The last telegram was delivered in the US In January 2006. A few months later, Twitter was launched, the micro-blogging platform built on a telegram-like brevity of 140 characters.
Twitter is how I discovered the 1853 Traveler’s Vade Mecum in 2011, thanks to a tweet from David Horvitz. (@davidhorvitz) The original Traveler’s Vade Mecum is a compendium of over 8000 numbered telegrams composed by A. C. Baldwin, a pioneering consumer advocate who in 1853 sought to save travelers time and expense at the telegraph office. Baldwin created a book of 8466 numbered sentences–anything anyone might want to telegram–so that people could telegraph only a number, saving themselves having to pay by the word.
“I am on board a steamer ship bound for Paris” could be abbreviated to “45-Paris”, provided the recipient of the message owned (and carried) a copy of the reference manual that would contain its translation. Likewise, “4205” would be all it would take to ruin someone’s Grand Tour with “Your house is at the present moment on fire.” Baldwin tried to imagine all the things—every single thing—that anyone living in the mid-1800s might want to say, urgent questions like “Do You Know Of A Person Going West Soon, Who Would Take A Lady Under His Protection?”, news alerts such as “A Sad Accident Has Happened”; benign assurance that one is alive, the equivalent of today’s status update, “We Abound In Good Cheer.”
The book was digitized by Google and is now available here to anyone with access to the internet.
On June 21, 2011, Horvitz called for tweets hash tagged #VadeMecum. I followed his link, and learned that he was doing an art project in which he’d print out #VadeMecum tweets and carry them from San Francisco to Washington DC, following the route of the first transcontinental telegram. Horowitz’s tweet also linked to the original Vade Mecum and as soon as I saw it, I was smitten by Baldwin’s work.
Like Horvitz, I was moved by Baldwin’s ambitious project. My first attempt at paying homage, was to make a found poem out of some of the telegrams. The poem didn’t work. It bore nothing of the richness and range contained in the original document and I realized what was missing was a complexity of language and syntax that could only be achieved through a multiplicity of voices; multiplicity was the very idea behind the original book.
I began reaching out to poets via technologies Baldwin could never have imagined, asking them to write a poem using as title a telegram I’d chosen for them from the Vade Mecum. Almost 100 poets kindly responded, including former US poet laureate Billy Collins, Bollinger prize winner Frank Bidart and Best American Poetry series editor David Lehman as well as stars of a new generation of poets like Sandra Beasley, Denise Duhamel, Emily Fragos and Eva Hooker.
I’m excited that this new Traveler’s Vade Mecum will be published by Red Hen Press in September. What readers will discover hasn’t only to do with poetry. The collective titles from the original Vade Mecum (Latin for “go with me”) provide a rare and fascinating glimpse into the habits, diction and social aspects of 19th century America. It is my hope that this “sequel” will provide an equal measure of enlightenment on how our culture has evolved. More info about this project here.