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Year-in-Reviews from The Dominion Post’s predecessors

The advent of a new year is always a time for reflection and contemplation on the year that was. We look back on accomplishments, as well as missteps, in the hopes that we can do better in the new year. This tradition has existed as long as humans have celebrated new years, so much so that it is part of the reason we celebrate the new year in January at all.

When Julius Caesar introduced a new calendar in 45 B.C., he chose January as the first month in part because of the month’s namesake: Janus. A two-faced god, Janus had the unique ability to simultaneously look back on the previous year and forward into the new year. The symbolism was too good for the emperor to pass up.

Reflecting and reviewing has long been a tradition for newspapers as well. You may have noticed in the past few days The Dominion Post running “year-in-review” stories. This year I’ll leave the reviews of the year to my colleagues and instead take a look much further back, to the 1850s.

It appears the year in review was also a popular practice among the staff of the Monongalia Mirror, a weekly newspaper published in Morgantown in the mid-19th century, before West Virginia was even a state. However, what makes the Monongalia Mirror’s annual review interesting was the choice, year after year, to present their review in the form of a poem.

Titled “Carrier’s Annual Message” and addressed “to the patrons of the Monongalia Mirror,” the poem summarized the year’s top stories and events. Unfortunately, we only have access to two examples from 1852 and 1853, but they are enough to provide interesting insight into the news appetite of the day. The majority of the poems are made up by national and international stories, with only a few lines dedicated to local issues at the very end.

“The Republic of FRANCE/ Has been knock’d all askance/ And an Emperor governs its state/ With more honor than’s due/ To the young bantling Lou/ Of the house of Napoleon the Great!” quips the 1852 review. This is a reference to Napoleon III, Napoleon Bonaparte’s nephew, crowning himself emperor after one term as president.

Similarly, in the 1853 review the author mentions, “The rebellion in CHINA, (the event of the year)/ Has made her great Emperor tremble with fear,” a reference to the Taiping Rebellion.

Contrary to the modern view we have of the region as being isolated and remote, these poems’ playful phrasing reflect a keen knowledge and understanding of international and national events.

The writers of these “Carrier’s Annual Message” do seem to have enjoyed the rare opportunity to write in verse and took full advantage of the artistic freedom.

The author introduced the topic of the 1852 presidential election with the stanza, “In the year FIFTY-TWO/ We had much ado/As to who should preside o’er this nation,/ And parties fought hard,/ While they stood on their guard, /And each had their man for the station.”

The poem communicated the election’s winner with, “The Democracy fierce,/ Under General Frank Pierce/ Rather carried the day I’m informed.”

Today, Pierce is not a well-remembered figure. Besides policies that set the stage for the American Civil War, Pierce’s administration presented ill-advised plans to annex Cuba from Spain.

The annexation of Cuba was actually mentioned in the 1852 poem, and the triplet, “We’ve enough wealth without it/ Surely no one can doubt it/ To ‘annex’ it, at present, were vain,” makes it seem that the writers thought the annexation was bad policy long before Pierce ever took his oath of office.

Turning attentions locally, the author wrote optimistically in 1852 about planned expansions of the C&O canal, referenced as “Slack-water,” or the B&O railroad to the Morgantown area.

“AT HOME here we’re waking, And stock will be taking/ In Slack-water, Rail-road and steam! /Then trade will revive/ And our industry thrive/ In the valley of our beautiful stream!” they said.

By the next year, however, hopes for the canal reaching Morgantown had already been dashed, and the author instead turned their hopes to a new transportation phenomenon: A bridge across the Monongahela.

“The long talked of Bridge is in building at last/ The work, altho’ tedious, has progressed very fast/ And before a year more (if you’ll believe the conjecture) / The River’ll be spanned by that beautiful structure,” the poem reads.

It seems even our ancestors couldn’t help but talk at length about local transportation issues, but this story at least has a happy ending. That “beautiful structure” was, in fact, completed the following year, and in 1854, Morgantown dedicated a suspension bridge spanning into Westover. Though a few iterations removed from the one mentioned in the poem, we still rely on a bridge in the very same spot to this day.

Though look back we may/ In past years we can’t stay/ For, ever forward, time marches on./ The Mirror did rhyme/ When a new year did chime/ So I’ll try a tradition bygone.
And now to conclude/ With a rhyme rather crude/ Since verse is not my strong suit./ I bid you good entry/ To the year 2020!/ May it bring you good cheer and much loot.

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