Neil Stephenson’s Quicksilver: A Hard Novel to Pin

11 Feb

Neil Stephenson’s Quicksilver provides readers with an interesting conglomeration of history and fiction. Rich in ‘old-timey’ literary elements and stylistic techniques yet clinging onto aspects of the 21st century, one might find it difficult to place the novel within our culture. Is it an artifact only to be appreciated by the higher ups of society? Or instead to appreciated by the common man? Containing elements of both popular culture and high culture it is my hope to distinguish the differences between the two cultures, and secure Quicksilver a place somehwhere between the two.

Popular culture can be simply defined as the culture of the masses. Alternatively, it may be considered the culture of the many as opposed to the culture of the few. Any idea, activity, perspective, etc. that is shared by the masses may be considered a part of popular culture. For instance, the idea that a supernatural being or ‘god’ created and set the universe into motion. Or, for the American audience, the activity of playing football. It is important to understand how this popular (also called “low”) culture differs from high culture.

Lying on the other end of the sociological spectrum is high culture. Definitively speaking, high culture are those aspects of a culture like opera, theatre, or art that are not reproduced, but are often enjoyed more by the elite members of a culture. Where football is considered pop culture, polo is high culture. While Twilight (belonging to pop culture) may be one of the most appreciated sagas of our decade, the multi-century old works of Homer and Shakespeare (high culture) would be more liked by a literary scholar who has developed a rightfully acquired elitism as per their education on the material. This reference of what one might consider popular culture and high culture allows the argument that Quicksilver belongs at neither extreme, but instead between the two.

Quicksilver, published in 2003, cannot stand up to a work of Shakespeare composed during the late 1500’s. Romeo and Juliet still finds itself relevant to our culture even today; the story has passed the test of time. Not to be cast into popular culture, however; Quicksilver contains many instances in which Stephenson finds archaic language useful. Correlating with the setting of 1713 Boston, the diction is well deserved. One excerpt from the novel provides us with a particularly splendid example: “Flotillas of shavings from some carpenter’s block-plane sail down the stream like ships going off to war. Underneath them the weak current nudges turds and bits of slaughtered animals down towards the harbor. It smells accordingly. No denying there is a tallow chandlery not far upwind, where beast-grease not fit for eating is made into candles and soap.” Words such as ‘flotillas’, ‘tallow’ and ‘chandlery’ all belong to high culture.

Will Quicksilver one day be strictly considered high culture? More likely than not. The archaic diction riddling the text is nothing but a catalyst in the matter. Time, however, still stands in its way along with perhaps a few additional traces of the 21st century. Until the novel can show relevancy centuries from now, it will have to settle for not pop culture, not high culture, but somewhere in between.


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