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8/29/18

I shared quite a bit of Mathew Franklin Whittier's work this morning, and tomorrow morning I have some more. That may be about it, though I still have pieces from the 1849 and 1850 Portland (Maine) "Transcript" to key in.

You can access this morning's entry--and all the others--in the Archives link at the bottom of the page. This evening, however, I want to address a question that's certain to have come up for anyone even attempting to follow this blog (or portions thereof). And that is, just how careful am I to be sure that a particular work, signed with a pseudonym, or entirely unsigned, is, in fact, Mathew's?

First of all, I'm extremely careful, for two reasons: 1) for the purposes of honest, rigorous research, and 2) to cover my ass. My worst nightmare is that I determine that a given piece was written by MFW, and proceed to base certain conclusions on it, only to find that I was mistaken--and that instead of a firm theoretical foundation, I have a house of cards. Credibility is obviously a very important issue, for me. My claims are wild enough as it is--if my literature attributions are significantly off-base, I lose what credibility I may have with people.

Have I ever been wrong? Meaning, that I didn't later correct, so that there remain incorrect claims for Mathew's authorship in my books? Perhaps as regards individual pieces. Not, I would say, as regards any of his long-standing pseudonyms; nor, I would venture to say, regarding any pivotal discoveries (like "The Raven").

When evaluating a certain article, humorous sketch, essay, poem, etc. for Mathew's authorship, I have several criteria. I like to see them all met, when possible. I'm going to run through them, briefly, and then I should be done, here.

Of course, before I begin evaluating a piece for clues, I do an internet search on its interior lines. Most often, this procedure has revealed plagarism and spurious attributions. This is how I learned that a series of Mathew's short stories written under "The Ol 'Un" was attributed to Francis A. Durivage; that Abby Poyen's 14-year-old poems had been stolen by both Albert Pike, and George W. Light; that Mathew's "Quails" travel letters were claimed by and for entertainer Ossian Dodge; and that his work for the "Carpet-Bag," under the umbrella of "Trismegistus," had been assigned--in the edtior's memoirs, no less--to Benjamin Drew. It is also how I learned that one of the most popular parodies of "The Raven," entitled "The Vulture," was assigned by some historians to British humorist Robert Brough--even though the piece appears in the "Carpet-Bag" earlier than any of the instances that historians were citing, and it is manifestly part of a series that Mathew was writing.

Firstly, when evaluating a piece for Mathew's authorship, I know the pseudonyms that he has used regularly over the years. For example, a single asterisk, in any of the papers that Mathew contributed heavily to, is his work. I have explained that he would use variations on a double-"P." signature, like "Peter Pendergrass," just the initials "P.P.," or a single letter "P." Sometimes he also dredges up an old signature like "D," which he used in the early 1830's for the New York "Constellation." Very often, however--when the subject matter is either too politically sensitive, or too personal--he'll use a one-off, or not sign the piece at all. (On one occasion he actually signed "Incog.") So knowing the pseudonyms he has used in the past, by itself, isn't always enough.

Secondly, I want my internal intuitive Geiger counter to be clicking. I can't explain this very well, being a subjective experience. But I want to feel a sense of recognition for the piece. When I read something of Mathew's, as I've described, before, there's a sort of echo of confirmation that comes continually, with each line or phrase. Yep, that feels familiar; yep, that too...I want to feel something "pushing back" or "echoing." I want to get a sense of what it felt like to write that piece; what I was feeling, and what my intentions were.

Thirdly, I am looking for what I call certain "Mathewsian" elements. Phrases, words, expressions--like "some pumpkins." Or "he went at a rate of 2-40." Or "arter," "darter," and so-on, when writing in dialect. There are dozens of these pet idioms that Mathew used. He might say, for example, that he was disappointed--only to clarify that it was actually better than he expected. Having probably 1,300 of his published works by this time--all digitized--I know what to look for. And I can search my digital archives and tell you how many times he used these things.

Here is an example of matching style, between different pseudonyms, but written very close together in time. The first is from the Aug 12, 1849 Portland (Maine) "Transcript," and is signed with a single asterisk. This is a confirmed signature for Mathew, which he used from the early 1830's, until as late as 1868 (the latter occurring in this same newspaper). My assignment of the pseudonym "Quails," to Mathew Franklin Whittier would be disputed by historians, being attributed by them to singer/entertain Ossian Dodge. But I have taken great pains to prove that the entire series, in the Boston "Weekly Museum," written under "Quails," was actually Mathew's. So the second example is taken from the Jan. 5, 1850 edition of the "Museum." In the first, entitled "A Chapter on Bores," Mathew has taken a "country cousin" up to "Mt. Joy," his name for Munjoy Hill. On that hill, even today, stands an observatory--I had the brief past-life "hit" that Mathew made fun of the staggered arrangement of its windows (i.e., before I discovered this sketch on bores). In the second piece, "Quails" is traveling on the train, and reports on "one of the original, unsophisticated, gingerbread and doughnut-fed geniuses." Mathew hated being cornered by bores, but got a kick out of eccentric characters.

We have a cousin, "a country cousin," who rejoices in the euphonious appellation of Nehemiah Butterfield. Nehemiah came to Portland a few years since with a load of beans, oats and other notions, and sought us out. We entertained him according to our ability, and among other treats, carried him to Mt. Joy. The day was delightful and never did the beautiful panorama stretched out on either side of that unequaled spot, appear more attractive. Nehemiah climbed slowly up the old mounds, and pulling down the legs of his trowsers, which were unpleasantly short, gazed vacantly round. We looked too, and the scenery was so enchanting that we were almost lost in admiration. We commenced expatiating upon the beauties around. We pointed out the beautiful view of the city--its harbor, the Bay and its islands, the White Mountains, the great Atlantic, etc., with an eloquence that fairly surprised even ourself. The spirit was on us! Our eloquence increased, and to what dizzy point we should have attained, Heaven only knows;--when we were suddenly started by a loud "ahem!--I say!" Looking around, we found the interruption proceeding from Mr. Butterfield, who was standing with open mouth and distended [arms?] gazing at the Observatory. "I say yew, whose Paowder heouse is that ere?

---------

"Good morning, my friend, good morning; fine morning, this morning, or that is, it's rather cold and stormy, I see; heow de dew?"

To this touching and friendly appeal, the stranger made no reply; but taking from under his arm a copy of Macaulay's History of England, he was soon lost to all surrounding objects, by the eloquent writings of its author. With a dejected countenance, on which was depicted the singularly combined expression of mortification, shrewdness, revenge, sociability and inquisitiveness, the Yankee sat for many minutes changing the direction of his eyes alternately from the stranger's face to his splendid overcoat, and at length rising hastily, he reached over, and drawing his hand over the fine and costly fur, he exclaimed, in a tone sufficiently loud to be heard the whole length of the car:

"I say, yeou stranger, heow does these cat skin coats wear?"

Fourthly, I am looking to see whether this is a gag, or a concept, that Mathew has used before, or will re-use later on in his career. It seems to me that just about every clever idea he had, he used at least twice over that 45-year period. So I am in a position to look for them (and, generally, I remember them and can find them relatively easily).

I am also looking for his pet references. Very often, he would embed some tribute to his true love, his first wife Abby. I have learned a great deal about her (meaning, the historical Abby); and I know when he's making a hidden reference to her. Where he quotes the first line of the song, "Come, Philander, let's go a marching," it's the unspoken second line of that song that's the hidden reference to Abby: "Everyone his true love seeking." You will see one of these in tomorrow morning's entry--a rather tricky one.

I am looking for his various works, written under different pseudonyms, ganged together on the page. For example, there is a satirical letter in thick Yankee dialect from "Ethan Spike," sitting directly next to an asterisk (star)-signed essay on "Utopia." Both are Mathew Franklin Whittier's. Or, I may find a piece written by someone else--say, a poem--which relates to Mathew's message in the other pieces. For example, where he presents the last of Abby's posthumously published stories, above it is a poem written by a woman just before she died, asking if there will be anyone to remember her, and saying not to weep.

Finally, I know Mathew's values, which are essentially going to coincide with his Quaker upbringing. He is going to be anti-slavery, and anti-war. He is not going to be very impressed with "dandies" or snooty aristocracy. He is compassionate and supportive of the underdog, and he will go to great lengths to expose hypocrisy. So if a piece under consideration violates these values and others I know he upholds, unless he is writing tongue-in-cheek, it isn't his work.

There's more--but this will suffice. I just want to answer those skeptics (or the skeptical part of even a friendly reader's mind) who might be saying, "But what if he's fooling himself with half of these attributions, building a castle in the sand?"

There's your answer. I can be wrong--I've been wrong, admitted it, and corrected my mistake. But it hasn't happened very often. More commonly, it's Mathew's work alright, but initially I talk myself out of it. That's a little different, because it's my own skepticism blocking my intuition--as with the poem I shared today, "A Moment." The "moment" I laid my eyes on that one, a couple of years ago, I sensed that I had written it. But for some reason (mainly because it was entirely unsigned), I talked myself out of it and moved on. That has happened several times. But to read a piece, feel like it's Mathew's, and then realize it isn't, has been rare. What has happened, along these lines, is that something superficially looked like Mathew's work. I didn't feel that it was, but once again, my logical mind tried to talk me into it, because of the objective indicators. And then I'd find out, no, it wasn't his.

Quite often, I'd feel that a piece was Mathew's, but not have enough objective evidence. Perhaps the pseudonym was one I didn't associate with Mathew; or, it was written from a place I didn't think he lived in, at the time. Years later, I'd realize that he had actually used that pseudonym--perhaps years before, and he had "dragged it out again" briefly. Or, I learned that he was living in that city, at the time. So then, suddenly, my former sense of recognition was entirely plausible.

I have Mathew's works grouped by the different publications that he wrote for. In each publication's digital folder, is a sub-folder I call "pos MFW." In that folder go all the ones I'm not certain about. That means, if a piece makes it into the main folder, I'm pretty darned sure. When I say I have roughly 1,300 of Mathew's published pieces, I'm not even counting the ones in the "pos MFW" folders.

Hopefully that answers the question.

Best regards,

Stephen Sakellarios, M.S.

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Music opening this page: "The Inspector," by Wally Badarou,
from the album, "Echoes"

 

   

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