“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.