Controlled Revelation #2: Science Aficianado.

“I’m really impressed with your ‘close reading’ of The Humourist so far.  […] You’ve always talked about ‘close reading’ in class, but I didn’t know you could get as close as you have to The Humourist, even to the point of checking how closely his quotations matched the original!  I never would have thought of doing that.”   Emails from a Faithful Student

Absolutely:  when you give a literary text a close reading, you get closer and closer to the author, but in order to do so, you must pay attention to every word, to every detail.

My own love affair with “close reading” began when I was a graduate student at the University of South Carolina during the 1970s.  I was part of an editorial team working on a critical edition of the works of American writer Frank Norris.  As literary works are printed and reprinted, numerous errors−sometimes substantive, sometimes accidental−are introduced into the text.  When establishing a critical edition, the goal is to reconstruct the text that is closest to the author’s approved version.  Doing so is not an easy process.

It requires comparing multiple editions of the same work and tracking all the variants.  We used a device called The Hinman Collator:

Shakespear scholar Charlton Hinman developed the Hinman Collator, a mechanical device for the visual comparison of different copies of the same printed text. By 1978, when the last machine was manufactured, around fifty-nine had been acquired by libraries, academic departments, research institutes, government agencies, and a handful of pharmaceutical companies. Though built for the study of printed texts and used primarily for the creation of critical editions of literary authors, the Hinman Collator was also employed in other projects where the close comparison of apparently identical images is required: from the study of illustrations to the examination of watermarks to the detection of forged banknotes. 

I remember spending hour after hour examining various editions of Frank Norris’ novels and dutifully recording the details of the variants that I discovered.  I was about to say that sadly enough I do not remember any of the variants at all.  And I do not.

However, no sadness surrounds my lack of recall.  Instead I am surrounded by great joy because it was during those countless hours of mechanically collating multiple Frank Norris texts that I  came to realize that every word matters.  Every word matters.  Every word.

It was during those countless hours of mechanically collating multiple texts that I fell in love with close reading.  Fell in love.  Close reading.

My hope is that my Faithful Student will continue to be impressed as I continue to share my close reading of The Humourist.

You will recall that my close reading of the Humourist’s November 26, 1753, essay led me to characterize him as a Classicist, Bibliophile, Historian, Lover of Literature, and Painter.

This week I will focus on his essay of December 10, 1753, to see what my close reading discloses.

He continues to show that he is a Lover of Literature by using a quote from James Thompson as his headnote.  Born in 1700, Thompson was an English poet and author of The Seasons.  In addition, the Humourist quotes Edward Young (1683-1765), British poet and dramatist, known especially for his The Revenge: A Tragedy in Five Acts (1721).  Once again, The Humourist quotes these writers verbatim all the way down to the correct poetic line endings.  Clearly, he is not quoting from memory:  he has the literary texts in front of him.  In addition to Thompson and Young, he continues to quote from his old friend Horace, and he quotes from Daniel Heinsius (1580-1655), a Dutch scholar and poet.

Also, the Humourist shows his familiarity with classic rhetoricians and literary critics.  He mentions Longinus, a Greek rhetorician and literary critic whose “On the Sublime” is a treatise on aesthetics and literary criticism and is generally considered to rank second in importance to Aristotle’s Poetics.  Also, he cites Marcus Fabius Quintilianus (c. 35 – c. 100), a Roman rhetorician known for his 12-volume Institutio Oratoria (Institutes of Oratory). 

It seems clear that whoever wrote the Humourist essays was a Classicist and a Lover of Literature.  As we move ahead, we will look for more clues to strengthen that assertion.

But what about the Humourist as Historian?  Indeed, in this essay he mentions “the tower of Babel” and he refers to “the ancients.”  Note as well that the Humourist uses the language−uses the words−that historians use:  “Search the records of old time”, “look into the annals of the present”, and “materials from […] ruins”.  When combined with last week’s clues, they provide additional evidence that the Humourist is an Historian.

Along similar lines−using language that is appropriate to a specific occupational field−you will recall from last week that he promised to provide a “Picture.”  Although he does not fulfill his promise, this week he expands the vocabulary:  “Copy of my countenance”, “painter”, and “sketch”.  I am especially intrigued by “sketch.”  I have known artists who could paint but not draw, and I have known artists who could draw but not paint.  The Humourist’s language suggests that he could paint and draw.  I am intrigued.

And how interesting that the Humourist says of himself:  “As to my private character, that falls more immediately within the sphere of the historian than the painter.”

I am intrigued even more, though, by a new clue that emerges this week.  The Humourist seems to have an interest in science.  Indirectly, he references Isaac Newton (English physicist and mathematician) when he writes “a dwarf standing on the shoulders of a giant may see farther than a giant himself.”  Later in the essay, he shows an even more interest in science when he mentions efforts to “find out the quadrature of a circle, and the creeks and sounds of the north east and north west passages.”  Finally, in the advertisement that follows the essay, he refers to “the occult sciences”, “palmistry and physiognomy”, and “the twelve signs in the zodiac”.

Classicist, Bibliophile, Historian, Lover of Literature, and Painter.  All those have been confirmed and strengthened by this week’s close reading.

Now, we can add:  Science aficionado.

Controlled Revelation #1: Classicist. Bibliophile. Historian. Lover of Literature. Painter.

“And how shall I begin?”

—T. S. Eliot, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”

You will recall that last week I announced my intent to explore the Humourist’s identity, clue by clue, week by week, starting with his first essay published in the South Carolina Gazette on November 26, 1753.

Fortunately, the notes that I made to myself when I first read that essay have not gotten cold, and, indeed, I can still recall what I had in mind when I jotted them down.

I was intrigued by how the Humourist began.  Think about it for a minute.  Whenever you write anything, your options know no boundaries.  And the question always becomes, “And how shall I begin?” 

The Humourist began with making a choice about his pseudonym:  The Humourist.  How interesting.  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.”

Based on this first essay, it seems to me that the Humourist anchors himself to the first meaning:  “a person subject to ‘humours’ or fancies; a fantastical or whimsical person; a faddist.”

Indeed, in the head note to his first essay, we find:  “From my chambers in the Air, Nov. 26.”  I’m still pondering that comment.  Obviously, it could be metaphorical, or, if you will, fantastical.  Could it also be literal?  Is the Humourist observing his world from an upstairs chamber in his Charleston home?  I wonder.  If so, where did he live?  What did he see when he looked out the windows?

So, the Humourist begins with his pseudonym selection, moves on to his “chambers” quote, and then–of all the writers in the entire world–chooses a quote from Horace:  “Quocunque volunt mentem auditoris agunto” (“And raise men’s passions to what heights they will”).  The quote is from Ars Poetica.  But why Horace?  Why that particular quote? Is this simply one more indication that the Humourist sees himself as fantastical?

I am intrigued by those beginnings.  At one point, I thought that the Humourist had taken Horace’s quote from Joseph Addison’s Spectator essay 420 (July 2, 1712), often heralded as the beginning of modern literary aesthetics.  Now I have changed my mind.  It seems far more likely that he was relying on a Latin edition of Horace’s Ars Poetica.

Aside from quoting Horace in his first essay, the Humourist quotes Milton:

—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.

Later in the essay, he quotes Milton again:

—Of Love and amorous Delight;

Both quotes are from Paradise Lost. What intrigues me, though, is not so much that the Humourist is quoting Milton, but rather that he is quoting him with 100% accuracy!   Clearly, then, the Humourist had two books in front of him when he wrote his first essay:  (1) Horace’s Ars Poetica (or, possibly an edition of Addison’s collected Spectator Papers), and (2) Milton’s Paradise Lost.  Clearly, then, the Humourist was a lover of books!  I wonder about the other books that he owned.  Did he have a library?  How many volumes were in it?  Did he have connections to the world of booksellers?

But back to beginnings.  The Humourist begins the third paragraph of his first essay with “If we make a Retrospect into past Times.”  Past times.  When combined with his reference to Horace, it would seem that the Humourist is interested in history.  That claim is confirmed by his sweeping historical summary of the “Tastes of Mankind in the former Ages,” beginning with the days of monkish ignorance and continuing all the way to the “reigning one of these Days, Novel writing without Reason, and Lies without Meaning.”  It’s further confirmed by his references to Queen Elizabeth I, James I, and the Restoration. I’m going out on a limb here, but I am sensing that the Humourist is as rooted in history as he is in books.

Without a doubt, he’s also rooted in literature.  In his first essay he mentions Horace and Milton as well as Edmund Spenser and Sir Philip Sidney.  He was a lover of literature!

Finally, I am intrigued by his promise to provide his readers with a “Picture” of himself.  Might this suggest an interest in painting or in drawing?

I think the Humourist’s first essay of November 26, 1753, gives us a solid beginning:

  • the Humourist as a classicist
  • the Humourist as a lover of books
  • the Humourist as an historian
  • the Humourist as a lover of literature
  • the Humourist as a painter

So here I sit at my desk, using my computer and the Internet to create today’s post.  I am mindful of all the mistakes that I have made in the process and of how easy it has been for me to find my errors and correct them.  The Humourist, on the other hand, would not have had such tools.  He would have used a quill pen and ink to prepare his manuscript in longhand.  I wonder about his mistakes and his corrections.  I wonder about how many times it took him to create a “fair copy” ready to hand over to the editor of The South Carolina Gazette for his November 26, 1753, literary debut as a South Carolina author.

Controlled Revelations (April 16, 2013)

At last, the day has arrived that I have promised.  At last the day has arrived that you have been waiting for.  At last, the day has arrived when I …

But wait!  Such heightened anticipation requires a drum roll!

Surely, we can do better than that.  Let’s have a real drum roll:

Much, much better!  Now, as I was saying, the day has arrived when I reveal … Continue reading

The Humourist (April 9, 1754)

Just as the Humourist appeared mysteriously in the South Carolina Gazette on November 26, 1753, he disappears mysteriously with the announcement that appears below.  (Don’t forget, however, that I will continue my blog.  Next week, on April 16, I’ll share my plan for unveiling all the authorship “clues” that I have amassed since the blog began last November 26.)

[9 April 1754]

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 construed 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 Humourist (April 2, 1754)

[2 April 1754]


— — Facies non omnibus una,

Nec diversa tamen.  — —1

I have made an Observation in the Course of my Reading, that no Part of Poetry strikes like Descriptions; and I believe most People will agree in Opinion with me.  Descriptions are generally formed from Ideas drawn the Senses, and consequently have as great an Effect upon the Mind, as a Picture upon the Sight; but moral Discourses operate very differently, and as they act with less Vivacity, of Course they require more Reason and Consideration to determine our Judgments.

Who does not instantaneously form to himself the exact Resemblance of Nature in a lively Description of a Storm, a Battle, or a Garden?  But who can, with equal Ease, perceive the proper Beauties necessary to distinguish an Orator, a King, or a General.  These several Characters require a peculiar Turn of Sentiment and Expression, which very few People have Judgment to distinguish.

As the Propriety or Impropriety of a Description is immediately perceived, so there is a general and almost uniform Similitude in those of the same Object, drawn by different Authors.  A picture of the same Person by several Artists, may resemble each other, so that one may fix upon the Object which they intended to represent; and yet at the same Time, the Degrees of Likeness, and the various Manner of expressing it, make a very apparent and pleasing Variety.

Amongst the numerous kinds of Descriptions, I think, none have been more generally received than those of the Morning.  The Heroic Poets seem to have exercised all their Talents in varying them:  They have sported with their Imaginations almost to Extravagance.  I have collected together some few Instances which may not be unacceptable to the Reader.  The following is from Virgil, in Mr. Dryden’s Translation.2

Aurora now had left her saffron bed,

And beams of early light the heav’ns o’erspread.

The morn began from Ida to display

Her rosy cheeks, and Phospor led the day.

It will be endless and indeed unnecessary, to multiply Examples out of all the Antients, and therefore I have produced some from our modern Writers.  Both Tasso3 and Spencer4 have succeeded admirably in this Description, but superior to them all are those of Shakespeare, and the following Instance is a striking one.

Look where the morn, in russet mantle clad,

Walks o’er the dew of yon high eastern hill.5

In another Place he has embellish’d it thus,

— — — — Look what streaks

Do lace the severing clouds in yonder east,

Night’s tapers are burnt out, and jocund day

Stands tiptoe on the misty mountain-tops.6

The two following Descriptions are quite poetical.

The glow-worm shews the mattin to be near,

And ‘gins to pale his uneffectual fire.7

— — — — — Yon grey lines

That fret the clouds, are messengers of day.8

That admirable Description in Otway’s Orphan, affords more Diversity of Images than any of the rest.

Wish’d morning’s come9

I am not so attached to the Antients, as to give them the Preference in this Part of Poetry, tho’ most People are so bigoted to their Beautie, that they will allow little or no Excellence in the modern Writers:  For my Part, I must confess, that I cannot find in any of the Antients, that Elegance of Sentiment, ort Luxuriancy of Fancy, which many modern Writers have exemplified in their beautiful Descriptions of the Morning.


1 From Ovid: “Their faces were not all alike, nor yet unlike, but such as those of sisters ought to be.”

2 From John Dryden’s translation of Virgil’s Aeneid.

3 Torquato Tasso (1544-1595), Italian poet.

4 Edmund Spenser (1552-1599), Renaissance English Poet.

5 Hamlet, Act I, scene 1, line 166.

6 Romeo and Juliet, Act III, scene 5.

7 Hamlet, Act 1, scene 5, lines 89-90.

8 Julius Caesar, Act II, scene 1.

9 Thomas Otway (1652-1685), English dramatist. The Orphan is considered to be one of his two tragic masterpieces.