22 oct. 2007

No poet left behind

Reading Susan Howe's My Emily Dickinson (a book I am really fond of) I came across this startling statistic:

"Between 1861 and 1870 only one British infant out of eight survived its first year of life, and as many again died between the ages of one and five."

This seemed wrong to me. That would mean that the average woman would have carry sixty-four pregnancies to term to have a single child survive to the age of six. (She would have to withstand an average of eight pregnancies to get one child past the first year, so she would need 64 to have eight survive the first year, one of which would then survive the fifth year.) I assume "as many again" means "as high a percentage" not "as many numerically," because you simply couldn't have that many deaths between 1 and 5: there wouldn't be enough surviving infants. Basically there would be no Englishmen today if this trend had continued for more than a few years.

I found some more plausible (though still horrific) numbers on the first website I found after a google search, for a somewhat later date: :

In the upper-class areas Liverpool England, 1899, 136 newborns out of 1000 would die before they reached the age of one. Working class districts maintained a rate of 274 infant deaths per 1000 births, and impoverished slums had a horrifying 509 infant deaths per 1000. Even as these rates improve towards the end of the Victorian Age, infant mortality remained at over ten times the current rates in industrialized nations. Alexander Finlaison reported that one half of all children of farmers, laborers, artisans, and servants dies before reaching their fifth birthday, compared to one in eleven children of the land owning gentry.".

So even the worst slums had slightly above a 50% infant mortality rate--horribly bad but not nearly the 77.5% for all of Britain that Howe gives us.

So possibly Howe is simply inverting a percentage she read somewhere--maybe one in eight died and she says that one in eight survived?

5 comentarios:

Steven Fama dijo...

Interesting question. I agree the assertion does not seem right. Have your tried contacting / writing Susan Howe? Perhaps she can provide an answer. Whether and how she responds might be an interesting experience.

Jonathan dijo...

I am not going to bother her with something like that in a book published 22 years ago. A book that in every other respect is absolutely brilliant. My point was the we poets are not known for our great numeracy skills. How many people have read this book without noticing that there is no way Victorian England had a 78% infant mortality + a 78% mortality rate among small children?

Steven Fama dijo...

Well, I hope the possible mistake is somehow brought to Howe's attention. Maybe she'd want to know, so as to correct it, or have it corrected, in future editions.

I'm projecting here, but I think most writers appreciate it when somebody brings a possible mistake to their attention. Doing so is a kind of compliment: somebody read closely and thought carefully about a text.

Kudos to you Jonathan, for having grokked this apparent error, and for publishing your question. I trust your judgment that even if there was a mistake, the book is still great. But imho, as a professor-scholar-poet, Howe ought to to know about the question, no matter how long ago it happened.

Jonathan dijo...

That's a good point. I'll see what happens if I try to contact her...

Steven Fama dijo...

Of course, I must also suggest that it might be less than edifying to raise a possible mistake.

Several years ago, I came across a passage in a book – published by a university press – that included a title of a poem allegedly by Lamantia, and even quoted a few lines from it. I knew essentially for certain that there was no such poem by Lamantia, but if there was I was interested in checking it out.

I contacted the professor-scholar. He said, essentially, “gee, I’ll have to check.” Several weeks later, I wrote again, asking if he’d had time to check. He hadn’t. A few weeks more, I asked again. He said he was now in the process of moving, and everything was boxed up. Never heard from him again. Never did get an answer. Probably would not care too much that I didn’t, except I knew that Lamantia never wrote or published any such poem as was quoted. So I’ll never forget.

Maybe professor-scholars maybe are wary of admitting such mistakes? Maybe professor-scholars don’t want to go anywhere near any admission of a mistake, for fear of somehow getting caught up in a reputation for making mistakes. The consequences in the extreme case – where there is apparently repeated fudging of research – can be termination (see Ward Churchill). Maybe even one or two mistakes is too much for some (for their personal reputation)