The discovery of degrees of separation is supposed to have been a mid-20th century event. The story goes that Stanley Milgram invented this idea and did a famous experiment to show how many degrees of separation there are between two arbitrarily chosen persons. The experiment involved sending a package through the mail to an arbitrarily chosen person and telling that person that the package was intended for a certain other person. The receiver was to send the package to someone who might know the ultimate recipient. Milgram published his work in 1967.
All credit to Milgram. In an article on the small world hypothesis, as it is called in The Cut, Thomas Macmillan mentions some of Milgram’s predecessors:
‘Some thinkers, however, had been quietly wondering if apparently unconnected people might in fact be linked. The idea of six degrees of separation is sometimes traced to a 1929 essay by the Hungarian writer Frigyes Karinthy. And Milgram’s work was preceded by some calculations by political scientist Ithiel de Sola Pool and mathematician Manfred Kochen who in the 1950s estimated a greater than 50-percent chance that any two people could be linked by two intermediate acquaintances.”
However, I recently came across an essay by Leigh Hunt, written in 1834, which could have been called 6 degrees of William Shakespeare – instead of its real title, Social Geneology. Hunt’s idea is much like Milgrams, save for the fact that it is diachronic:
“It is a curious and pleasant thing to consider, that a link of personal acquaintance can be treaced up from the authors of our own times to those of Shakspeare, and to Shakspeare himself.”
And this is how Hunt diagrams the links:
With some living poets, it is certain. There is Thomas Moore, for instance, who knew Sheridan. Sheridan knew Johnson, who was the friend of Savage, who knew Steele, who knew Pope. Pope was intimate with Congreve, and Congreve with Dryden. Dryden is said to have visited Milton. Milton is said to have known Davenant ; and to have been saved by him from the revenge of the restored court, in return for having saved Davenant from the revenge of the Commonwealth. But if the link between Dryden and Milton, and Milton and Davenant, is somewhat apocryphal, or rather dependent on tradition (for Richardson, the painter, tells us the latter from Pope, who had it from Betterton the actor, one of Davenant's company), it may be carried at once from Dryden to Davenant, with whom he was unquestionably intimate. Davenant, then, knew Hobbes, who knew Bacon, who knew Ben Jonson, who was intimate with Beaumont and Fletcher, Chapman, Donne, Drayton, Camden, Selden, Clarendon, Sydney, Raleigh, and perhaps all the great men of Elizabeth's and James's time, the greatest of them all undoubtedly. Thus have we a link of " beamy hands " from our own times up to Shakspeare.
I love this list. Instead of the mystery of influence, which has long served as a linking word between the texts of authors, here we have a recognizable map of degrees of separation. It is a fun exercise to see how many degrees of separation one has from William Shakespeare. My map would go something like this: I interviewed Carol Muske-Dukes, who told me that she met her late husband at a party held at her friend Jorie Graham’s mother’s house. Jorie Graham’s mother is Beverly Pepper, a sculpture, who knew Martha Gellhorn, Ernest Hemingway’s wife. Hemingway knew Ford Maddox Ford, whose great aunt, Frances Rossetti, had a brother who was Lord Byron’s secretary. From Byron it is easy to proceed back down the links Leigh Hunt points to: Byron was great friends with Tom Moore, with whom he’d “go a-roving”, for instance. So from this I get 14 degrees from Will Shakespeare. I think I probably could do better than this if I cast a wider net. My grandfather’s father knew Mark Hanna, President McKinley’s eminence gris, due to the fact that he tried to sell the government on his torpedo invention; Hanna was on the board of directors of a railroad with Charles Francis Adams, Jr., Henry’s brother. Charles remembered John Quincey Adams, his grandfather, who, when merely a teen, worked with his father, John Adams, and Benjamin Franklin on diplomatic assignment in Paris during the American Revolution, and met the great whigs, among whom of course there was Sheridan. There are other ways I could do this: undoubtedly John Adam father knew Cotton Mather, whose own father was the child of the second marriage of John Cotton. John Cotton was the great debater and opponent of Roger Williams, the founder of Rhode Island. Roger Williams clerked under Sir Edward Coke, Elizabeth’s hardhearted justice, who investigated the Essex rebellion, which was lead by Shakespeare’s patron, and interrogated Shakespeare’s partner with the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, Augustine Phillips. I imagine Shakespeare at least knew of Coke, and probably met him. So I can end up anywhere from nine to eleven degrees from Shakespeare.
This is a great game, and if I were a coder, I’d make it into a Facebook quiz and earn a sum that I could retire on. Being merely a sucker, I give it away free and challenge one and all to top my degrees.