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3/1/19

Well, I haven't done this in awhile--write two entries in the same day--but I have to share this one. First of all, I think it's one of Mathew's best. Secondly, however, I want to use it to point out a few interconnections between his different pseudonyms. This is an easy one--but I can do this with all of them. I want to demonstrate to any skeptics that I am not merely indulging in magical thinking, when I claim these cross-correspondences between Mathew's known signatures, and the ones I am attributing to him which, say, are claimed by and for other authors (including famous ones).

Here we have a humorous sketch in the April 1, 1854 Portland (Maine) "Transcript." Already, given the date, we know that Mathew wanted it to be especially good. Whether this one is based in any degree on fact, we don't know. Most of his pieces are. I gather, from various clues, that he has been involved in some kind of local political service, or has run for an office locally, which didn't work out. The editor mentions it with regard to his character "Ethan Spike," as he briefly describes their major contributors; and "Spike," himself, explains he hasn't written in awhile because he's been busy seeking a government "office." So we know Mathew has been indisposed in some such capacity.

This one is signed "Paul Pickle." Mathew has used this pseudonym twice before, both in the 1852 "Transcript." The first, appearing on March 29, is a typical sketch of country courting, of a type that Mathew has written under many different signatures, including "Quails." The second, in the July 24 edition, is an adventure tale set in Spain. Mathew had written several of these, also, in years past, including under his proven pseudonym, "Poins." I have explained that Mathew has used many variations of double-"P" signatures, including Peter Popkins, Peter Pumple, and simply the initials, "P.P." They all appear to be based on a childhood nickname, "Peter Pumpkin." Here, we see that another vegetable is invoked. I presented the Spanish tale in a different context, in last month's entry of 2/16.

You will note that there is a reference to "unterrified voters" in the introduction to this piece. In Mathew's known "Ethan Spike" sketches, Mathew used the word "onterrified" six times. You will recall that this was a trademark, to substitute the prefix "on" for "un"; and that this pecularity shows up in the story that Samuel Clemens read at John Greenleaf Whittier's birthday party--being the one "Mathewsian" element he had forgotten to change when he set the story in California, and re-worked all of Mathew's Yankee slang.

A typical "Spike" mispelling is retained in this piece by "Paul Pickle"--"legislatoor." That word appears in five "Ethan Spike" sketches.

There are other typical clues to Mathew's authorship, as for example the irreverent mention of a military muster. Perhaps you will recognize a misspelling of the word "Uniquecorn" from Ethan Spike's 1862 open letter to President Lincoln, which I shared recently. But I'll just remind you that Mathew would re-use his favorite gags, as most comedians do, sometimes years later. He returns to this idea of lampooning a spelling bee, in the June 26, 1875 "Transcript." This is the latest "Ethan Spike" letter I found. I'll give you the original on this one--page one, and page two.

This piece, "A Leaf from My Journal," is Mathew Franklin Whittier at his best. This is what he was like when Abby fell in love with him--before crushing grief turned him into the "Great Cat Owl," who loves the night but hates the day; before he agonized over his faith, in "The Raven," trying desperately to infuse some whimsy into the situation. Nobody can touch Mathew when he's at the top of his game like this--not Seba Smith, not Charles Farrar Browne, not B.P. Shillaber, not Samuel Clemens*, not anybody.

The Portland "Transcript"
April 1, 1854

Written for the Transcript.
A LEAF FROM MY JOURNAL.

-----
By Paul Pickle.
-----
Once in my life, and once only, led away by the dazzle of worldly renown, I suffered my name to be used as a candidate for the office of School committee, and by one of those unaccountable freaks that will sometimes turn up in politics--got elected. I know I shall be pardoned my presumption in running for such a high office, by the unterrified voters of Pickleville, when I inform them that my bill for services rendered during my term was just one dollar, that being the sum allowed for each visit to a school; and as I visited but one during my career as a public servant, I am certainly entitled to that sum, however, if the town Fathers at their annual session are disposed to quibble at the amount I will suffer an abatement rather than have my character as an honest man doubted in the least.

Perhaps the reader would like an account of my call, so without farther digression I will come at once to the subject without letting the fear of the Fathers, or a deduction of my bill, prevent me from giving a plain unvarnished tale.

One fine morning while yet my political honors hung thick and heavy on my brow, I concluded to call on a school a few miles from my residence. A lurking desire to witness some little fun might have predominated over all thought of the worldly gain that would be mine after the operation was concluded. On arriving at my place of destination I gave a modest rap at a door that was most elaborately carved in all sorts of uncouth characters that exist nowhere else but in a schoolboy's brain and will leak out at the point of his jack-knife.

Instantly the hubbub in the school ceased as the teacher opened the door and admitted me; a general rising of the scholars ensued, and such an array as was presented to my view I shall not soon forget. Terrified looks greeted me from beneath piles of flax, as though I were some ogre come to devour them for past misdeeds, but order was soon restored and the business that my coming had interrupted recommenced with double vigor. The exercises in reading had been finished before my arrival, and the class in Geography "had the floor."

This class was despatched to their seats, and I had an opportunity to look about me. I soon observed a bright looking boy busily engaged in the mystery of pot hooks; after several unsuccessful digs in the inkstand before him he rose to his feet.

"Le mer seat?"

"What for?" demanded the teacher.

"Borrer sminker Jim."

A nod from the teacher, and he left his seat, but soon returned with a smiling face, having been successful in obtaining "sminker Jim," and recommenced his writing.--His stillness was not destined to be of long duration, for with a cry of pain he suddenly sprang up, upsetting his inkstand on his clean book.

"Master, master, John Roberts keeps sticking pins inter me er-er er," and with a prolonged sigh the little sufferer sat down.

"John Roberts, step this way. What are you sticking pins into him for?"

"I-er I-er, aint sticking pins inter him for?"

A smart application of the ferule, and John took his seat, effectually cured of his pin sticking propensities.

"Gwout?"

This was a new word to me, but a nod from the teacher and the disappearance of the boy informed me that that it was merely an abbreviation of the words, "May I go out."

Soon I noticed the master endeavoring to elucidate the mystery of a simple sum to a shock headed boy whose stupid look proved that it would be no mean task. Losing all patience the teacher commanded him to sit on the desk before him, and then turning to the scholars exclaimed,

"Scholars! observe, that for fifteen minutes Solomon does just as he has a mind to."

Instantly all eyes were turned in one direction. Sol bore the scrutiny like a hero for a few minutes, then he looked frightened and blubbered out, "I don't want to do jest as I'm a mind ter."

Recess was here announced, and Solomon left with the rest, but I noticed when the returned, Sol was missing, probably being better pleased with doing as he was "a mind ter" out of doors than in a school-room.

While the recess lasted the teacher informed me that once a week he had discussions or declaiming by his pupils. "I pride myself," he said, "on conducting them on pure legislative principles, a principle no other school has adopted, and in my opinion the only correct one, as it gives the lads a clear insight into the duties they may be called to perform in after life. After the school has spelled you will have an opportunity of witnessing and judging for yourself." I nodded acquiescence, as the master called in his pupils and ranged them in a column that reminded me of the Saccarappa Volunteers, under the command of the renowned Capt. Chippy, at a muster in "ye olden tyme." The spelling commenced.

"At the head, spell Yankee."

"Y-a-n, Yan, q-u o-e-y, kee--Yankee."

"The next."

No. two hit the mark and became No. one. The spelling now became quite brisk.

"At the head spell Unicorn."

"Y-o-u-g-h U, N-i-g-h ni, Q-u-o-r-n corn--Unicorn."

"Kwert--Quart"

This helped the matter considerably, and the scholar was sent to his seat in disgrace, where he amused himself by throwing paper pellets at his more fortunate comrades, and making grimaces at the teacher.

No more trouble occurred until near the close, when the word Aaron was given out, and missed. It went down nearly the whole line when the last but one spelt it to the teacher's satisfaction.

"Great A little a r-o-n ron--Aaron."

"That is right, take your place at the head."

The little fellow looked astonished, yet pleased in his new position, his hands being the greatest trouble to him. Not knowing what to do with them, he stood vainly endeavoring to bury them in each other, while a smile literally covered his countenance.

"That is what I call a smart scholar.--Now let Mr. Pickle hear you spell Fortification."

"F-o-r For t-y ti f-i-v-e, five. Fortyfive c-a-t-s cats Fortyfivecats."--Here he got lost in a labyrinth of letters, he stopped, blushed and a flood of tears relieved his pent up soul. He was soon quieted, and requested to spell Ramrod, but missed, and it went down the line faster than ever ramrod went before. I noticed one little urchin at the extreme foot, who betrayed considerable anxiety and satisfaction as it was serially tried and missed. Happy moment! the one above him was trying it, how his eyes protruded from their sockets, as with one foot advanced, "His soul in arms and eager for the fray," 'tis missed.

"Great ram, little ram r-o-d rod--Ram-rod," burst from his lips, as he started for the head at a run. This ended the spelling, and the Legislative proceedings commenced. A speaker was chosen, and the business of the preceding meeting was read, and the "Maine Law" was introduced as the "bill" for discussion. At this moment a weak voice piped out--

"I move we adjourn."

"Why do you make that motion?"

"'Cause papy says a motion to adjourn is first in order in the legislatoor, and told me to try it on sometime."

The teacher looked perplexed and referred the matter to me; but I declined interfering, and the motion was put and carried with some confusion, and in a few moments I heard their merry voices far away, shouting with joy to find themselves suddenly transformed from dull thinking machines into bright rational beings, while I

  My visit spent, my dollar earned,
  Slowly to my home returned.

It occurred to me (overnight) that I have said Mathew embeds deeper layers of meaning into his humorous works. This one is pretty straightforward, but even so, he can't help having "Solomon" doing "just as he has a mind ter," while being forced, under scrutiny by Authority and Society, into proclaiming that he doesn't want to do "just as he has a mind ter"--after which he leaves Society altogether, to do as he pleases. (There's enough symbolism in that for a rather large book, or at least a very long essay.) It also occurred to me that there's a brief, unsigned story in the Aug. 16, 1856 edition of the Portland "Transcript," which I felt certain was Mathew's work, even though the editor of that paper, Edward Elwell, also wrote in this vein, having published a book in 1884 (the year after Mathew's death) entitled "The Boys of Thirty-Five" about his own childhood. Elwell was a very competent writer, but he didn't quite have Mathew's flair. Now that I've found one I can definitely attribute to Mathew via identified pseudonym, this one, published in the same paper two years later, is that much more likely to be Mathew's work, as well. I think you can see the subtle style similarities. Certainly, one sees his irreverent attitude toward war enactments, and his penchant for using inline poetry quotations:

A Sudden Arrest

Two parties of ragged and rowdy boys, in one of our principle streets, the other day, were engaged in a regular battle, in which the stones flew thick and fast, the shouts rang loud and defiant, and “the rush of adverse battalions, the flight, the pursuit,” and the rallying again, were all performed according to “the rules of war.” In the thick of the combat, a red-headed urchin, with shirt-tail flying like a cheftain’s pennon, led on his party to the attack with all the chivalry of a Bayard. Suddenly there emerged from a gateway in his rear an enraged female, “with streaming hair and heaving breast,” who, making a swift descent upon the red-haired leader of the host, grabbed him by the nape of the neck, and tweaked his ear most unmercifully. Our hero was not prepared for such “a fire in the rear,” and was completely squelched. His defiant courage suddenly oozed out of his bottomless trowsers, and he went off the field, cringing and snuffling most ingloriously. The awe-struck ragamuffins, deprived of their leader, slunk from the field, and “the fight was o’er.”--Such are the vicissitudes of war!

Best regards,

Stephen Sakellarios, M.S.

*I have read that Clemens wrote, in private correspondence, that this was the best story he ever wrote. I wonder whether he actually said it was the "best story he never wrote," but some scholar edited it, not believing he could have actually meant to write that. One would have to access the original letter manuscript, which I don't have the funds for.

 

Music opening this page: "U Can't Touch This," by M.C. Hammer,
from the album, "Please Hammer, Don't Hurt 'Em"

 

   

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