One more point occurred to me upon waking up this morning, which I'm not sure I've ever touched on. For anyone new to this blog, my eight years of research into my 19th-century past life, as Mathew Franklin Whittier (younger brother of poet John Greenleaf Whittier), has convinced me that when he was a young man, he co-wrote, along with his wife, Abby Poyen Whittier, the original version of "A Christmas Carol"; and that after her death in 1841, he was the original author of "The Raven."
I claim these things simply because they came up in my research. Mathew wrote anonymously (partly, I suspect, at Abby's Victorian urging)--and because so many of his works were of such high quality, it was (as I have said, before) like leaving a Ferrari parked on the street, unattended, with the keys in the ignition. It was, in short, a no-brainer that his work would be claimed, plagiarized and imitated.
But the point I wished to make is, that those pieces which became famous probably wouldn't have been famous, if they hadn't been stolen. So much of fame is arbitrary; so much of it has to do with hype, and the aura surrounding the author; and so much of it has to do with appeal to the lowest common denominator. This last factor usually requires an unholy symbiotic relationship between a spiritual author, which is to say, a true genius who is drawing his inspiration from a real muse; and a shyster, who steals the work and waters it down for popular consumption. If you have only the former, society at large is unable to recognize it as a work of genius; and if you have only the latter, the shyster is unable to create a work of power which, even in its distorted form, touches something deep within the sleeping breast.
This was demonstrated in one of Mathew's own works. In the fall of 1849, when he began traveling the New England states as a postal inspector, he began a series of travelogue letters to the editor of the Boston "Weekly Museum," under the non-de-plume of "Quails." Why he chose this name isn't entirely clear, but I think it encompasses a number of references. It may be a reference to his authorship of "The Raven" (that poem having been written, in its first legitimate publication, under "----- Quarles"). It may have been a reference to his upbringing as a Quaker, inasmuch as Quakers were disparagingly called "Shakin' Quakers" because of their rejection of violence and war. In any case, this series became quite popular, and as Mathew had done before, he was actually driving up the subscription rate of this paper from behind the scenes, with this series. Gradually, some of his fellow writers got the idea that it was written by a slapstick comic singer named Ossian Dodge, who appears to have been a friend of the editor who had taken over the paper soon after it was launched. Together, the editor and Dodge fostered the rumor, until it stuck. Toward the end of the paper's life, in mid-1852, the editor, Charles A.V. Putnam, was actually saying in bold print that Dodge was "Quails"; and Dodge did nothing to dissuade him; until finally, Dodge himself, being wealthy from his performing work, bought out the paper and announced himself editor-in-chief.
When he did so, "Quails" disappeared; and the paper suddenly began reflecting Dodge's own character. "Quails" was a liberal (actually, a closet radical), who was a veritable font of raw creativity; whereas Dodge was a conservative racist who had to buy all his best material, being incapable of creating that level of work, himself.
I can prove by a preponderance of the evidence, and several strong stand-alone pieces of evidence, that Dodge could not possibly have been "Quails"--and that Mathew was actually writing the series. What confused people--and myself, for some time--is that Mathew was also personal friends with Dodge (being a sucker for con-artists), and traveled with him at times. The postal inspector position involved periodic layoffs between trips; during one of these lay-offs Mathew remained in Boston, from where he submitted a number of humorous sketches (precisely in the style of his earlier work); but on at least one occasion, during one of his layoffs, he accompanied Dodge on a performance tour, and may have even ghost-written some of his material. This is what confused people--because at times, "Quails'" itinerary would match Dodge's.
All that to come to this--in 1856, Mathew took up this travelogue again, for another paper, the Portland "Transcript" (which he had written for, off-and-on, since the early 1840's, himself having been a long-time resident of Portland). Now, instead of being a traveling postal inspector, he had his own trading business, which took him up to Detroit and back. He adopted the pseudonym "J.O.B.," and a new persona. "Quails" had supposedly been an elderly gentleman who worked in some mysterious capacity for the U.S. government; but "J.O.B." started out as a student, taking a break from his studies. "J.O.B." begins with a very broad hint that he had been "Quails," and there is more I won't get into--because he leaves another hint that he is telling this to me, his future incarnation. You think I've arrived at this conclusion by magical thinking--but, no. He makes an out-of-context reference to the "Lethean stream" in this introduction to the first number--and I know, from over a thousand examples of his writing, how he used these kinds of references.
That Mathew would create a persona to hide his identity while writing these travelogues, is proven when he writes during a second (and third) trip the following year. Now, suddenly, the former student has a wife and small children, who are relocating with him to Detroit. These identity fictions threw me for a loop when I was first trying to match Mathew's personal life with them. But he had a good reason to be cautious--he was working clandestinely for the Abolitionist cause. Writing as "Quails," it appears that he was acting as a secret liaison for William Lloyd Garrison; and we find "J.O.B." traveling, in Detroit, with black radical Abolitionist William Lambert, who ran the Underground Railroad there. Oh, do you know how I finally clinched it that Dodge was not "Quails"? "Quails" says he has seen "a Boston boy" perform in Rochester, not far from Dodge's home town. But Frederick Douglass, in his own newspaper, tells us that Dodge performed there during the right time-period. So Mathew was visiting Douglass, while traveling with Dodge, and both had seen Dodge perform in Rochester.* Dodge was home in New York State to attend his father in his father's final illness, and took time out to perform a show. If "Quails" were Dodge, he could not have reported seeing himself perform. What it tells us, is that Mathew was visiting Douglass in his capacity as a secret liaison for Garrison, with the public, and their enemies, being none the wiser. He found an excuse to mention that he had been in Rochester, specifically to report that he had, in fact, contacted Douglass--but he couldn't mention Dodge by name, so he referred to him as a "Boston boy." (Normally, Mathew would name performers by way of plugging them.) In this way, Mathew would report his contacts and his itinerary in this public travelogue, for all of Garrison's agents. Perhaps it was safer than writing letters, which could be opened. Certainly, it would have been cheaper and more efficient. Mathew would have let the public continue to think that "Quails" was Dodge, to deepen his cover--while still dropping broad hints, in the travelogue, that this was incorrect. In fact he dropped hints to both effects--obvious hints that Dodge was "Quails," and then, in the same piece, subtle hints that he wasn't. Mathew even ties "Quails" to his character "Ethan Spike"--but in 1852, he had not yet been "outed" as Spike. That would happen in 1857.
I keep telling you, this is an interesting book.
But the point here is, that "J.O.B." is written every bit as well as "Quails" (and there were so many cross-references in style, I gave up trying to cite them all, in my book). But "J.O.B.'s" travelogue series goes in one of the public's ears and out the other. It isn't even a footnote in history--whereas "Quails" became somewhat famous, in its day, because it was thought to have been written by Dodge, a public figure who had become famous with goofy songs he purchased from other people. Having a rubber face, he could sing them while clowning to the general public's amusement.
In the same way, if "A Christmas Carol" hadn't been reworked (read, watered down) by Dickens, and "The Raven" hadn't been claimed by Poe, these works, too, in all probability, wouldn't have become famous, and we would have never heard of them, today.**
Perhaps some of my younger readers still haven't heard of them. Ringo Starr told of being interviewed by a young reporter about his involvement in the PBS children's series, "Shining Time Station." He was asked the question, "What did you do before you started working on the show?" He answered, "Oh, I was in a band."
Stephen Sakellarios, M.S.
*Douglass mentions he was "proscribed," i.e., he wasn't permitted to sit in the white section, a situation which came up, presumably, because he and Mathew went together.
**That the "Carol" is associated with Dickens, causes people to assume it is a story of Christmas, or perhaps of social reform, with a ghost-story thrown in for effect; whereas it was actually a metaphysical work of personal and Alchemical transformation (Abby's contribution), as well as a work of social reform (both Mathew and Abby's, together). Similarly, because "The Raven" is associated with Poe, it is taken to be a horror poem, whereas actually it is a grief poem, where humor is inserted in a desperate attempt to grapple with grief; and there is a great deal of symbolism. The initial portrayal of the grieving person reading ancient tomes but finding no relief, would have been literal and autobiographical, for Mathew--it was Abby, herself, who had taught him these things, when he had begun as a skeptic. Now that he was facing the full blast of grief, they weren't "sticking," which is the theme of the poem. This is precisely what C.S. Lewis writes about, when his philosophy failed him after the death of his wife. The "bust of Pallas" guarding the door of his mind, is Abby, or Abby's influence, as his teacher in metaphysics (I have several pieces of evidence regarding Pallas/Athena, and Mathew's frequent use of the word "palladium"); the Raven, of course, is the physical reality of death. Mathew's brother, John Greenleaf Whittier, had many years earlier published (i.e., Mathew had published it for him, in the newspaper where he was acting as junior editor) a poem of the same name, "The Raven," so that this symbolism was known within the Whittier family--probably as a superstition taught them by their mother.
Music opening this page: "Brilliant Room" by Eric Johnson, from the album, "Up Close"