You know how the evidence can be staring you right in the face, and you don't see it? Yesterday, after writing my second entry, I saw the proof that it was Mathew Franklin Whittier who had written that story, read by Samuel Clemens at John Greenleaf Whittier's 70th birthday party. I won't recap this--if you haven't read my previous entries about it, you can look it up online, easily enough. The gist is that all the Boston literati were invited, the star guests being Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Oliver Wendell Holmes. It was essentially a publicity stunt. Mathew's name is not on the seating chart, despite the fact that he was the birthday boy's brother, and he lived there, in Boston.
The story, lampooning the three stars directly--and even making their mock-imposters, in the story, out to be plagiarists--got Clemens in hot water. According to William Dean Howells' own account, only one person in the audience was laughing--hysterically. That would have been Mathew, who apparently crashed his brother's party.
I knew, immediately upon reading it, that it had Mathew all over it. Given that he and I have the same higher mind (as I've asserted many times, here), I recognized the plot idea as one of my own. Apparently, Mathew drafted something out, handed it to Clemens, and then Clemens re-worked it. Clemens may have set it in California, at a miner's cabin, when originally it was, say, in rural Maine. (It would actually make more sense in Maine, if you think about it--but he had to use California, since that's where he had been.) He replaced most of Mathew's stock colloquial phrases with his own, which, perhaps, might be more typically Western. He accidentally left in one "Mathewsian" clue, however--the word "onreasonable" for "unreasonable."
But there's another clue. This, you wouldn't recognize unless you were as familiar with Mathew's literary legacy, as I am. But you might question it, if you knew Clemens' educational background--or rather, the lack thereof. As I read his biography, Clemens does not seem to be particularly well-read. I'm not taking anything away from his talent, in his genre. But I see no indication that he had read a great deal of poetry.
The plot device of this story requires that the author have a broad, and deep, knowledge of poetry. The imposters, playing each of the three literary stars, Emerson, Longfellow and Holmes, quote those snippets of their poetry such as will fit precisely with the dialogue. Only a person very well acquainted with that poetry, would be able to choose them so precisely. This is not something you could accomplish with a book of poetic quotes.
Well, it's possible that a person who had never read this body of poetry, could check the books out of the library, read all of it, and, after several days' study, compile the relevant quotes. But let's bring Occam's Razor to bear on this question. On the one hand, you have Mathew, who has made a deep, extensive, life-long study of poetry. He quotes from a wide range of sources, in both his serious and his humorous works, even from his youthful writing. If I went through the roughly 1,200 published pieces I have of Mathew's, and compiled a list of all the poetry that he quotes from, it would be one heck of a list.
Then, on the other side, you have Samuel Clemens, a much younger man, whose background includes newspaper work, and piloting a steamboat.
Which of these men, do you think, is more likely to have come up with a plot like this, and to have made those poetry selections?
Something else you don't know, is Mathew's astounding ability to generate clever plot concepts. This one is right down his ally. Clemens expressed pride in just this one--but Mathew could churn them out week after week, if necessary.
Okay, so Mathew definitely was behind this story, which got Clemens into so much trouble. As said, I knew it, immediately. I also know that he was the original co-author (with his young wife, Abby) of "A Christmas Carol," and that he was the original author of "The Raven." But one doesn't prove the others. Historians might grudgingly concede this one (which is easier to prove), while still digging in their heels at the other two.
Now I want to share something with you. But I'll have to look it up. I am a lazy scholar, who has to force himself to do the nitty-gritty...
In "Mark Twain's Letters"* is found a letter to William H. Clagett, written from Carson City, Nevada Territory on March 8th and 9th, 1862. He mentions briefly, in passing:
I send a St. Louis Republican for Tom. There is something in it from "Ethan Spike."
Ethan Spike is, of course, Mathew's flagship character (and only publicly known pseudonym, out of dozens). Now, this line is footnoted, and the footnote reads:
The Ethan Spike letters, a series of humorous dialect sketches that repeatedly condemned slavery and its supporters, were published in the Portland (Maine) Transcript between 1846 and 1863 and were widely reprinted in newspapers across the country. They were written by Matthew F. Whittier (1812-83), younger brother of John Greenleaf Whittier. His creation, Ethan Spike, was a New England backwoodsman whose letters, like the writings of Artemus Ward and Petroleum V. Nasby, were marked by cacography and malapropisms (Griffin, 646-63). On 3 February 1862 the St. Louis Missouri Republican printed the following excerpt:
He gets a few things wrong, here, which I will set straight momentarily. But note he correctly indicates that the quote, which follows, is an "excerpt." Since he starts quoting at the head of the Missouri Republican's article, you might think he means that there is more at the bottom. Actually, most newspapers (including, presumably, the Republican) truncated it at the top--because that portion was too radical. This is typical--editors who reprinted "Ethan Spike" would leave out those portions which might offend. This means that people like Clemens were not seeing the full power of Mathew's work. Only the people in Portland, reading the original in the "Transcript," were seeing it.
So I'm going to reproduce that introduction, here. But first, let's go back to the little biographical sketch. Mathew's first "Ethan Spike" letter appeared in the Transcript; but then he switched over to the Boston "Chronotype," where he could write with a sharper political edge. Later on, he continued to submit "Spike" to the Transcript, but he also published spin-offs in other papers, such as the Boston "Weekly Museum" and the Boston "Carpet-Bag." In 1862/63, he published several in New York's "Vanity Fair." Mathew took a hiatus from "Ethan Spike" in 1863, at the height of the Civil War. I feel it was under duress of some kind--someone was leaning on him. I just feel it--I can't substantiate it. But he picked the series back up again in 1868, and wrote at least 15 more of them for the Transcript up through 1875.** I've quoted from some of these latter sketches, in this blog. Mathew's student biographer, Lloyd W. Griffin, simply missed them.
Mathew spelled his name with one "T," for what it's worth. I don't think he bothered to correct anybody.
Charles Farrar Browne's "Artemus Ward," and David Ross Locke's "Petroleum V. Nasby," were shameless knock-offs of "Ethan Spike," by the next generation of humorists. These two were said to be President Lincoln's favorites. Presumably, he didn't like "Ethan Spike" because he knew that its author was affiliated with William Lloyd Garrison, and hence was not only an abolitionist, but a "disunionist." There is, however, something distinctly disrespectful about mentioning one's imitators in the same breath as one's own creation, as though it was Mathew who was the "also-ran."
"Cacophany and malapromisms" is the outward style; but these letters were meticulously crafted, and far more nuanced than this brief description would suggest. Yes, they were anti-slavery; but they were also veiled psychology and philosophy. They were far deeper, in hidden substance, than their imitations.
Now, the sketch that Clemens sent a reprinted excerpt of, to his friend Tom, was a parody of a jury, here titled "A Down East Juryman." You can probably find it with a quick search online. But you won't find the full sketch, as it was originally printed in the "Transcript." I would guess the opening was omitted, in reprint, because this is actually a scathing indictment of the entire jury system. Undoubtedly, it's Mathew's angry reaction to a real case, in which two minorities were railroaded to the gallows due to rampant prejudice. With this introduction surgically removed, however, and with the historical reference lost, it becomes just one racist idiot called up, and then rejected, for jury duty (hence the title, created by the editor of another newspaper). It is not, actually, about a juryman. It is a mirror held up to Society.
Note that Clemens is seeing this in the Republican a full four years after it first appeared in the "Transcript." This piece actually made it overseas, eventually--in truncated form, of course.
Written for the Portland Transcript.
LETTER FROM ETHAN SPIKE.
Hornby, Febooary 1858.
Did you ever get drawed into a jewry?--I was drawn aout of the box last fall, an sworn to support the constitootion accordin to statoote. Beyond a gineral idee that jewrymen was baound to go for the country--right or wrong--wich country they is, I knowed eenjist nothin of the supernoomary dewties pertainin to sich flunkshunaries.
Wall--fust thing I knowed, I was summoned to Portland to try a Jarman an a nigger for killin Mr Albion Cooper on the high sees. I never could see why the tarm "high sees" was used in sich cases. I spose it means flood tide, an I know that pork killed at one time of tide haint the same as when killed at another time of tide--likewise beans pulled on a full moon dont bile so well as when the moon is gibberish; but if a feller mortal critter is slewed--it dont stan to reason that it makes any difference whether he was slewed at high water or low. Its murder any way. Thems my idees of the law on that pint.
Wall, I felt rayther praoud that my fust sarvice to my country as a jewryman, was one of life and death, and when I thought of them cussed pie-rats, I felt as though ef I had my way, I'd hang every Jarman and nigger I could get holt on. In this here patriotic an Christian frame I went to the Court haouse. I faound a smart chance of brother jewrymen thar, an pretty soon the clark begun to question fust one an then another, till at last they kim to me.
"Mr. Spike" said the clark, "Have you any conscientious scruples agin hangin?"--said he.
"Wall," said I, "that depends on sarcumstances. Ef it war the fust person singuler agreein to nominative me, mascular gender, empeerytyve mood--that war to be hung--I hev. But ef it war ye you or them, futer tense indickytyve mood, not a darned scruple," says I.
The Republican's copy picks up at this point, and in the footnote, the extended quote continues with the middle of the sketch until it stops here:
Wall, beein thus stripped of my jewdishal robes, so to speak, I went into coort agin, and sot daown among the common people.--I couldn't keep away. I natterally felt anxious abaout that nigger, an I faound a good many others that felt as airnest abaout it as I did. A good many times I was half afeard the tarnal critter would get clear. Speshally when the indictment was read, wich insterment laid pretty much all the blame onto the divil, but luckiley the prisner's Caouncil didn't seem to notice it, an never mentioned it in the plea. Then, when the prisner's Caouncil brought forrerd that Corpus de lickty arggment, I says to myself, says I, he'll git the nigger off as true as preachin. But when tother Caouncil tuk the matter up, things begun to look quite different I tell you. In fifteen minits arter he got underway I caounted the prisner a dead nigger. I wouldn't have gin a second hand chaw of terbaker for the lives of ither. He really made me feel as though it war a religious duty to git right up an cut the prisners throates. Arter he' fixed em all right for hangin, jist as turkies is fixed for roastin, he turns raound an addressed them in the most feelinist manner. He told em that they was poor miserable furiners--one born in Jarmany an tother in the west Ingees. But notwithstandin they had, in addition to their tother crimes, bin guilty of beein born in furrin parts, wich is agin the statooes, still sich is the marciful arrangements of aour free institootions, they had had the benefit of a trial, leavin them to infer that any where else, they would have been hung withaout one, on accaount of bein furriners.
At this touchin pint in the pearoaration, I was so affected with a sense of the greatness of the country, an of my good luck in beein born under the sharder of its perladyums, that ef I'd known I should have bin shot for it, I couldn't helpt singin aout as I did--Hale Kerlumby! For which patriotic aoutbust I was agin cared daown stairs.
Compliments of the season to you and your.
Note "perladyums." If you've followed this blog, you know the significance of that. Mathew used variations of this word often, for "Spike." The Palladium was the statue of Pallas, i.e. Athena, which guarded the city of Troy. To Mathew, one of those statues--probably, the bust from Herculaneum--reminded him somewhat of Abby, whose teachings he kept at the forefront of his mind, i.e., symbolically, above his chamber door. Shillaber--Mathew's close personal friend--makes a mocking reference to the bust of Pallas above Mathew's chamber door, in the context of trying to communicate telepathically with it after having had a visitation dream, in his "Blifkins the Martyr" series. (If you look it up, substitute Abby for the "widow Thompson"--he says the bust of Pallas reminded him somewhat of the widow Thompson, with whom he had spent the evening in his dream.)
Hold on, don't stop reading quite yet. Let's go back to that footnote:
In chapter 6 of Adventures of Hucklebery Finn (1885), Clemens was to have the disreputable Pap Finn deliver an antigovernment, antiblack harangue similar to Ethan Spike's.
Mathew died in 1883, so this would have been, shall we say, a tribute (depending on how obvious an imitation it was). I don't know where the writer of the footnote--presumably, one of several editors and contributing editors listed on the title page--got this information. I am having to go on his or her authority. But it raises more questions than it answers. Why did Clemens decide against it? Was he intending to make it a clear, open tribute to Mathew, or simply borrow from his style (as so many had done, before him)? Did Mathew ask him not to use it, before he died; or did Mathew's brother prevail upon him to remove it, for nefarious and convoluted reasons of his own (i.e., postmortem sibling rivalry)? I've never pursued the matter. But isn't it interesting, that Clemens was quite aware of "Ethan Spike," and admired him enough that he was intending to include a tribute in the book that Ernest Hemingway praised as follows:
All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn. American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since.
Nothing before? At age 16, in May of 1852, Clemens' attempt at a humorous sketch--probably, in imitation of Mathew--for the Boston "Carpet-Bag," falls flat in comparison. Mathew was doing excellent work in this genre since age 15, in 1827.
I guess people like to root for their hero. Reputation, and loyalty, and fashion, and the "mass mind." Out of all this, comes the historical record, and our college textbooks, and what our professors teach us. I think that the events which transpired at John Greenleaf Whittier's birthday form a microcosm of the whole thing. Mathew Franklin Whittier--every bit as much a literary genius as the three honored guests--who was not even on the seating chart for his own brother's party--managed to make his presence known, by handing Clemens that sketch. And while Howells withheld his name from posterity, Mathew also comes down to us through his "hysterical and blood-curdling laughter" during the reading.
Howells, you asshole, I get the last laugh.
Stephen Sakellarios, M.S.
*"Mark Twain's Letters," A Publication of the Mark Twain Project of The Bancroft Library, General Editor, Robert H. Hirst, University of California Press, 1988-2010
**Because of new copyright laws, these latter "Ethan Spike" sketches weren't reprinted across the country, as his earlier pieces had been (and from this you can see that Mathew never made a dime off these reprints). Thus, it seemed as though Spike had disappeared. Mathew eschewed the lyceum circuit, which is, arguably, how his imitators (and Clemens) became famous. Mathew, always generous to rising talent, actually supported them by writing favorable reviews of their performances. I have, for example, reviews that Mathew wrote for both Browne, and Clemens. He was a bit rougher on Locke, reserving a satirical "Spike" sketch for him in which their respective characters meet. Locke was known for his heavy drinking, and Spike, having stood for the drinks, leaves "Nasby" passed out with his head in a spittoon:
I shall never forget my last look into this reverend patriot. He had fallen backwards, an slep, his head rested in a spitoon with a comfortable piller of "ole sogers." It wur a type of innersense! One long lingerin look, an I went away a poorer ef not a wiser man.
This sketch is, incidentally, distinctly reminiscent of the supposedly apocryphal story I reproduced in a recent entry, entitled "How Thackeray Hugged Whittier."
Music opening this page: "A Little Bit Me, a Little Bit You," by Neil Diamond,
performed by Eric Johnson on the "Anaheim" DVD