In his new book, Writing on the Wall, The Economist’s digital editor Tom Standage looks back at “social media” throughout history, from the papyrus scrolls that carried communiqués in the days of the the Roman empire to the Tudor-era Devonshire Manuscript. With social media as ubiquitous as it is today, we thought it would be fun to imagine what some of our favorite classic authors might say on Twitter. Who’d be hilarious, who’d be insufferable—and who would you follow, block, or unfollow?
The fin de siècle aesthete would have put the “wit” in “Twitter” (and caned us for making such a bad pun).
Twitter—along with the Internet in general—was made for people like Emily Dickinson, who, despite having an extraordinarily rich inner life and being one of the most prolific poets of the 19th century, barely ever left her room. The poet’s tweets would have been short and super-morbid (just the way we like ’em).
Stentorian pronouncements on art and culture like Susan Sontag’s were practically made for Twitter, where bracing pellets of truth find huge audiences.
Norman Mailer’s outsized personality garnered nearly as much attention as his work. If Twitter had been a thing back in his heyday, we’re guessing he’d pepper the Twitterverse with regular egomaniacal rants.
One of Twitter’s many charms is that it allows people to insult each other without getting punched, an advantage that could have saved the sharp-tongued Vidal some face (literally).
Virginia Woolf typically wrote in sentences that far exceeded 140 characters, but if she had the use of Twitter we think she’d definitely offer some pared-down dispatches from the goings-on in Bloomsbury, as well as bite-sized thoughts on feminism.
“Brevity is the soul of wit,” Shakespeare famously said. Twitter’s 140-character limit would’ve been perfect for the Bard’s pithiest quotables.
Flannery O’Connor’s short stories were full of twisted figures and macabre denouements (ever read “The Lame Shall Enter First” in “Everything That Rises Must Converge”?). We shudder at the thought of what she’d put on Twitter.
The Brontë sisters
Charlotte, Anne, and Emily Brontë were as close as sisters can be. They would’ve been each other’s biggest Twitter fans, favoriting/retweeting each other every five minutes, spamming the hell out of their followers. Sweet? We guess. Annoying? Yeah, kinda.
The beloved children’s book author had a fascinating life: Before he took up writing full-time, Dahl was a fighter pilot for the Royal Air Force and an intelligence officer. Like his short stories, his kids’ books were funny and dark. We think he would’ve had fun on Twitter playing with weird new words.
One hundred-forty characters is actually the ideal amount of space for a punchy joke or a keen aphorism, which is why Mark Twain would’ve had as many followers as Kim Kardashian. (Well, probably as many.)