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I was reading William Cobbett’s Rural Rides this weekend, for reasons too incidental to go into.

Well, maybe not as incidental as all that. Last year, Rusty Reno explored a little the modern pop music of resurgent rural localism in England , Quebec , and South Africa . And the topic hasn’t ever quite left my mind.

Rusty underplayed, I think, the ease with which such visions blend into anti-Semitism (an accusation brought against some of G.K. Chesterton’s moves in this direction), to say nothing of racism and xenophobia (accusations routinely brought against Rudyard Kipling; Kipling was hardly a “Little Englander,” but take a look at, say, his story of the mystical power of English localism in “ An Habitation Enforced ,” a story that seems to run so hard against his British imperialism that he had to follow it immediately in the text with the poem “ The Recall ,” as though to reassure himself that the young empire builders were not lost after being sent out to govern the world).

Anyway, the classic of English localism is always said to be Rural Rides : William Cobbett’s a 1830 set of observations of England, praised by Chesterton, in particular. (What’s the Fr. Brown story in which a man is murdered in a bar for saying that he drinks only local apple brandy, since all the commercial liquor is adulterated? Someday I’ll have my books unpacked, but in the meanwhile, I seem to remember that the story ends with a paean to Cobbett and all the rest of the English tradition of localists.)

And, reading Rural Rides this weekend, I was suddenly struck by the beginning:

Fog that you might cut with a knife all the way from London to Newbury. This fog does not wet things. It is rather a smoke than a fog . . . . And, to-day, the fog came by spells. It was sometimes thinner than at other times; and these changes were very sudden too . . . . There has been stout fight going on all this rooming (it is now 9 o’clock) between the sun and the fog . I have backed the former, and he appears to have gained the day; for he is now shining most delightfully.

Has anyone remarked before on the relation to the opening of Charles Dickens’ Bleak House ? You remember, the famous second paragraph that runs:
Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying out on the yards, and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his shivering little ‘prentice boy on deck. Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon, and hanging in the misty clouds.”

Probably this is old news to literary scholars—someday I’ll have my books unpacked and can again check such things—but maybe not. Back in 2002, when Harvard’s much-celebrated literary critic Henry Louis Gates Jr. published a rediscovered manuscript called “The Bondswoman’s Narrative by Hannah Crafts, a Fugitive Slave, recently Escaped from North Carolina.” Along the way, he praised the inventiveness and accurate observation of a passage that is, in fact, merely a deliberate echo of Dickens:
Gloom everywhere. Gloom up the Potomac; where it rolls among meadows no longer green, and by splendid country seats. Gloom down the Potomac where it washes the sides of huge war-ships. Gloom on the marshes, the fields, and heights. Gloom settling steadily down over the sumptuous habitations of the rich, and creeping through the cellars of the poor. Gloom arresting the steps of chance office-seekers, and bewildering the heads of grave and reverend Senators; for with fog, and drizzle, and a sleety driving mist the night has come at least two hours before its time.” [Punctuation added]

The mood of these passages from Dickens and Cobbett differs, of course, but that verbless first sentence about fog—how many of those do you run across? Dickens is the greater writer, of course, and he carries those missing verbs on through the whole paragraph, but, say I, he may well have been hearing an echo of Cobbett’s Rural Rides .

Besides, Dickens was something of a Little Englander, and he admired something in Cobbett’s style of politics. Admired something in Cobbett himself, for that matter. It’s hard not to, while reading Rural Rides .

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