Confession time: I’m a bit of a sucker for 19th-century stuff. I’m especially fond of Victorian and Victorian Gothic things in particular. It was an interesting period of time, steeped in its own brand of melodrama characterized by elegant fashion, not-so-elegant living conditions, and downright horrifying medical practices. I think what intrigues us about it is that it falls somewhere in the “uncanny valley” of history, far enough removed from the present day to feel distant and strange, yet recent enough to feel real, even tangible in the pieces of itself that still survive. I own a few books from the 1800s — relics of my absolute favorite era of bookmaking, with their lovely, colorful marbled pages and intricate golden linework swirling along their spines — and handling them always gives me a moment of pause. It’s a difficult feeling to describe, holding a piece of the past. You can sense that the world was a different place when those books first came into it; they exist as a reflection of that world transposed into ours, frozen in time in silent remembrance.
Artifacts like that provide us with a connection to a time that would otherwise be lost — and the people of that time. If the Victorian Gothic literary movement were a person, it would be Edgar Allan Poe, my favorite decemnovenarian. The word always makes me think of him, and tomorrow being his 210th birthday, I felt compelled to write a post in his honor. Poe and his literary contemporaries really exemplify the idea of a decemnovenarian because, through their writing, they are uniquely able to communicate what the word represents. It’s not just about the time period — it carries implications of the mindsets and ideals of the time, and the word’s other forms make this clear. For such a niche word, it’s surprisingly versatile. Used as an adjective, it means simply “characteristic of the 19th century”; there’s also decemnovenarianism, “19th-century characteristics or behavior”; it even has a verb form, decemnovenarianize, which is “to act like a person of the 19th century”. The best part is that the word was first coined in 1863, meaning that it is, itself, decemnovenarian.
Sadly, the last person known to be born in the 1800s passed away fairly recently, just two years ago. (At 117 years old, she had the distinction of being a decemnovenarian supercentenarian.) The 19th century is now officially a time beyond our cultural memory, an era that continues to exist only in the stories that have been told about it — stories like Poe’s, or Dickens’, or any other decemnovenarian‘s who labored to preserve a tiny slice of their world for us. The good news is, of course, that stories are immortal, and books with pretty marbled pages usually live longer than people. They may not make books like that anymore, but we still have our stories — and thanks to the internet, we’re able to share them in ways that Poe and Dickens would never have dreamed of. So although the 21st century, too, will end, and someday the last person who remembers it will disappear, the world will never forget it. Our legacy is up to us. What stories will we leave behind?