This is sort of a continuing of yesterday's musing...
In one of my assignments, in my current job as an eldercare worker, I have the opportunity to read for about an hour while my charge takes his dinner. I recently bought a used Kindle, and am going back to a series of e-books I'd downloaded some years ago, when I had one. This is a compilation of 19th-century humor, in several volumes. I thought they might contain at least one example of Mathew Franklin Whittier's work, but I was disappointed. I think there are ten volumes, and so far as I can see, not one of his pieces appears in any of them. When I had first downloaded the series, I flipped through the pieces by the various authors, and wasn't overly impressed by them. They remained in my Amazon Kindle account, where I left them.
So I had the whim to read some of these works in a little more depth, and give them a fighting chance. I found most of them really quite dull, while a few rise to a certain level of literary competency. I was looking, in particular, for examples written in the style that Mathew pioneered, i.e., the representation of local dialect.
One of these gave a fairly accurate (as I suppose) rendering of an elderly black slave, teaching white children her ignorant superstitions. But it was essentially without plot or punchline, and it was tedious to wade through. Okay, she believed that moles had been a race of people who were punished for their indulgent lifestyle, and so-on. It was mildly amusing if you want to laugh at superstitions. A second offering was a little better--it played on a Dutchman's mispronunciation of "box" as "pox," so that when the Dutch stage driver tried to deliver a "small box" to a family, it was misunderstood that he had the "small pox." But the punchline was given away half-way through the piece; and the entire story hinged on this one joke.
These were the best ones in the first couple of volumes. Now, is it my fond imagination that Mathew Franklin Whittier's work towered above these imitations? I don't think so. Admittedly I'm prejudiced in his favor. But trying my very best to remain objective, I'd say that his work was far superior to these which somehow made it into the compilation. And why would he be entirely absent from it? He is, by the way, also absent from a compilation which has Samuel Clemens' name on it, though I think one historian says that he actually didn't have much to do with it.
Mathew, writing as "Quails," left us a few essays on how to write, including one on humorous sketches. One thing he stresses is how to lead up to a punchline so that it catches the reader unawares. He also, as I indicated recently, advocated crisp writing. But something he didn't mention, is that he wrote in layers. He almost always embedded a deeper philosophical message in his works. One could take his sketches as mere entertainment, but one was being taught at the same time, knowingly or unknowingly. At other times, he was writing veiled autobiography--primarily about Abby, the love of his life. He would convey some anecdote from their courtship or marriage, disguised in such a way that no-one would ever know just how personal it was. Or, sometimes he would lampoon the bad writing of the era, by imitating it. But when he mentioned his fellow-writers by name, he was gracious and generous. I get the impression that he knew full-well he was far more talented than most of them. With his tongue in his cheek, he would say how honored he was to be included among them in the same publication; but I could tell what he meant, and what he felt. And he was right.
In reality, Mathew was in a class with the top writers of the era; people like Washington Irving, for example. Yesterday, I chanced to read one of the productions of Mathew's blatant imitator, David Ross Locke, who wrote as the character Rev. Petroleum V. Nasby. I found it to be pretty weak. I have read that Locke was one of President Lincoln's favorite humorists. Mathew was too liberal for President Lincoln--he was a supporter of William Lloyd Garrison, whose motto was "No Union with Slaveholders"--i.e., Garrison was a Northern disunionist, and any of his supporters would obviously not have been to Lincoln's taste.
The work of Charles Farrar Browne, Lincoln's other favorite--whose work I have yet to run across in this compilation--was technically better. But he didn't write with the philosophical depth that Mathew did, as "Ethan Spike" and other characters. And Browne's work was really a blatant imitation of Mathew's. In fact, Browne got his start by stealing and reworking one of Mathew's humorous pieces, which had also been stolen and claimed by a plagiarist named Francis Durivage. The premise was quite clever--in a military re-enactment of Cornwallis vs. Washington at Yorktown, the man playing Cornwallis gets caught up in the moment and, contrary to history, drives out the Americans. There's no question that Browne reworked it. And there's no question, after some extensive research into the matter, that Durivage put his name on it (under the pseudonym, "The Old 'Un"), as well.
What surprises me is that people couldn't figure these things out on their own. Were they really so unable to appreciate the quality and depth of good work, that they blithely accepted these pretenders? As I've studied the background of "A Christmas Carol," and "The Raven"--both of which I believe were stolen from Mathew--I am saddened and amazed that people could ever believe that Dickens and Poe, respectively, were capable of authoring these works. They may or may not have had the technical skill (this, also, is debatable, in my opinion); but they certainly did not have the spiritual qualifications. They were incapable of writing at that spiritual depth. And this is true of all the works that were plagiarized from Mathew, and also from his wife Abby.*
It means that Society has itself enabled these goofs, by its own lack of discernment. Normally, they never should have passed. Too many people should have been able to see through the ruse, and questioned it, before it became accepted as public fact. We should not, now, have in all our textbooks that Charles Dickens, the hypocrite and scoffer at Spiritualism, wrote a book like "A Christmas Carol" which contains spiritual power and accurate occult depictions, like the film "Ghost." We should not have in all those textbooks that Edgar Allan Poe, a horror fiction writer like Stephen King, wrote a powerful poem of grief and faith crisis, laced with dark humor, like "The Raven," as a sort of intellectual exercise at a time when he, himself, wasn't grieving.
These things are absurd for anyone with discernment. But the public has little discernment. Therefore, one must be cautious of accepting anything that the public has assumed to be true. Even if it appeared in our high school textbooks.
Stephen Sakellarios, M.S.
*I have concluded that controversial high-ranking Mason, Albert Pike, plagarized Abby's poetry when he was a young man. Abby, only 14 years old at the time, was attending Pike's class in Newburyport, Mass. in 1830.
Audio opening this page: "Won't Get Fooled Again"
by The Who, from the album, "Who's Next"