As promised (well, not really, more like "as intimated"), I am going to give you a comparison of Samuel Clemens' first humorous work, and Mathew Franklin Whittier's first known humorous work. I have to add a caveat that I have reason to believe this is Mathew's first work. Here it is signed "P," in a publication which clearly has other work of his. It appears in the first edition, for Sept. 1831, of a publication called "The Essayist," which was the journal put out by a Boston young men's club. As it appears to me, members--and perhaps their families--were encouraged to submit to it, and given that Mathew was one of the more talented writers in the group, his is one of the first which appears in it. About 10 years later, he will be signing as "Poins," so that "P" is a logical pseudonym for him--and I have other instances of him using it. Primarily, however, I know it by style. The only other contemporary New England writer using in a somewhat similar style, was Seba Smith, creator of "Major Jack Downing." Smith, age 39 (hardly a young man at that time) had launched the "Downing" character the previous year. But this is flat-down-the-line Mathew's style. I know, not only because I recognize it intuitively, but because I have studied hundreds of his works.
In the early 1850's, Mathew appears to have become a financially invested silent partner in a Boston weekly newspaper called the "Carpet-Bag." Officially, you will find mainstream historians saying that he wrote only variations of his "Ethan Spike" character for that paper (which is, they say, just about all he wrote for any paper). Actually, he practically drove the paper's look and style. The handful of regulars who launched it, tried to look like a much larger pool, and so wrote under multiple pseudonyms. Many of them imitated Mathew's style (some, quite flagrantly, as I have documented). Mathew was spinning off characters, series and pseudonyms at a phenomenal rate, until finally he was forced out because of his secretly radical views, and the paper died a quiet death from mediocrity. The "Carpet-Bag" was launched in April (all papers traditionally began a new volume in April) of 1851; in 1852, a 16-year-old Samuel Clemens submitted one short humorous piece.
I hate to criticize anyone's work at age 16; but clearly, he was imitating what he had seen in these papers--and clearly, at this early stage, he didn't know how to tell a joke. At least that's my reaction. It's well-written, if it was a journalistic account--but it has no build-up, and it has no punchline. It sort of sits there and tries to be funny.
Unfortunately, I don't have anything from Mathew at the same age. The best I can do is to compare with this first sketch in "The Essayist," at which time he was 19. So I am having to compare a 16-year-old's writing with that of a 19-year-old. Still, you'll get the idea. To Mathew, who was clearly a prodigy and hit the ground running, looking already very much like he would at the height of his literary career, Samuel Clemens was just a kid who was trying his hand at the genre.
Another writer who would later be famous, Charles Farrar Browne, also got his start on the "Carpet Bag." He was a printer's apprentice in 1852 (from memory, now), and he took it upon himself to insert his own story into the paper. If you look him up, you may see this as the official account of how he got his start. But it wasn't his story that he used. It was Mathew's story; or rather, it was a re-working of one of Mathew's stories. That story had already been stolen and published in another paper, "Gleason's Pictorial," by a known plagiarist, Francis Durivage. Whether Browne got it directly from Mathew, or from Durivage, is unknown. But what Browne did, to get his start, was to rework one of Mathew's sketches, insert it into the "Carpet-Bag" on his own, and get recognition for it. Browne became a successful imitator of Mathew's character, "Ethan Spike"; but Mathew never seems to have publicly begrudged it, so far as I can see. He (Mathew) even wrote a very favorable review of one of Browne's public gigs, in later years. Mathew had, after all, taken a great deal of inspiration from Seba Smith's "Major Jack Downing," and really couldn't complain if someone took inspiration from him. But taking inspiration, with open tribute, is not the same as surrpetitiously stealing someone's ideas and claiming them as one's own. Mathew never did that. In fact, his first "Ethan Spike" story was titled in such a way as to make clear it was an open tribute to Smith; and when Mathew launched his character, Smith's character had been in hiatus for about 10 years, and so far as he knew, would never be resurrected.
Much later, I believe that Mathew ghost wrote the story that got Samuel Clemens in such hot water, when the latter read it at Mathew's brother's birthday party. But that's another story. Clemens, also, was treated to a very favorable review by Mathew, who describes his comic act in a way I have never seen before, as a sort of unintentional bumbler who got laughs for it.
Samuel Clemens also became famous for his travelogues, later in life. I wonder how much inspiration he took from Mathew's 1849-52 travelogues, under the name "Quails," which were falsely claimed for and by an entertainer named Ossian Dodge. But Clemens' travelogues are a little different, in one respect--they are worldly in essence, and cynical, whereas Mathew's travelogues had spirituality behind them. If you are worldly, you won't know what I'm talking about, not having a point of comparison. Of course, if you are trying to be famous with a world full of worldly people, you have to be worldly, yourself, ipso facto. The spiritual person is never going to win the popularity contest in a worldly society. So while Mathew's travelogue achieved a certain acclaim for the entertainer, while they thought he was writing it, they didn't achieve the fame that Clemens' travelogues did. That's why. Mathew's were every bit as well written. Below, you will see Mathew begin with what seems to be a straight travelogue, only to seamlessly nest a story, complete with dialect and a surprise ending, into it.
Without further ado, below is Samuel Clemens' first published attempt at humorous writing, published in the paper that Mathew was part-owner of, and a major secret contributor to, in 1852. Then, below that, I will place Mathew's very first published humorous piece, from the Sept. 1831 edition of "The Essayist."
Some other time, I may show you the paranormal/horror short story that Mathew wrote and published contemporaneously with Edgar Allan Poe. There is one major difference--Mathew's story was based on a true paranormal account, being simply (and admittedly) embellished, rather than made up entirely in horrific fancy, as Poe used to do. The writing compares very favorably, I would say--and Poe is almost certain to have seen it, as it appeared in a major New England family paper, the Portland "Transcript." As said, that's for another day.
My purpose is to show that I am not blowing smoke when I say that Mathew may have been co-author (with his wife, Abby) of "A Christmas Carol," and author of "The Raven." Plagiarism was rampant during this era; and the people who became famous may very well have been the ones who could market (and in some cases, the ones who could steal and convince the public it was their own work), rather than the ones who could write. Not so different from today, probably, if the truth were known.
From the May 1, 1852 edition of "The Carpet-Bag."
The Dandy Frightening the Squatter
About thirteen years ago, when the now flourishing young city of Hannibal, on the Mississippi River, was but a "wood-yard," surrounded by a few huts, belonging to some hardy "squatters," and such a thing as a steamboat was considered quite a sight, the following incident occurred:
A tall, brawny woodsman stood leaning against a tree which stood upon the bank of the river, gazing at some approaching object, which our readers would easily have discovered to be a steamboat.
About half an hour elapsed, and the boat was moored, and the hands busily engaged in taking on wood.
Now among the many passengers on this boat, both male and female, was a spruce young dandy, with a killing moustache, &c., who seemed bent on making an impression upon the hearts of the young ladies on board, and to do this, he thought he must perform some heroic deed. Observing our squatter friend, he imagined this to be a fine opportunity to bring himself into notice; so, stepping into the cabin, he said:
"Ladies, if you wish to enjoy a good laugh, step out on the guards. I intend to frighten that gentleman into fits who stands on the bank."
The ladies complied with the request, and our dandy drew from his bosom a formidable looking bowie-knife, and thrust it into his belt; then, taking a large horse-pistol in each hand, he seemed satis- fied that all was right. Thus equipped, he strode on shore, with an air which seemed to say "The hopes of a nation depend on me." Marching up to the woodsman, he exclaimed:
"Found you at last, have I? You are the very man I've been looking for these three weeks! Say your prayers!" he continued, presenting his pistols, "you'll make a capital barn door, and I shall drill the key-hole myself!"
The squatter calmly surveyed him a moment, and then, drawing back a step, he planted his huge fist directly between the eyes of his astonished antagonist, who, in a moment, was floundering in the turbid waters of the Mississippi.
Every passenger on the boat had by this time collected on the guards, and the shout that now went up from the crowd speedily restored the crest-fallen hero to his senses, and, as he was sneaking off towards the boat, was thus accosted by his conqueror:
"I say, yeou, next time yeou come around drillin' key-holes, don't forget yer old acquaintances!"
The ladies unanimously voted the knife and pistols to the victor.
From "The Essayist," Vol. I, Sept. 1831
Travelling in the West.
I had been dragged by four lazy horses, in a jolting wagon, under the care of a long Scotchman, to the Falls of Niagara. They tell me that some have gone away disappointed at the cataract--that they have gone away, as though what they had taken to be a boundless ocean, rushing into a depth unimaginable, with a noise like the shout of ten thousand archangels, had turned out to be nothing but a small millstream, tumbling awkwardly over a broad plank. It was not so with me; the immense bodies of ice close in the teeth of the cataract--the fearful volume of water--the depth into which it fell--the crash of its descent, and last of all, and most sublime, the clouds of spray that poured continuously up, like the smoke from the mouths of a legion of cannon--all formed a scene exceeding greatly all my former ideas of it. There is only one thing in which I was disappointed, and that was the noise at a distance: it has been greatly exaggerated. I had been surprised, contrary to my expectations, for I had been afraid of being disappointed. So thanking heaven that I was not so much sans taste, as one who asked where the Notch of the White Hills was after passing it, (a story which Crawford will tell you with great glee,) I proceeded on to Buffalo. People who wish for a subject to wonder at, should look in upon Rochester and Buffalo, cities as they are almost, grown up as they have in what was but a little time since a wilderness, and my word for it, they will feel some little astonishment. They are to be incorporated cities before long. Rochester will do passing well as a name, but the other--suppose they call it by the proper name of the American animal, the city of Bison. The name is altogether out of character. Passing all this, however, as matter of little import, I proceed to quote from memory some passages which are there laid up, with a special reference to you which are gathered.
It was about one of the morning when I left the door of the Eagle, and inserted myself into another narrow and long Dutch wagon. Think that a man cannot be waked from a sound sleep, blunder into his clothing, and stumble down stairs, and into a stage, all in the space of some five minutes, without feeling a great disposition to peevishness. Why then should I not? There I was, sitting on one seat, and extending my legs out over another, which was too near me to admit of their being placed between, while every jolt of the cart gave me serious apprehensions of some bodily injury. I had been worse off before, however. The stage between Rochester and Lewiston had broken down, and as the provident stage company had laid up all of its coaches in Rochester--for which may heaven cause them to ride in Ohio!--we were forced to travel twenty miles or more in a common wagon with ten in it, and a large quantum of mails and trunks--some of us sitting and some lying on the knees of others; after which every trouble was easy.
It was a cold and chilly morning; so wrapping myself in my cloak, I betook myself to my reflections till daylight, when I looked round to take a view of my companions. There was my friend, to whom you have already been introduced, sound asleep just before me; by my side was a long Yankee from Vermont, on his way to Detroit, and two men of the same extraction from the shores of Seneca Lake, who were going the same way; and the remaining traveller was a little keen eyed fellow with a thin nose, who was settled somewhere in Pennsylvania. We had a long and dull ride on the shore of the lake; at one time dragged through the sand, at another through a muddy road that was as bad, while on one side were bare trees on the edge of a swampy ground, and on the other a field of ice as far as could be seen. In the course of the day we stopped at a little village on the lake, and observed a house of peculiar appearance. It was a strange mixture of English and Dutch architecture. The end of it stood into the street, and the front door, so to speak, was on the side of the house; the roof on one side was much wider than on the other, and sloped much nearer to the ground; and for ornament to the fabric there was a chef d'oeuvre of art in the shape of a window, nearly up to the roof, on the end of which looked into the road. It was a representation of a globe, with all its meridians and parallels, and it needed no skill to discover that such an idea could only have found birth within the cranium of a Dutchman. In each end of what would be called in New England the back part of the house, was apparently a small room, and between these was a space opened to the air, and surrounded with a railing. If you add to this that the house, fences and out-building were all painted red, you have as good an idea of the place as I can give you.
After we had started from this place, our little Pennsylvanian, upon some inquiries which I made, gave me the following history, which I shall take a pleasure in presenting to you as nearly as I can in his own words.
The site of the little village of Alexander, which we have just left, had lain, heaven knows how long, buried under a vast forest, or rather a succession of them, which had risen and fallen, and given birth to other forests, since, perhaps, the creation of the world--when of a sudden a company of thin-visaged New Hampshire men, with nether accoutrements which had been made for them when they were boys, and coats which were made for their grandfathers, each with a red-cheeked and broad-waisted wife, and some with a host of white-headed urchins, the future clearers of the territory beyond the Mississippi, made their appearance among the astounded trees. The natural order of succession was interrupted, and trees that might to all appearances have lived on for some fifty years longer, were tumbled down with little remorse amid the ruins of their forefathers, upon which they had grown. It is hardly worth while to follow the growth of the village; suffice it to say that there was soon a wonderful increase in the matter of future settlers, and that it was not long before a schoolmaster was found for them, who also performed, and all for a small salary, the duties of a preacher. It was never known what caused republicans, so stern as they were, to call their village by the name of a tyrant; I never could discover--but doubtless you remember the anecdote which Flint tells in his review; if not, 't is too good to be lost. He says that the people in a certain state were about to give a name to their capital. They had held a long debate upon the matter, when a wag observed with a serious air, that there had been a nation who were great friends and lovers of all the arts and sciences--that they were called Vandals. It was voted nem. dis. that the town should be called Vandal, and for euphony, adding another syllable, they made of it Vandalia.
I know not in what year it was that a new vehicle entered the street, for they had but one in Alexander. It was much such a wagon as we have just now vacated for this comfortable coach. It was loaded with a few pieces of furniture, and some little merchandize, and its occupants were one Dutchman and a little girl. They are both described in a moment. He was just short and stout and stolid enough to form a Dutchman, but not a caricature. She was a beautiful little fairy, with fair hair and dark eyes, and as unlike a Dutch girl as might reasonably be supposed. The man descended at the door of the Macedonian hotel, and calling for the landlord gave him his directions.--
'You gan take dese horse to der stable and give dem der oats, which is petter as gorn--and do you take dis box under your arm wit care--and you may take dis girl to your vroom.'
So saying, he sententiously stuck his hands into the pockets of his broad coat, and walked off.
'Well now, if that do n't beat all,' ejaculated honest Samuel Pulsifer, the deacon and innkeeper of the village--'and if them nags a'n't pretty slick; confound it! how heavy the box is--and the little girl is wonderfully pretty.' So looking after the Dutchman a moment, he followed his directions.
It was an hour before the stranger returned. He walked into the bar-room, and sitting down betook himself to his pipe. It was now getting towards evening, and the bar-room began to fill, and a regular fire of questions was opened upon the stranger--and in good truth there was some excuse for it, for the village was almost shut out from the world, and the arrival of a stranger was a rare occurrence. He discovered no reluctance to answer in monosyllable to any question not relating to himself--and these were not put him by the New Englanders, who were, though I speak contrary to the common opinion, too well supplied with a natural politeness to inquire broadly and at once about his concerns. A Scotchman saved them the trouble. He asked him successively:
'Ye'll be frae the auld coontrie? Ha! then haply frae Rhode Island? Deevil!--Vermoont? Sanfus! Frae the auld Bay State? Weel then; ye think I dinna ken whar ye coom frae, but I keen weel enoof--ye're frae the fair valley of the siller Mohawk--hae na I guessed richt now.'
'Der Deyvil! you are five times as worse as der Yankese,' was all the answer he obtained.
Not deterred by this, he inquired if it was his ain bairn he had brought with him--and received for answer a cool and Dutch (and if you cannot conceive of it by this description, I have done) 'ya.'
The Dutchman now inquired for the owner of the land on which the house is now built which you remarked so particular, and found that it belonged to the landlord of the inn. He soon made a bargain for it, and engaged a carpenter, (who might have been Hiram Doolittle himself, for aught I know to the contrary--at any rate their work was similar, except that the judge was less obstinate than the Dutchman,) who insisted upon at least a share in planning the house. In due time the building was finished--such as you saw it but lately; a house-keeper engaged, whose only qualification insisted upon was taciturnity; a store opened in which the stranger, Dierck Voorhies, appeared as owner, salesman and book-keeper; and our little girl Helen put under the care of the good preacher and schoolmaster, Everard Hall, where she made a strange and wonderful improvement. Twelve years made an astonishing difference in the village, as well as in its inhabitants. There were now two churches glittering in all the splendor of white paint and tinned steeples. The old inn had been made to give way to a more imposing building; two or three new stores had sprung up; and some one or two fashionable young men had made their appearance, simultaneously as it were, with some other exotics, which had found a place in the garden of our old Dutch friend. He was unchanged; his store and his sign had been transformed, but there was no change in him; he had remained untouched, while the innkeeper had grown old, and taken to his spectacles, and while the little girl whom we first saw as a little fairy had grown up to the size and beauty of womanhood. Her form was full and rich, but not redundant; her hair had deepened its hue, and become of a dark and glossy brown, shading in dark profusion her high and white forehead; her eyes too had become almost black, yet without any of that wild fierceness which you will often see in such an eye, but full of a soft and perhaps melancholy expression. Nothing could be more Grecian than the nose, or more delicious than the lip, rather thin than full as it was; and nothing rounder and more finely chiselled than the neck; and you might scarcely expect to find a more lovely being paddling in her canoe upon the broad lake, or fleeing like a fairy along the sands. It may well be supposed that she was not without lovers. There was the young doctor, who cast many a tender glance at her through his spectacles--and a young clerk or two who founded their claim to favor upon a certain undefined gentility, and an immense gilt watch chain; yet she was not easily won.
There had been warm weather for some days, in April, and of a sudden there came up a storm on the lake. The waves roared and dashed like those of the sea, and the winds blow violently. In the midst of the storm Helen went down to the sore of the lake. It was a terrible sight. To the north the lake was open and clear of ice, but white with foam, like a broad ocean in the night. Southward was a field of ice extending even to the river Niagara, and now and then by the tremendous force of the wind tossed up and swelling and crushing into powder, and blowing away before the wind. Such a commotion, from its contrast with the common stillness of the lake, is more terrible than it would be on the sea. As she stood gazing, a schooner came in right round a point of land three or four miles distant, bearing down directly towards the shore under bare poles. While she gazed, a voice near her ejaculated--'De deyvil! wit dat rate dey will run ashore sooner as they will do something else.' Indeed it seemed so--the vessel was coming down directly towards them. Where they stood was a sandy sore for about a quarter of a mile, while above and below for a considerable distance the shores were rock-bound. The suspense did not last long; they were evidently preparing to run aground. As she drew nearer she sailed more slowly. She seemed laden to the water's edge. A current struck her, and the wind blow through her rigging without moving her. She was stationary a moment--she quivered--and went down. She had been filling with water for some time. The greater part of her crew were saved--and two of them, particularly our friend Dierck, plunged into the lake to row out. These were a middle aged man, in the uniform of a British officer, and a young man, who, when he reached the shore, was quite insensible. They were taken to the Dutch house--and when Edward Craighead, son of Captain Craighead of his majesty's forces, recovered his senses, he saw Helen bending over him, and said some very silly things to her, I am inclined to believe;--most certainly, however, she did not think them so, inasmuch as the descendant of the Voorhies' found him two days afterwards pressing her hand to his lips, and am I sure that she did no more than to blush. They soon came to an explanation, and on inquiring into the standing of both father and son, the old man made no objection to a marriage; and in truth there was an assemblage of people at his house not more than a week or two after, and a certain ceremony; and after this was over, the Dutchman, contrary to all his usual habits, seemed to be inclined to put a few words together. Said he--
'I shall tell you all, how as when I did come out here wit my cart and money, what could I see in New York, close by the Genesee Falls, but dwenty Indians--more as that, may be. Deyvil, I thought I was caught--but they were friendly--and because they had der little girl as they would leave sooner as carry it, and perhaps kill it, I did buy her, and dis is she,' (putting his hand upon the head of Helen,) 'and dis is what they gave me, as was take wit you.' So saying, he gave her a little pocket book, puckered up his mouth, and became as Dutch as ever.
At sight of the pocket book the Captain changed countenance. He took it, opened it, and read from it, 'Rosehill, July'--dropped it, and clasping Helen in his arms, covered her with kisses. It is no one's business if he did weep, that I know. There was a long account given, which may all be compressed into one or two words. Some twelve years before, the Indians had burned his house, killed the nurse, and carried off the child. It was always supposed that Helen had perished in the flames; and some bones which had been found were buried with great care--probably the honor had been performed to her favorite dog.
Amid all the excitement of the discovery, our old friend had calmly smoked his pipe. At length he ejaculated--'Deyvil! and so der jung man has married his own sister; dere is a fine kettle wit fish!'
The Captain laughed heartily, and answered--'It is fortunate for us all that he is only my adopted son.'
All parties are yet alive. Lieutenant Craighead and his bride are in Canada with their father the major; and the Dutchman still sells broadcloth and flannels, and smokes his pipe in his amphibious dwelling house.
Stephen Sakellarios, M.S.
Music opening this page: "Ravi Shankar" at the Concert for Bangladesh