The Sun and the Moon

“If a son shall ask bread of any of you that is a father,” says Jesus in Luke 11:11, “will he give him a stone? Or if he ask a fish, will he for a fish give him a serpent?” The question is, we assume, rhetorical — an assurance that our heavenly Father is a square dealer — but the family of the great P. T. Barnum might have answered it cheerfully in the affirmative. Yes, they might have said, indeed a father will give his son a stone. And a serpent too, by God, if he feels like it! Barnum, as a boy, was told that upon reaching the age of 21 he would receive a marvelous inheritance: a place called Ivy Island, a most valuable parcel of land. Never quite sure exactly what Ivy Island was, or where it might be, he was constantly assured by his family and neighbors that it was bountiful beyond all imagination. And one day, when the boy was 12, the moment came — it was time to visit Ivy Island. He followed his father deep into the Connecticut countryside, toiling through bogs and getting stung by hornets, panting with anticipation. His father paused at last on the edge of a gloomy creek and extended his arm: behold! The boy stared. He saw before him a dismal, unworkable stump of ground in the middle of a marsh, home to a few sullen snakes and not much else. Ivy Island was… an island covered with ivy.

This appalling little parable, so potent in its bathos as to suggest the existence of an entire and hitherto unsuspected tradition of anti-wisdom, is but one of the many stories related by Matthew Goodman in The Sun and the Moon. Goodman’s book is a compendious, beautifully written account of the Great Moon Hoax of 1835, a sequence of events and pseudo-events that would come to comprise a complete epoch in the imaginative life of New York City. Barnum was not the hoax’s architect — that distinction belongs to Richard Adams Locke, editor of the mettlesome daily The New York Sun — but he was, as it were, its psychic enabler, and 30 years after it happened he would salute it in his book Humbugs of the World as “the most stupendous scientific imposition upon the public that the generation with which we are numbered has known.”

To the hoax itself. On August 25, 1835, the Sun inaugurated a series of articles by a Dr. Grant, entitled “Great Astronomical Discoveries, Lately Made by Sir John Herschel, L.L.D., F.R.S., &c. at the Cape of Good Hope.” An eminent astronomer by the name of Sir John Herschel did indeed exist, and he was indeed pursuing his research at the Cape of Good Hope, but his observations bore no relation to the wild celestial tableaux about to be unveiled by the Sun. According to Dr. Grant, Sir John had trained his super-powerful “hydro-oxygen telescope” upon the moon’s surface and been rewarded with some incredible sights: first, a field of lunar poppies (which should have given the game away but didn’t) and then — single-horned goats, beavers that walked on two legs, and finally winged moon-men, the latter in particular exhibiting a free-and-easy lifestyle that incurred Dr. Grant’s mild anthropological censure. “They are doubtless innocent and happy creatures,” he wrote, “notwithstanding that some of their amusements would but ill comport with our terrestrial notions of decorum.”

New York was already in a fever of credulity. Two weeks earlier, in his first grand act as a showman/huckster, Barnum had introduced the city to Joice Heth — an African-American slave woman whom he advertised, sensationally, as being 161 years old and a former wet nurse to George Washington. The geriatric Heth did her part, crooning hymns and gamely anecdotalizing about her “little George,” and the exhibit (at Niblo’s Garden) was the talk of the town. In the Sun, Locke pronounced it “the most precious humbug of modern times.”

But Barnum’s miracle of longevity was quickly eclipsed, and by Locke himself. There was, of course, no Dr. Grant — there was only Richard Adams Locke, pseudonymously electrifying the Sun‘s readers with bravura imaginative prose and meticulous pseudo-science. His moon series was a smash, a runaway success, the hula hoop or Beatlemania of its day. And with the real Sir John Herschel conveniently incommunicado on the Cape of Good Hope, months passed before the inevitable debunking.

Why did Locke do it? He was a newspaperman, of course, and the Sun‘s circulation obliged him by going through the roof, but there was more to it than that. Locke wasn’t a born trickster like Barnum — he was a social reformer and philosophe, and in explaining his complex and ultimately self-defeating motives, The Sun and the Moon transcends the merely colorful and becomes a serious, innovative work of intellectual history.

Imagine a version of Herbert Asbury’s Gangs of New York where the central currency is not violence but ideas. Goodman doesn’t wear his research lightly — rather he is splendidly laden down with it, encrusting himself wherever possible with further textures, trinkets, and glittering subplots. (Watch for the appearance of Edgar Allan Poe, traversing the narrative like a gloomy comet.) His 1830s Gotham is a volatile, infatuated place, both realer and more illusory than its 21st-century successor. And his writing, archly appreciative of fine humbug, is dead-on. “Some of the creatures entered the lake to bathe, and in returning to the shore spread their wings to shake off the water, much as ducks do…. Several of the creatures were observed making emphatic gestures with their hands and arms, clearly engaged in conversation.” What a magical chunk of rock that must have been. What a pale and sky-high Ivy Island.