As I think I mentioned recently, I have 94 saves searches on Ebay.com, related to my subject of study, my past-life personality as Mathew Franklin Whittier, an obscure 19th-century author. He was obscure because he chose to be; but one finds that he got a lot accomplished, if one digs into the historical record.
One of the saved searches I have had for several years, on Ebay, is for a mid-19th-century humor weekly newspaper, called the "Carpet-Bag." It was Boston's answer to Britain's Punch (which in turn was Britain's answer to France's "Charivari"), and it lasted for a couple of years, from 1851-1853 (April-to-April, per convention at that time). Just today, I snagged the entire original Vol. I of the paper, bound. This thing is incredibly rare. Fortunately for me, the seller put a "buy it now" price on it, or I think it would have been bid far out of my reach. It was a respectable price; but still, I'm not sure he knew just how rare it is.
Let's put it this way--I had to go online and put money into my checking account from savings, and I was afraid that in the time it took for me to do that, someone would beat me to it.
Now, there is a website with a presentation on this newspaper, and I thought it would be fun to straighten them out. I'm going to give you the URL: go ahead and read it (or, read through it, if you are pressed for time), and then I'm going to tell you the real story.
I don't place live links in this blog, because I write so often, and links tend to go dead on you. Anyway, let's look at this: I'm going to go down their text, here, so you can follow along with me, if you are so-inclined. I'm going to comment on this based on what I have learned in the last eight years of research.
You should be seeing, "Inside the Comic Carpet-Bag": "History of American Humor." The author is correct, B.P. Shillaber, from Providence, did launch this paper. But for a year or so prior to this, he had been hired as the editor of the Boston "Pathfinder," a free (ad-driven) newspaper published by the same people as published the train schedule guide. He had been inserting some of his own humorous work in there to spice it up, having to do with his "Mrs. Malaprop"-type character, "Mrs. Partington." Mathew Franklin Whittier was already a friend, and was already ghost writing some of this for him--chiefly, the faux biography of his character, which was later published in book form. But Mathew had written in that style, using faux letters to the editor, many years earlier. To what extent the "Mrs. Partington" character was inspired by Mathew's earlier writing is unknown, but as fellow-humorists, they had a lot in common (although their politics were divergent).
Samuel Clemens did indeed publish his first humorous sketch in this paper, in 1852 (May 1, 1852, if I remember correctly). He was 16, but still, it was sort of like a joke that falls flat. Mathew was publishing much funnier stuff at age 17, as I shared with you all, last entry.
I'm just going down the article, here...
The "Carpet-Bag" may be a mere footnote, today, but wait until my work on Mathew is widely known.
"Copies are hard to come by..." No kidding. I was able to find two individual editions this past eight years--one by accident, being sold in a lot of several old newspapers, such that the seller didn't know what he or she had; and the second, I went looking for, contacting I don't know how many antique bookstores until I finally found another one. Last time I tried to bid on Vol. II, which showed up in an auction house, it went up to something like $1,200 including fees. It was signed by one of the contributors, but still. I felt lucky to find a microfilm reel of Vol. I a year or so ago; but I never hoped to see a physical volume. The part my astral wife Abby may have played in pushing this into my personal orbit, is unknown. She has found rarer things for me. This much we know--it's absurdly rare, I've had the saved search on there for years, and, I bought it.
Adrtenus Ward, alias Charles Farrar Browne--also called the first stand-up comedian. More on him shortly. Shillaber didn't "discover" him, exactly...
The material in the "Carpet-Bag" is not really out-dated, at all. Much of it is timeless. Some of Mathew's work was as edgy as anything you will find Lee Camp doing, today, except of course the social standards of the time--and Shillaber's mildly conservative sensibilities (think David Brooks on the PBS Newshour)--required a cleaner mouth. Still, in another paper Mathew managed to use his character's trademark poor spelling to insert "heavingly bodies" and "orfice seeking" into the closing of a sketch without it being pulled by the editor. For the writer of this commentary to compare the "Carpet-Bag" to "Reader's Digest" tells me he hasn't studied it deeply.
I'm bypassing the biographical sketch of Shillaber... The character who was wounded in the (bloodless) Aroostook "Wars" was Mathew's, one Ensign Stebbings, attributed by Shillaber himself, in later life, erroneously, to Benjamin Drew. But this was a subtle, scathing anti-war satire. The piece about the "constitutionality of donuts" was a blatant imitation of Mathew's character, "Ethan Spike." Shillaber's Boston partners weren't the only ones. Mathew was a silent partner. He strongly influenced the paper in its first several months, writing as many as four different pieces per issue, under different pseudonyms. He was setting the tone for the paper, because the handful of other regular contributors were imitating his style, and responding to his characters. Mathew was the hidden creative force behind the paper, as he had been for previous papers he had been associated with. If the "Carpet-Bag" published the work of "about 100 writers," as the author of this article says, still, the bulk of the work was done only by a handful, writing under multiple pseudonyms. At least initially, it was made to look as though it had a great number of high-quality contributors, until it got going and actually induced such people to start submitting work to it.
Of the rush of comic writers who came after the Carpet-Bag, several of them were blatant imitators of Mathew's "Ethan Spike" character.
Charles Farrar Browne deserves special mention. He was a printer's assistant for the paper, when he took it into his head to sneak a comic sketch in, unknown to the editor. But he didn't write it--he plagiarized it. What he did, was to take a humorous sketch that Mathew had written under the pseudonym, "The Old 'Un," about a military re-enactment. In this re-enactment, the local fellow playing General Cornwallis got so enraged, that he led his men to victory, even though historically, Cornwallis lost. This entire series was stolen by one Francis A. Durivage, and published in Gleason's Pictorial. Browne either got the Cornwallis sketch from there, or from Mathew, directly, and proceeded to re-write it. He then inserted his re-write of Mathew's story into the Carpet-Bag, and launched his career thereby. His character, "Artemus Ward," was a blatant imitation of Mathew's "Ethan Spike," including nuances of style. But his politics were less radical, and more pleasing to people like President Lincoln, than were Mathew's. Mathew was a "disunionist" and secret liaison for William Lloyd Garrison (hence my earlier comparison to comedian Lee Camp).
As the paper ran into financial trouble, Shillaber brought on Samuel Pickard, a fellow-conservative, as part-owner, in exchange for Pickard's family money. As a result, pressure appears to have been put on Mathew to tone it down, politically. Mathew was evenutally marginalized to the point that the paper became mediocre, and eventually died on the vine. Pickard, Mathew's nemesis, would eventually marry Mathew's daughter, Elizabeth, against his wishes. Pickard became the official biographer of Mathew's famous brother, John Greenleaf Whittier. In that capacity, he marginalized what remained of Mathew's legacy severely.
Mathew and Shillaber remained friends, and continued to collaborate. Mathew appears to have sworn everyone he wrote for to secrecy, so as to suppress his own legacy. Only Shillaber broke ranks and said, publicly in his later years, that Mathew--speaking of him as his one known character, "Ethan Spike"--had been a genius.
Stephen Sakellarios, M.S.
Music opening this page: "The Wells Fargo Wagon"
from the film, "The Music Man"