When it comes to beverage choice of the literati, the romantic image that comes to my mind is a smoky Parisian bar or Hemingway’s beachfront dive and hard liquor. I would have bet that coffeehouses were a relatively new addition to the scene – maybe because I’m not a coffee drinker? Our daughter’s recent fascination with all things coffee have taught me otherwise.
In Stewart Lee Allen’s The Devil’s Cup: A History of the World According to Coffee, she found this quote:
Other cafés evolved into centers for the arts and sciences. Isaac Newton hung out at the Grecian Coffeehouse; Will’s Café was the haunt of writers like Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope and painters like Hogarth frequented Old Slaughter’s.
Even better, in this caffeine-fueled environment, cafés became known for their genre:
As cafés became more specialized, keeping current by visiting became impractical. Then a man named Richard Steele decided to publish a weekly complication of the most interesting gossip collected from the coffeehouses. To help keep the cafés flavor, each section had a “correspondent’s desk” at the appropriate establishment: poetry came from Will’s Coffeehouse, foreign news from St. James Coffeehouse, arts and entertainment from White’s. Steele also had his “reporters” write in dialogue to give the reader the illusion he was actually sitting in a café overhearing a real conversation.
This round-up of writerly gossip gave us our current forms of writing dialogue:
“Until the time…writers had not practiced the studied simplicity of true conversation,” writes English literary historian Harold Routh. “It was here [at the coffeehouse] that men learnt to unravel literary ideals in a style that was colloquial as well as cultured….” Steele’s newsletter became Tatler, the first modern magazine.”
Nowdays, writers in coffee shops are more likely to be plugged into iTunes than sharing gossip, so my romantic image of the literary salon in whatever venue remains intact. Only the shape of the glass and content of the beverage has changed a bit.
Within two hundred years of Europe’s first cup, famine and the plague were historical footnotes. Governments became more democratic, slavery vanished, and the standards of living and literacy went through the roof. War became less frequent and more horrible. For better or worse, the ancient Ethiopian coffee prayer had been answered with a vengeance: Coffeepot give us peace, coffeepot let children grow, let our wealth swell, please protect us from evils.
I’ll stick with tea, thanks.
What’s your poison?