–a political writer of the sort that appears regularly on FoxNews or MSNBC–is being read 250 years hence. Will their words, and more significantly their thoughts be respected or even remembered? This is not a condemnation or an insult toward this current crop of writers. After all, the vast majority of all that is written in any age is ephemeral, intended to serve a purpose for this election cycle or this business season. Even Johnson wrote with an eye toward consumption rather than the ages. This is, remember, the man who said, “No one but a blockhead ever wrote except for money.” The Rambler was the blog of its day, intended to see print, excite some commentary, and then melt into the past, like last week’s Paul Krugman column.
The oddity here is not that Andrew Breitbart’s star will almost invariably begin to dim within the next couple of weeks, to be largely forgotten in a few years. The oddity is that Samuel Johnson’s words hold up 250 years later. So I do not disrespect Andrew Breitbart; I just respect Samuel Johnson more.