Step back into history with me, if you will: two hundred and fifty nine years ago, today—November 26, 1753. We’re in Colonial America, specifically, Charleston, South Carolina.
We’re looking at the November 26 issue of The South Carolina Gazette, where we notice the first of many essays to be published in that newspaper under the title, “The Humourist.”
As we continue to read the weekly Gazette through 1754, we uncover a total of 17 essays, 7 letters, 1 song, 1 unfinished poem, 2 advertisements, and 2 related items—all by “The Humourist.” Finally, we come to his “Retirement Notice”:
The Humourist is become an Invalid, and as he loves Retirement must quit the foolish busy World, and please his vacant Hours with the secret Satisfaction of having intentionally displeased no one. He thanks the Publick for having generously constructed these Papers; but, for some private Reasons, is under a Necessity of declaring, that he will never more (either under this or any other Title, or on any Pretence, or on any Occasion whatsoever) enter the Lists of Authorism in this Province.
The essays which began so mysteriously have ended thus strangely and inexplicably. The retirement notice was the last contribution by “The Humourist.”
Join me in this blog as I explore, study, analyze—and enjoy— The Humourist’s contributions to Colonial American Literature. Join me as I try to solve this literary “whodunit.” Who is the author writing under the pseudonym of The Humourist? By giving his essays a close textual reading, I’m confident that I will solve the mystery!
Let’s get started by reading his first essay, published on November 26, 1753. It sets the stage and provides a good sampling of essays that will follow in later blog posts.
From my chambers in the Air, Nov. 26.
—Quocunque volunt mentem auditoris agunto. HOR.1
It is necessary to premise that I am a Man of a peculiar odd Way of Thinking, and I shall consequently make myself very merry at the Particularities of other People. Thus much for Preface.
The Humourist2 will never pester the World with Incoherency or unnatural Occurrences, under the specious Pretence of painting true Life or copying after Nature. Thus much for Self-Praise.
If we make a Retrospect into past Times, we shall find, that as the Morals of the People varied, so did their Species of Writing. In the Days of monkish Ignorance,3 romantic Legends bore an universal Sway; and in the happy Times of good Queen Bess,4 the World was joyously entertained with Fairy Land, and Tales of Chivalry; Spenser5 is my Testimony, and Sir Philip’s Acadia6 confirms it: Then it was (as Milton unerringly expresses it) their Art
—Chief Mastery to dissect,
With long and tedious Havoc, fabled Knights
In Battle feign’d.
—Or to describe Races and Games;
Or tilting Furniture, emblazon’d Shields,
Impresses quaint, Caparisons and Steeds;
Bases and tinsel Trappings, gorgeous Knights
At Jouse and Tournament; then marshall’d Feasts
Serv’d up in Halls with Sewers and Seneschals.7
In the Reign of James I,8 the People were all scared at imaginary Ghosts and headless Apparitions, with Tales of Witches suck’d by ram Cats, and Devils smoaking Tobacco.
The Restoration,9 amongst other of its happy Consequences, introduced a certain Gaieté de Cœur, an Ease and Familiarity, and all Things seem’d to breathe the spirit
—Of Love and amorous Delight;10
From this Moment I date the Stony-heartedness of pretty Misses to their languishing Admirers, and the glorious Opportunity for plotting Wives to bamboozle their jealous pated Husbands.
Thus have I cursorily run over the various Tastes of Mankind in the former Ages; and therefore cannot avoid mentioning that reigning one of these Days, Novel11 writing without Reason, and Lies without Meaning.
If then the Humourist is so happy as to avoid these Errors, and is capable to strike out some few Lights, or keep in a due and entertaining Medium between them, the Satisfaction will amply recompence the Trouble, and tend both to please the Writer and amuse the Reader.
The utmost Aim of my Compositions shall be directed to please; and if I now and then chance to tour uncommon Heights, the World must understand that I am improving the Method of Writing, and that my Habitation is in the Air.
I am an aerial Spirit; and as an inducement to the World to Read my Paper, they may shortly expect a Present of my Picture, which, like the Statue of Mercury in the Fable,12 shall be thrown into the Bargain.
1 And raise men’s passions to what heights they will. Horace, Ars Poetica, v. 100. More likely than not, the Humourist took the quote from Joseph Addison’s Spectator essay 420 (July 2, 1712), often heralded as the beginning of modern literary aesthetics. In subsequent essays, the Humourist uses numerous mottoes from many classical writers.
2 The Oxford English Dictionary provides three definitions of the word humourist, also spelled humorist: (1) “A person subject to ‘humours’ or fancies; a fantastical or whimsical person; a faddist” (2) “A facetious or comical person, a wag; a humorous talker, actor, or writer; in mod. use esp. one skilled in the literary or artistic expression of humour.” (3) “One given to humouring or indulging.”
3 The Humourist is making a sweeping reference to Medieval monasticism. The Oxford English Dictionary notes that by 1576, “Monkish” was used frequently in a derogatory manner similar to the way The Humourist is using the word here in conjunction with “ignorance.”
11 The novel emerged in the Eighteenth Century as the middle class grew, as more people learned to read, and as more people had money to spend on literature. Major novelists of the period include Daniel Defoe (Robinson Crusoe, 1719; Moll Flanders, 1722); Samuel Richardson (Pamela, 1740-41; Clarissa, 1747-48); and Henry Fielding (Joseph Andrews, 1742; Tom Jones, 1749).