I am busy keying in my past life works, as Mathew Franklin Whittier in the 19th century (for those who are new, here). I do this early in the morning, until 10:30, when I begin my caretaking duties.
A couple of entries back (I think it was), I mentioned that Mathew may, in fact, have begun the Yankee dialect style of humor in that era, rather than its generally-acknowledged originator, Seba Smith, with his character, "Major Jack Downing." As near as I can nail it down, Smith launched his paper, the "Courier," in Portland, Maine in 1829, and his character appeared in January, 1830. Late December, 1829, has Mathew submitting to the New York "Constellation," launched and edited by fellow-Massachusetts native Dr. Asa Greene in November of that year. Mathew apparently moves to New York City around April 7, and by June, at age 17, he is substiting as editor pro tem, creating the entire editorial page. This much I can glean from the evidence, and feel quite certain of it, though I can't go through all my reasons, here.*
The January 30, 1830 edition includes a story which I am certain Mathew wrote, featuring rural Yankee dialect. Thus, we have the style, if not the faux letter genre, contemporary with Smith's first "Major Jack Downing" letter. Then, the February 27, 1830 edition contains a faux letter to the editor by a Frenchman, which I will reproduce, below. This is full-blown "Mathewsian" style; he will never get any better at this. He has hatched, as it seems, fully-formed, with a native gift at sarcastic mimicry which is, nonetheless, relatively mild toward its victims. It is in good-natured jest, rather than in contempt. Later, he will use this weapon against societal ignorance, rather like the political comedians of today.** But at this point, he was simply playing with it. Quite clearly, this is not an imitation of anything that Smith ever wrote.
But this morning, I came across a "filler" on the editorial page of the July 24, 1830 edition. Here again, unless I miss my mark, Mathew is taking over as the editor, and has fashioned this entire page. We see a news item, written in his typical tongue-in-cheek style, about the editor of the Portland "Courier" being attacked by a lieutenant whom he has offended in his columns. This is, of course, Seba Smith. But aside from how adroitly the item is written, we see that Mathew does not acknowledge "Major Jack Downing" anywhere in this article. Mathew was not an imitator or a plagiarist. If he deeply admired someone's work--and Mathew did express admiration for "Downing" later on in his career--he would give them an open tribute. Here, there is no mention at all--and this tells me that as of mid-1830, Mathew was not drawing inspiration from Smith's work. It could have actually been the other-way around; and all it will take is to find one of Mathew's faux letters to the editor which appears, say, in some Boston paper, before 1830.
You will see that the historians generally cite Seba Smith as the granddaddy of this style. I am quite sure that Mathew was inspired by still-earlier humorists; but now, I am no-longer convinced that Smith was one of them. Benjamin Franklin wrote faux-letters to the editor, to get himself published, and I know that Mathew admired his name-sake. And he had eagerly read the European humorists and satirists of previous centuries. So it is not that I claim he was without influences.
I need to get back to my digitizing work, but I will leave you with these two pieces--the letter from the Frenchman, and the news item about Seba Smith's fight with a disgruntled reader. The first one requires a bit of explanation--Mathew was submitting to various New-England papers, including the New York "Constellation," but it seems he would also send clippings of his favorites, once published, to Asa Greene for reprinting in his paper. So this one is indicated as having been reprinted from the Providence "Daily Journal," launched in that same year, 1830. Since it was a brand-new publication, this would make it more likely that a young author like Mathew could get published in it. Although per convention the signature--if there was one in the "Journal"--was not retained in the reprint, I have no doubt it is Mathew's work, and to prove it, I'll add a snippet from his work in the 1850's as a comparison. This sample is from the Jan. 10, 1857 Portland "Transcript," in one of Mathew's "Ethan Spike" sketches. "Ethan Spike" is the only character which historians attribute to Mathew.
So first, below, is the February 27, 1830 reprint from the Providence "Journal" which I am certain Mathew wrote, and then sent in to the editor of the "Constellation" for reprinting; then is the excerpt from "Ethan Spike," Mathew's known character, as published in the Jan. 10, 1857 edition of the Portland "Transcript"; and finally, the July 24, 1830 news item on the editorial page (which page Mathew was in charge of, that edition) of the New York "Constellation."
Stephen Sakellarios, M.S.
*As I often emphasize, don't be fooled into thinking this is "all I got." I have eight years of careful research to back up what may look like blithe assumptions, when I simply state them, sans context, in these Updates.
**Thus you will see that the caricature in "Ethan Spike" is harsher, not toward the Frenchman, but toward Spike, himself, because he represents Ignorance. "Major Jack Downing" represents an ignorant type, while "Ethan Spike" represents the principle of ignorance, itself.
The New York "Constellation"
February 27, 1830
From the Providence Journal.
Mr. Miller,--The following letter was handed me by a French gentleman, with a request that I would prepare it for the press, but prefer letting the gentleman tell his own story in his own way, and in his own language.
Monsieur Le Prentair,
Sair--I am one member of the Institute National, and travel through the United States for information. I was embarque in Havre de Grace, on one paquebot de Nouvelle York, and leave la France for visit this country of la liberte. Three, four, six days I was confine avec une maladie de mer, one sickness of the sea; but when I walk on the deck, I see one sailor man have one wheel, which he turn round, first au droit, to the right, and then turn him to the left, and I speak him, 'Why for what you so much labor always?'--and he say 'Sair, the dam ship steer like Sam Hill.' Well I not can understand, and then I go down to my chamber cabin, and I look in the dictionaire of Johnson and Valker and I not find Sam, but I ask the captain, and he laugh and say, 'Sam one man's name;' so I look and find Hill, one little mountain, but still I not understand what was Sam Hill.
Well, in three four day more, one night, the ship rock very much, and the captain ask our officer, 'What wether is on deck?' and he say, 'it blow like Sam Hill.' Some four day more the ship go into New York, and I walk on the land and stay for a short time, and go in one batiment de vapeur, one steamboat, and go at Providence. By and by one man what was not never been before in one steamboat, he was look in the water, and he say, 'I swure, she foam at the mouth like Sam Hill.' Ma foi! more Sam Hill. Presently the ship go in one place what was call Hell Gate, and I say to the pilot, 'What for is the ship go no more faster?' and he say, 'The tide run always here like Sam Hill.' Eh bien! I very much perplex.Well, then I go and sit by one old gentleman, and he was not possible for carve one roast chicken, and he say, 'Vaiter, bring one other knife, this one shall be so dull as Sam Hill!' Well when I go in Providence, I walk to the hotel of Rogers William, and after dinner I show Monsieur Vildair, the maitre d'hotel, my letter of introduction, and I visit some gentleman, and he invite me to come in house and drink one tea party. So I go and knock on the door, and one negro black man open it, and I speak, 'Shall Monsieur C---- be here?' and he say 'yes;' then I say, 'make me see him?' Then I walk up stair, and go in one salon, one hall, and see much beautiful lady, and Monsieur and Madame C----, very much polite. By and by directly I eat some toast and some cup of tea, and one lady by me say, 'This tea so hot as Sam Hill!' Pardi! I think Monsieur Sam Hill every where. Well, very soon all the company sit on the table for play wist, and one lady look ver much vex, what you call much not please, and she say, 'Mon Dieu! Sam Hill shall not be able to play such card.' Begar! Sam Hill come again! Two three hour more some young lady and gentlemen will dance, and one young gentleman was dance trop fort, too strong, and so he was tear of one young lady the dress, and he much apologise, and make excuse himself, and she some little angry, and say, 'Deuce in you, you always act like Sam Hill!" Presently the maitre de maison, the master of the house, say, 'Gentleman, it is very cold, it is more better as you should drink some visky ponch,' and the servants bring in de l'eau chande et sucre blanc, the hot water and vite sugar, with some lemon and wisky, and Madame say to me, 'Sair, was you not never drink visky ponch?' and I say to her, 'No;' so she prepare in one tumbler and when first I drink, I was burn my nose, but when he more cold, I like him very much. But there was one young gentleman, [l'atnant?] d'une demoiselle, the sweetheart, as you call, of one young lady present, offer her some ponch, and she drink little, and put him on the table and say, 'Bah! it is so strong as Sam Hill.' So they laugh much, but I say nothing, and look one and other what Madam was think as I was angry, but I say, 'No, but what you call this Mons. Sam Hill.' So they still more laugh, and the young lady blush very much, and one gentleman I was fear what he would go with convulsion spamodiques in too much laughing. When it was more late when the company will go home, I put my cloak, and one young lady open the door and say, 'Law you! it snow so as Sam Hill.' At last Monsieur la [Pr?] was [?] de ma vie! I rum comme le diable, so as the devil, and I was not too much careful where I go, and je tombe, I fall on the gutter, and very soon I was not possible for perceive nothing, but the people carry me dans un auberge, in one shop, and when I was some little recover, one man say, "Dam! he is bleed like Sam Hill!" Ah, sucre! I make attempt for run away, but I was not able, so I was carry to the hotel, and Mons. Vildair make one bed, and send for one doctor. Well, I take one anodyne, and the doctor walk downstair; and when I go in bed I was disturbed in my mind, and talk with myself, and the waiter come in and say, "Poor gentleman! he is no more crazy as Sam Hill." Then I not say no more, but go in sleep, and in morning I feel quite well. So I look in Monsieur le Baron d'Humboldt, his travel, and I not find description of Sam Hill; but I go in Arcade, and see in Mons. Robinson, his librarie, and find, "Travels in the United States, by Captain Basil Hall," but pardi! Mons. le Captain was put his nose in every thing, and find fault with every thing, but begar! he was not find Sam Hill. I read in one book of English, "Love rule the court, the camp, the grove," but Mon. Dieu! it is Sam Hill what rule every thing.
Monsieur le Prentair, if you can discover what is Sam Hill, or any of your correspondents, will you make me oblige in write one letter to me? Direct "a Mons. Jeau Jacques Grenouille, chez Mons. G. le Fripon, perruquier, Rue des Victoires a Paris."
I am, Sair, votre tres humble and much perplex serviteur, J.J. GRENOUILLE.
The Portland "Transcript"
January 10, 1857
Fust I thought I'd walk, but then, it want ezzagtly the thing for a dillegate an plenypertenshary. So I stepped up to a meek lookin cab man an says I "do you know where the Emperor of Novy Skoshy lives?" says I.-- "Bone show mucher," says he, bobbin his head like a streaked monkey. "Darn your bone shows, mucher or lesser," says I, "its the Emperor, Governor or Seelick men of this here aoutlandish Kendentry I want. You infernal sucker," says I. "Ah, bone-bone," says he, "pardonez, mon dew! I sall mak ze grand mistak," an afore I could say ither aye yes or no, the greasy divil bundled me neck an crop into his darned little box, an shot me in. I tried to get aout but twas no use. "Let me aout, you yaller cuss or I'll lick you aout of your skin!" I bawled. "We, we," says he, climbing onto his seat. "Ze grand market, ze Bone Sucker," an away we went, the cab rattlin an creakin like an onharmonized Winner-in-mill, the driver screamin "hi, hi!" and I kickin at the door an swearin with all my might. "Wasn't this a pooty dish to set afore a king?" Want it a likely sort of way for a suvrin plennypertenshary to enter the pre-sinks of a furrin pottingtate!
The New York "Constellation"
July 24, 1830
Lieutenant vs. Editor. We learn from the Portland Courier, that Lieutenant R.W. Meade, a few days since, taking in high dudgeon a certain paragraph in that paper, made an assault upon the editor, as he was walking the street. The latter, who, though conducting a Lilliputian sheet, seems to be a fellow of a Brobdingnagian spirit, warded off the attack with his cane, which he played nimbly in the face of the assailant; retreating to avoid a broil, and like Xenophon, fighting as he retreated. But alas! that a brave man cannot see behind and before him at the same time. The heel of the editor came in contact with a stone, or some other impediment, (doubtless placed there by the opposing gods,) and down he went, flat on his back, in the middle of the street! Now have at you, said the Lieutenant. But the heels of the editor, which had just played him so scurvy a trick, now proved his best friends; for drawing them up with great presence of mind, he kicked lustily and kept his antagonist at bay. Rendered furious by this unexpected mode of defence, the Lieutenant pulled off his beaver, and, like a boy fighting bumble-bees, beat the feet and legs of the editor, and, had he not been laid hold of by the citizens, would have utterly demolished a bran-fire new chapeau.
Audio opening this page: excerpt from "My First and Last Visit to Portland"
by Mathew Franklin Whittier, interpreted by Maine storyteller Vernon Cox