Controlled Revelation #10: The Humourist as Author of America’s First Essay Criticizing Critics!

I have no Ambition of your Acquaintance, nor will I concern myself with the Sect, abominable Tribe!  Your Name bespeaks Contempt; more it may, less methinks! it cannot.The Humourist to the Critics (February 12, 1754)

Today we explore The Humourist’s two essays of February 12, 1754.  In the first essay, he criticizes literary critics.  In his second essay, he promises to lay any man “on his Center of Gravity” if he laughs at or jokes about his writings.

As I study these two essays, I confess that I am feeling more and more like Bradford McLaughlin, the hugger-mugger farmer in Robert Frost’s “The Star-Splitter.”  Brad had a penchant for star-gazing, and he decided to burn his house down and collect the insurance money so that he could buy himself a telescope “To satisfy a lifelong curiosity /about our place among the infinities.”  With six hundred dollars and a new job, he fulfilled his goal.  One night, he and a friend were out stargazing:

Bradford and I had out the telescope.
We spread our two legs as it spread its three,
Pointed our thoughts the way we pointed it,
And standing at our leisure till the day broke,
Said some of the best things we ever said.
That telescope was christened the Star-Splitter,
Because it didn’t do a thing but split
A star in two or three the way you split
A globule of quicksilver in your hand
With one stroke of your finger in the middle.
It’s a star-splitter if there ever was one,
And ought to do some good if splitting stars
‘Sa thing to be compared with splitting wood.

We’ve looked and looked, but after all where are we?
Do we know any better where we are,
And how it stands between the night tonight
And a man with a smoky lantern chimney?
How different from the way it ever stood?

And so it is with me this week as I examine these two Humourist essays.  I have looked and looked, but do I know anything new about his identity?  Have I been able to find any new clues?

Not many.

His first essay confirms that which we knew already:  he loves literature and the classics.  Thus, we can move on.

His second essay—a logical follow-up to the first—shows the action he will take if any critic dare criticize his work:  he will lay him “on his Center of Gravity.”  Volatile?  Perhaps so.  Look at the following passage from that essay.  It does provide some clues:

Know then, that I was born under a Planet not to die in a Lazaretto.  The hot Constellation of Cancer presided at my Nativity.  Mars was then predominant.  Of all the Elements, Fire sways most in me.  I have many Aspirings, many elevated Conceptions, owing, for the most Part, to the peculiar Quality of the ground wherein I was born, which was the Top of a Hill situated South-East, so that the House must be illustrious, being so obvious o the Sun-Beams.

Thus, we now know—assuming that The Humourist is telling the truth—that he was born under the sign of Cancer, between June 22 and July 23.  Further, we know that Mars was predominant, so he has a willingness to fight for a cause.  In this case, he is willing to fight Critics who attack his literary works.  (I wonder:  why is he so passionate about this topic?  Has he himself been the victim of critics?  Food for thought.)  So, perhaps, my looking and looking has disclosed some new information after all.

But what am I to do with “I have many Aspirings, many elevated Conceptions, owing, for the most Part, to the peculiar Quality of the ground wherein I was born, which was the Top of a Hill situated South-East, so that the House must be illustrious, being so obvious o the Sun-Beams.”  Well, I have done a lot with that information, but remember:  these are controlled revelations, and I must control how much I reveal just now.  If I say too much, I could reveal all—prematurely!

Truthfully then—and I am not teasing now—I have looked and looked at these essays, and although I know a little more about The Humourist, I don’t know a lot more about him this week than I knew before.

However, all is not lost.

What occurs to me as I examine these two essays is that The Humourist holds the distinction of having written the first Colonial American essay criticizing literary critics.  It is possible, of course, that I might be wrong in making this claim, but I don’t think so.  I have spent the better part of the last two days thinking about and exploring American writers who have criticized literary critics.  I have found no early American essays dealing exclusively with that topic So, from that perspective, The Humourist’s February 12, 1754, essays hold a unique place in American literature.

My research journey that allowed me to make this claim has been an interesting one, and I thought I would share highlights with you, especially selected quotes about critics and criticism.

It may well be that critics have always been fault-finders.  In his essay, The Humourist zeroes in on a compelling story:

When Phidias had completed the Athenian Minerva, a Critic, of much the same Discernment with these of the present Age, intimated to him, that the Waist was too thick; the silly Crowd, who always put an Implicit Faith in these malevolent Leaders, join’d in the Opinion, and the Statuary, in order to rectify the Blunder, chipp’d it to the Delicacy of their Fancy:  But when another Set of People came to see it, they insisted, that it was too slender; Phidias then threw aside his Tools, informing them, that it was impossible to chip any on again.

Other quotes from “the Antients” that show critics in a less-than-favorable light come to mind.  Marcus Tullius Cicero (106 BC –43 BC) commented, “I criticize by creation, not by finding fault.”   Aristotle (384 BC-322BC) noted that “Criticism is something we can avoid easily by saying nothing, doing nothing, and being nothing.  And Plutarch (c. 46-120AD) observed, “It is a thing of no great difficulty to raise objections against another man’s oration, it is a very easy matter; but to produce a better in its place is a work extremely troublesome.”

According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) the word “critic” came into the English language as a noun meaning “One who pronounces judgement on any thing or person; esp. one who passes severe or unfavourable judgement; a censurer, fault-finder, caviller”  in 1598.  Two instances of its usage appear in that year.  In his Worlde of Wordes, J. Florio defines critic as “Those notable Pirates in this our paper-sea, those sea-dogs, or lande-Critikes, monsters of men.”  In the same year, Shakespeare used it in his Love’s Labour’s Lost, “I that haue been loues whip…A Crietick, nay, a night-watch Constable.”

The Humourist’s British contemporaries also looked at critics with suspicion.  Below are some representative quotes:

Joseph Addison (1672-1719)

“A true critic ought to dwell upon excellencies rather than imperfections, to discover the concealed beauties of a writer, and communicate to the world such things as are worth their observation.”

“It is ridiculous for any man to criticize the works of another if he has not distinguished himself by his own performances.”

Jonathan Swift (1667-1745)

“’That was excellently observed’, say I, when I read a passage in an author, where his opinion agrees with mine. When we differ, there I pronounce him to be mistaken.”

“We of this age have discovered a shorter, and more prudent method to become scholars and wits, without the fatigue of reading or of thinking.”

Henry Fielding (1707-1754)

“Now, in reality, the world has paid too great a compliment to critics, and has imagined them to be men of much greater profundity then they really are.”

Samuel Johnson (1709-1784)

“Court not the critic’s smile nor dread his frown.”

“Criticism is a study by which men grow important and formidable at very small expense. He whom nature has made weak, and idleness keeps ignorant, may yet support his vanity by the name of a critic.”

“The duty of criticism is neither to depreciate nor dignify by partial representations, but to hold out the light of reason, whatever it may discover; and to promulgate the determinations of truth, whatever she shall dictate.”

As for writers in the American colonies, The Humourist had one or two who could keep him company when it came to criticizing critics. One predates his arrival on the scene. Anne Bradstreet (1612-1672), in her “The Author to Her Book,” pens these lines:

In this array ‘mongst vulgars may’st thou roam.
In critic’s hands beware thou dost not come,
And take thy way where yet thou art not known;
If for thy father asked, say thou hadst none;
And for thy mother, she alas is poor,
Which caused her thus to send thee out of door.

Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790),  one of The Humourist’s contemporaries, commented, “Any fool can criticize, condemn and complain and most fools do.”

As I pondered what other American writers had said about critics, I could only recall several quotes. One is from Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849):  “In criticism, I will be bold, and as sternly, absolutely just with friend and foe. From this purpose nothing shall turn me.”  Poe, of course, had such a negative reputation as a critic that he was dubbed “The Hatchet Man,” presumably after Felix Octavius Carr Darley drew a caricature of Poe that was published in Holden’s Dollar Magazine, January 3, 1849.

Hatchet ManThe caricature was accompanied by the following verse:

“With tomahawk upraised for deadly blow,
Behold our literary Mohawk, Poe!
Sworn tyrant he o‘er all who sin in verse —
His own the standard, damns he all that’s worse;
And surely not for this shall he be blamed —
For worse than his deserves that it be damned!”

Other than Poe and Franklin and Bradstreet, I could also come up with James Russell Lowell’s A Fable for Critics (1848), a book-length poem that poked fun at well-known poets and critics of the time, including Lowell himself!

Having exhausted my immediate knowledge reservoir of what America writers had to say about critics, I did some cursory research and compiled some quotations that show a prevailing attitude of scorn and disdain.

James Fenimore Cooper (1789-1851)

“‘Tis a strange calling!’ muttered Hawkeye, with an inward laugh, ‘to go through life, like a catbird, mocking all the ups and downs that may happen to come out of other men’s throats.'”

Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882)

“As long as all that is said is said against me, I feel a certain sublime assurance of success, but as soon as honied words of praise are spoken for me, I feel as one that lies unprotected before his enemies.”

“Blame is safer than praise.”

Oliver Wendell Holmes (1809-1894)

“Nature, when she invented, manufactured and patented her authors, contrived to make critics out of the chips that were left.”

 Mark Twain (1835-1910)

“Tomorrow night I appear for the first time before a Boston audience – 4000 critics.”

 “The trade of critic, in literature, music, and the drama, is the most degraded of all trades.”

“I haven’t any right to criticize books, and I don’t do it except when I hate them. I often want to criticize Jane Austen, but her books madden me so that I can’t conceal my frenzy from the reader; and therefore I have to stop every time I begin. Every time I read Pride and Prejudice I want to dig her up and beat her over the skull with her own shin-bone.”

Henry Adams (1838-1918)

“These questions of taste, of feeling, of inheritance, need no settlement. Everyone carries his own inch-rule of taste, and amuses himself by applying it, triumphantly, wherever he travels.”

Henry James (1843-1916)

“When you lay down a proposition which is forthwith controverted, it is of course optional with you to take up the cudgels in its defence. If you are deeply convinced of its truth, you will perhaps be content to leave it to take care of itself; or, at all events, you will not go out of your way to push its fortunes; for you will reflect that in the long run an opinion often borrows credit from the forbearance of its patrons. In the long run, we say; it will meanwhile cost you an occasional pang to see your cherished theory turned into a football by the critics. A football is not, as such, a very respectable object, and the more numerous the players, the more ridiculous it becomes. Unless, therefore, you are very confident of your ability to rescue it from the chaos of kicks, you will best consult its interests by not mingling in the game.”

H. L. Mencken (1880-1956)

“I have often misunderstood men grossly, and I have misrepresented them when I understood them, sacrificing sense to make a phrase. Here, of course, is where even the most conscientious critic often goes aground; he is apt to be an artist before he is a scientist, and the impulse to create something passionately is stronger in him than the impulse to state something accurately.”

William Faulkner (1897-1962)

“The artist doesn’t have time to listen to the critics. The ones who want to be writers read the reviews, the ones who want to write don’t have the time to read reviews.”

Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961)

“’Hem,’ he said, and I knew he was a critic now, since, in conversation, they put your name at the beginning of a sentence rather than at the end.”

John Steinbeck (1902-1968)

“In literary criticism the critic has no choice but to make over the victim of his attention into something the size and shape of himself.”

Randall Jarrell (1914-1965)

“More and more people think of the critic as an indispensable middle man between writer and reader, and would no more read a book alone, if they could help it, than have a baby alone.”

Lawrence Ferlinghetti (b. 1919)

“Don’t bow down to critics who have not themselves written great masterpieces.”

Edward Albee (b. 1928)

“The difference between critics and audiences is that one is a group of humans and one is not.”

Joyce Carol Oates (b. 1938)

“Critics sometimes appear to be addressing themselves to works other than those I remember writing.”

Stephen King (b. 1947)

“I have spent a good many years since–too many, I think–being ashamed about what I write. I think I was forty before I realized that almost every writer of fiction or poetry who has ever published a line has been accused by someone of wasting his or her God-given talent. If you write (or paint or dance or sculpt or sing, I suppose), someone will try to make you feel lousy about it, that’s all.”

So, perhaps my “looking and looking” paid off after all. 

I know a lot more now than I did when it comes to what American writers have had to say about critics.  And I feel confident in my claim:  the Humourist wrote America’s first essay criticizing critics!

Controlled Revelation #9: The Humourist as Cynic

Cynic. B. n. 2.  A person disposed to rail or find fault; now usually: One who shows a disposition to disbelieve in the sincerity or goodness of human motives and actions, and is wont to express this by sneers and sarcasms; a sneering fault-finder. (As defined in The Oxford English Dictionary)

As we re-examine The Humourist’s essay of February 5, 1754, it would be tempting for me—ever so tempting— to maintain that which is obvious: The Humourist is a lover of literature, especially poetry and drama.

He uses as the headnote to his February 5, 1754, essay a quote from Samuel Garth’s The Dispensary: A Poem in Six Cantos (1699), a satire on apothecaries and physicians:

He hates Realities and hugs the Cheat,
And still the Pleasure lies in the Deceit. (Canto III, Lines 23-24)

He ends the essay with a quote from John Milton’s Paradise Lost:

For neither Man nor Angel can discern
Hypocrisy, the only Evil that walks
Invisible, except to God alone. (Book III, line 682)

Betwixt and between, he sprinkles dramatic references.  He begins the essay with “The World is compared to the Theatre”—no doubt an allusion to Jacque’s lines in Shakespeare:  “All the world’s a stage, / And all the men and women merely players” (As You Like It 2.7 139-40)). In the second paragraph, he observes that Flavio, has “run thro’ the several Stages with amazing Spirit and Vivacity”—again an allusion to Shakespeare’s Jacque:

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. (As You Like It 2.7 139-43)

Further along in this essay he shows his interest in and knowledge of a literary genre relatively new on the British scene—the novel.  No doubt, his Miss Grave-Airs crying out, “Lord!  Mr. Sly-boots, I am all Amazement, that a Gentleman of your good natural Endowments, should devote yourself so entirely to the Art of Teasing” is an allusion to the character and sentiment of Miss Grave-Airs in Henry Fielding’s Joseph Andrews, or The History of the Adventures of Joseph Andrews and of his Friend Mr. Abraham Adams (1742)

Sly-boots, on the other hand, is a little more difficult to nail.  As the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) notes, it is a colloquial word meaning “A sly, cunning, or crafty person; one who does things on the sly.”  The word’s early usage, however, is most interesting.  According to the OED, it first appeared in B. E.’s A New Dictionary of the Terms Ancient and Modern of the Canting Crew  (1699).  What the OED does not disclose is that this was the first English dictionary of the jargon of thieves and robbers!  (For those who are interested, this dictionary was re-issued by The Bodleian Library in 2010 under the title The First English Dictionary of Slang, 1699 with an introduction by John Simpson, chief editor of the OED. And, for those who are really interested, you might enjoy reading Angie Mlinko’s review of this re-issued version: “The Canting Crew: A New Edition of The First English Dictionary of Slang is a Saucy Survey of the Rogue Jargon of the Late Seventeenth Century.”)

And, even though I might be venturing out to the outer edge of the proverbial limb where I often like to go and where I am often found, it is possible—just possible—that the allusion to Mr. Sly-boots is to Colley Cibber’s 1701 play Love Makes a Man: or, The Fop’s Fortune, a Comedy:

Look, look!—look o’ Sly-boots! What she knows nothing of the matter! (ii. 15)

Be that as it may, one thing is clear—and I think we can agree on it:  The Humourist is a lover of literature.  So, for the moment, let us put that point aside as an established fact.  But another thing is clear as well—and I think we can agree on it, too:  I’ll continue to explore The Humourist’s literary loves as I continue to share with you more and more Controlled Revelations.

For now, however, I want to focus on what caught my attention as I explored—still one more time—The Humourist’s February 5, 1754, essay, the topic of today’s post.

What struck me smack dab in the middle of my sensibilities was how cynical The Humourist is in this essay.  In fact, the essay is so imbued with cynicism that I am surprised I let the essay’s dazzling prose so deceive me up to this point in my research.

How could I have missed the cynicism that get’s us started with this essay—the quote from Samuel Garth’s The Dispensary: A Poem in Six Cantos—a satire on apothecaries and physicians:

He hates Realities and hugs the Cheat,
And still the Pleasure lies in the Deceit. (Canto III, Lines 23-24)

How haunting:  “the Pleasure lies in the Deceit.”

How haunting—disturbingly so—that The Humourist would choose such a quote. (Writers are well aware of the important choices they make when they decide what to put in and what to leave out.)

Of all the quotes that he could have chosen, he chose:  “The Pleasure lies in the Deceit.”  And, indeed, deceit—elevated to a level of near celebration—is the topic of this entire essay which captures the mindset of a cynic at his best.

The OED gives several definitions for the noun cynic.  However, it is the second usage of the noun that best fits my take on how this essay reveals one aspect of The Humourist’s personality:

Cynic. B. n. 2.  A person disposed to rail or find fault; now usually: One who shows a disposition to disbelieve in the sincerity or goodness of human motives and actions, and is wont to express this by sneers and sarcasms; a sneering fault-finder.

Disposition to disbelieve in the sincerity or goodness of human motives and actions.

Precisely!  That is precisely what we find throughout The Humourist’s February 5, 1754, essay—from start to finish.

From this point forward—and I would hope that we can agree on this point, too—The Humourist has shown himself to be a cynic.

Let us explore the ways.

He disparages mankind:

Human Life in some Degree resembles a Masquerade, wherein consists a Medley of incoherent Characters, rudely pressing upon each other, and acting Parts unequal to their several Abilities.  I have taken the Liberty to enlarge the Comparison, and I hope that it is a legal Licence, as it comes nearer to the Purpose of this Essay, and will assist me in proving, that Mankind plays the Cheat, and that Fallacy and Disguise attend the minutest Actions of our Lives. [emphasis supplied]

He belittles the individual:

Flavio (born to make all Mankind happy but himself) is a Gentleman of Birth and Education; he has run thro’ the several Stages with amazing Spirit and Vivacity; all his Possessions now center in his Name, indeed he still enjoys a certain Gaiety, and such a Correctness of Freedom, as adds Dignity to his Deportment and an easy Negligence to his Address.

His chief Happiness has ever been to deceive himself:  In the worst Emergency of Affairs, he has never felt much Remorse at the Loss of Company, his fertile Genius always supplying him with Prospects of imaginary Happiness. [emphasis supplied]

He makes jabs at women:

Tom Easy, who is a jocose Fellow, protests, that one strong Motive for our Devotion to the softer Sex is, because they are possessed of a most incomparable Method of cheating us, and that with wonderful Dexterity. [emphasis supplied]

He condemns Patriots and those who would seek Liberty:

The Patriot, bellowing with Iron Lungs against Men in Power, hazards his Fame upon a mere Contingency, and forfeits his Reputation by deceiving himself into a Place:  As formerly he sung of Liberty, he now makes Music of his Chains. [emphasis supplied]

He undermines those who hold office and those who hold wealth:

In one Place, I can observe an impious great Man, seemingly depressed with the Weight of Office, improving, tho’ not observing, Learning or Religion. [emphasis supplied]

In another Place, a wealthy Monster sacrificing a numerous Family by Donations to Hospitals, thinking to procure a good Name, by Munificence abroad and Poverty at home. [emphasis supplied]

He erodes confidence in the munificence of the clergy:

I can observe a wealthy Pluralist, battening in the Sun-shine of Prosperity, and exulting in the Pomp of cathedral Glory, busied in Subscriptions for the Widows of poor deceased Clergymen, when his Abilities point out a quicker Remedy; deceiving at once, Mankind by the Imposition, and himself, by playing with his Conscience.

Finally he holds out no hope whatsoever—not one iota—for even one honest man, free of deceit:

By such specious Pretences, and other insidious Means, Mankind deceive each other; and if there happens to fall in the Way one honest Man, free from Deceit, free from Imposition, his want of Judgment or Discernment renders him a Victim to the multiplied Attacks of fraudulent Conspiracies. [emphasis supplied]

What does all of this suggest about The Humourist’s world view?  Wait!  Don’t answer yet!  You must consider one more example of his cynicism, and it is revealing.  As I noted earlier, he ends his essay with a quote from Milton’s Paradise Lost:

For neither Man nor Angel can discern
Hypocrisy, the only Evil that walks
Invisible, except to God alone. (Book III, line 682).

It is so easy to be lulled into believing those lines.  But don’t be deceived.  Hypocrisy is not invisible.  Hypocrisy is not known to God alone.  Hypocrisy is visible to other hypocrites!  Hypocrisy is known to other hypocrites.

I am reminded of the conflict that presents itself in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s famed short story, “Young Goodman Brown.”  Whenever I teach this story, students get caught up in trying to determine whether Young Goodman Brown dreamt that he lost his Faith or whether he had a real forest encounter with the Devil and thereby lost his Faith.

They lose sight of the fact that the answer does not matter.  What matters—whether the result of a dream or the result of a real encounter—is the fact that Young Goodman Brown came to see sin in the lives of all those around him:  his grandfather, Goody Cloyse, the Minister, Deacon Gookin, his wife Faith—indeed, all the Godly people of Salem.

Ironically, he could see sin in others, but he could not see the sin in his own sinful soul.  As a result, he became:

A stern, a sad, a darkly meditative, a distrustful, if not a desperate man … On the Sabbath day, when the congregation were singing a holy psalm, he could not listen because an anthem of sin rushed loudly upon his ear and drowned all the blessed strain. When the minister spoke from the pulpit with power and fervid eloquence, and, with his hand on the open Bible, of the sacred truths of our religion, and of saint-like lives and triumphant deaths, and of future bliss or misery unutterable, then did Goodman Brown turn pale, dreading lest the roof should thunder down upon the gray blasphemer and his hearers. Often, waking suddenly at midnight, he shrank from the bosom of Faith; and at morning or eventide, when the family knelt down at prayer, he scowled and muttered to himself, and gazed sternly at his wife, and turned away. And when he had lived long, and was borne to his grave a hoary corpse, followed by Faith, an aged woman, and children and grandchildren, a goodly procession, besides neighbors not a few, they carved no hopeful verse upon his tombstone, for his dying hour was gloom.

Young Goodman Brown met his gloom because of his own spiritual smugness.  His was a holier-than-thou life wherein all around him—save for him—were sinners.

Isn’t that the case with cynics?  Smugness, spiritual and otherwise?  Isn’t that the case with cynics?  A holier-than-thou life?  Might not that have been the case with The Humourist?  We shall see, eventually.  For now, we can see this much clearly:  The Humourist is masterful at being a cynic.

Controlled Revelation #8: Glimpses into The Humourist’s Demeanor

A Relaxation of Behaviour is not amiss upon some Occasions; where it is call’d in to enliven Conversation, or when so used as neither to discompose the Mind of the Hearer or injure the Speaker; where it neither derogates from Sense or infringes on the Laws of decency; for untim’d Mirth is Ill-Nature, and Humour void of a Moral is an Argument of Weakness. —The Humourist

Today we are exploring The Humourist’s essay of January 29, 1754.  It’s one of my favorite essays because it discusses a serious topic—professional behavior.  “Our actions ought to be suited to the Nature of our Professions, and be so tempered, as that Mankind may have it in their Power to say, that we discover Courtesy at the same Time that we preserve Respect.”

Here’s what I said, in part, when I published that essay on January 29, 2013:  “the Humourist shows us the personal essay at its best. In response to an earlier post, someone speculated that the Humourist was Benjamin Franklin. Although he is not Ben Franklin, this essay is on a par with Franklin’s essays, and, it is filled with pithy observations that could pass for Franklin aphorisms.”

I stand by that assessment, and I urge you to reread the essay for the pure joy of savoring every sentence.

I also said that the essay was chock full of clues, especially as the Humourist reveals his own demeanor.

Indeed it is!

Note, for example, the comment:  “In the small Concerns of Life wherein I have been engaged I always found that a certain Degree of Gravity was the surest Step towards distinguishing Eminence of Station.”  As you will come to discover—as we work our way through these Controlled Revelations—The Humourist held many professional positions during his life: some big; others, small.  In all of them, however, those who spoke of him spoke of his gravity, his seriousness.  This will serve as substantial corroborating authorial evidence.

Further in the essay, The Humourist writes:  “Many a Man passes in the Crowd of Life for a Philosopher, because he looks one”.  So, too, The Humourist took on many professional roles in his life—and, generally, he succeeded at them—because he looked the part and played the part well.  Again, this will serve as substantial corroborating authorial evidence.

What intrigues me, though, as I write this Controlled Revelation post is the seeming casual beginning of the essay:  “Sir William Temple somewhere says, that he knew a Statesman, that had rather have said a smart Thing than done a wise one, and whose Bent of Inclination rather prompted him to set the Company in a Horse-Laugh, than the Nation rejoice.”

It is as if The Humourist knew that his readers would know that Sir William Temple (1628-1699) was a Restoration diplomat, statesman, and essayist.  It is as if The Humourist knew that his readers might even know the “somewhere” behind the paraphrase.

And, on reflection, his Charlestonian readers most likely would have been that learned and that well read.  In Building Charleston, Emma Hart observes that:

Charleston held its own in the polite discourse that filled the pages of the Gentleman’s Magazine, with men like Charles Lining receiving praise for their learned contributions to science and the arts, and engravings devoted to the fashionable architecture in the town.  […] In one such article, Charleston remained the only city whose inhabitants were described as “very genteel and polite,” a character said to stem from sophisticated urban institutions such as public libraries.  Maryland and Virginia, on the other hand, were dismissed in a few brief sentences precisely because of their lack of any significant towns. (140-41)

It’s important to keep The Humourist’s readers in mind as we examine his essays:  Charlestonians were cosmopolitan and learned.  Little wonder, then, that he ends this essay with an indirect reference to Pittacus (c. 640-568 BC), one of the Seven Sages of Greece, and a native of Mytilene:  “The Paradox of the wise Man of Mitilene, that the half is better than the whole, may bear this Application, that one half of our Abilities properly husbanded, and the other half discovered, is of more real Importance, than the whole profusely squandered.”

And have I told you—I think not—that unlike The Humourist’s Charleston readers, I have still not found where Sir William Temple says that he knew a statesman who would have rather said a smart thing than done a wise one!   I remain clueless, at the moment, but as I continue to explore Temple’s works, I am certain I will find the primary source.  I want to know precisely what he said.  I want Temple’s words.

Why do I need to find the source?  For no reason whatsoever other than to satisfy my own intellectual curiosity.  Isn’t that the essence of research?  Isn’t that the essence of lifelong learning?  I think so.

And, therein, the challenges, discoveries, and joys—of research!

Controlled Revelation #7: Vindicated (Perhaps)

“‘I declare, Mrs. Rand, I cried myself into a snit.’ ‘A snit?’ ‘I do deplore it, but when I’m in a snit I’m prone to bull the object of my wrath plumb in the tummy.’” —C. Boothe,  Kiss Boys Good-Bye  ii. i. 105  (1939).  [Oxford English Dictionary, first use of the word snit.]

This week we examine The Humourist’s essay of January 22, 1754.  As always, I encourage you to follow the link and re-read that essay so that you can get back into the spirit of our analysis.

I just re-read the essay, and I remain pleased with my lines that introduced it:

Today, the Humourist explores connections between what a writer eats and what a writer writes!

Pay close attention: he continues to provide us with clues as he shows his ongoing knowledge of and interest in the ancients, in drama, and in painting.

Indeed, The Humourist does focus a lot on drama!  That’s a major clue, and I picked up on it early on in my reading of his essays.  At the same time, I believe that I could have shed more light initially on this essay than I did, so I am glad to have a chance to give it another close reading in hopes of finding more.  That’s the beauty of this approach:  finding more—always and in all ways.

In exploring the connections between what a “writer eats and what a writer writes,” The Humourist notes that “Mr. Bayes, in the Rehearsal, acquaints us, that he always took stewed Prunes whenever he proposed to write.”

My original explanatory note, I confess, was lame at best:

George Villiers’ 1671 satirical play concerning a revolutionary playwright Bayes who was attempting to stage a play.

Rest assured:  the note is an accurate note.  But, upon further investigation, I found out that the “play” Bayes was attempting to stage consisted, largely, of excerpts from other heroic dramas, and, interestingly enough, without giving any authorial credit.

How intriguing.  1671.  The Rehearsal.  One writer lifts language from other writers and no one screamed, “Plagiarism!”  1754—one hundred and three years later.  The Humourist Essays.  The Humourist lifts language from another writer, and no one (as far as I can determine) screamed “Plagiarism.”

2013—two hundred and fifty-nine years later.  I screamed!  I levied plagiarism charges against The Humourist in my Controlled Revelation #3 and my Controlled Revelation #4.

Since those two posts, I have been—as one of my good friends and fellow writers would say—”in a snit”  with my esteemed Humourist.  How could he!  How dare he!

I don’t like being “in a snit.”  Actually, I’m not even certain that I like the phrase “in a snit.” Count on it, then:  I will not stay in one.  So, when I came to understand that Bayes in The Rehearsal had lifted language from other playwrights without anyone charging plagiarism, I started pondering the word plagiarism.  (Yes:  as I noted in my Controlled Revelation #6, words matter—even odious words like plagiarism.)

I started pondering:

  • “When was the word first used?”
  • “Has plagiarism always been viewed with such disdain as it is viewed today?”

Once again, the Oxford English Dictionary saved the day—saved my day.   The word was first used in 1621:  “Were you afraid to bee challenged for plagiarisme?” (Richard Montagu, Diatribæ upon the First Part of the Late History of Tthes).

Its second appearance was in 1716:  “A good Plea to any Charge of Plagiarism or Satyrism” (Myles Davies, Athenæ Britannicæ; or, a Critical History of the Oxford and Cambridge Writers and Writings).

Its third notable use was in 1753:  “Nothing..can be more unjust than to charge an author with plagiarism merely because he…makes his personages act as others in like circumstances have done” (Samuel Johnson, Joseph Warton, and John Hawkesworth, The Adventurer).

Up to that point in its usage, the word plagiarism does not seem to have been as negative as we see it today.

As I continued to follow the Oxford English Dictionary, it appeared that it was not until 1820 that the word came to have its modern meaning.  In his Lectures Chiefly on the Dramatic Literature of the Age of Elizabeth, William Hazlitt notes, “If an author is once detected in borrowing, he will be suspected of plagiarism ever after.”

Ah!  If it was not until around 1820 that plagiarism came to have its modern meaning, then perhaps—just perhaps—The Humourist was not guilty of plagiarism since his essays predated the loathsome and abhorrent use of the word by about seventy years! 

Clearly, I needed to do some more research.  So, I Googled—Yes, in case you are wondering:  the words Google and Googled have made it to the Oxford English Dictionary!—I Googled “First Documented Case of Plagiarism”.

Voila!  I had some immediate results, and my first hit looked promising:  Jonathan Bailey’s “The World’s First Plagiarism Case.”  It’s an interesting read, and I recommend that you read it.  Although Bailey traces plagiarism all the way back to Roman poet Martial (40AD-102/104AD), he notes that “the rise of importance in the word ‘plagiarism’ stemmed from the Age of Enlightenment, which put a much higher value on originality in creative works” and that “Like nearly all words, the word ‘plagiarism’ has come to change in meaning.”

So, there!  While I’ll not let The Humourist off the hook, it is possible that his “language lifting” was seen differently in his own time.  For now, that’s enough to get me out of “my snit” and to allow me to move on to one or two other interesting things that I found when I re-examined The Humourist’s January 22, 1754, essay.

In the first part of the essay, The Humourist discusses various foods that help writers write upon certain subjects.  In the second half of his essay, he shifts his focus and discusses foods “which are absolutely destructive to the Intellect, and ought to be avoided.”

First on his list is custard.  He notes that it “is a most barbarous Thing:  Trajan got his Death by it at Antioch.”  Confession:  that stumped me.  Try as I would, I could find nothing confirming that Trajan died from eating custard.  So, in my original note—another lame one, I again confess—I simply identified Trajan as “Marcus Ulpius Traianus, Roman emperor (AD 53-117).”  That was the best that I could do…then.

Now, upon this close reading, I can do better!  I have discovered The Humourist’s source for that statement.  I would have discovered it sooner, I think, but after The Humourist speaks of Trajan’s death from eating custard, he goes on to say that eating custard clouds the memory and understanding:  “Tom Brown gives you its Degrees.”   Tom Brown.  I assumed, ever so erroneously, that Tom Brown was just as fictitious as Trajan’s death by eating custard!

Now, upon this close reading, I have discovered that Tom Brown was not fictitious.  Here’s how I made that discovery.  This time I took The Humourist literally.  Okay.  So I can’t find Tom Brown.  What about Thomas Brown, as a variant form of the name?

Google:  Thomas Brown Trajan Custard.

Voila!  My first hit turned out to be:  The Second Volume of the Works of Mr. Tho. Brown Containing Letters from the Dead to the Living and from the Living to the Dead (London, 1719). And there, on page 368, is the underlying passage that my Humourist—our Humourist—quotes in his essay AND gives credit to Tom Brown!  Let me note, here, that Thomas Brown (1662-1704) was an English translator and political satirist, generally forgotten today except for his famous nursery rhyme, “I Do Not Like Thee Doctor Fell”:

I do not like thee, Doctor Fell,
The reason why – I cannot tell;
But this I know, and know full well,
I do not like thee, Doctor Fell.

(Read more about it at Nursery Rhyme Lyrics, Origins and History.)

Here’s what The Humourist writes:

Custard is a most barbarous Thing; Trajan got his Death by it at Antioch, and many a good Alderman has experienced the bad Qualities accruing from too intimate a Connection with it; I do firmly believe, that it obnubilates the Understanding and hurts the Memory:  Tom Brown gives you its Degrees, “eating of Custard first gives a Cachexy, instantly turns to a Dolor Alvi, that to a Peripneumonia in the Diaphram, to to an Epyena in the Glandula Pinealis.”

And here’s what Thomas Brown writes in his Letters from the Dead:

Trajan got his death by nothing but eating of Custard at Antioch and mention’d two or three other eminent Persons that had, their Heels tript up by that pernicious Food. Dioscorides added farther, that Custard was destructive of the Intellect, and conjur’d me that the next time I writ to any of my Acquaintance in London I would desire them to present his most humble Service to my Lord May0r and Court of Aldermen and advise ’em as from him to refrain from Custard, because it obnubilated the Understanding, and was deterimental .to the Memory. So much by way of digression, but now, Sir, to proceed in the History of my Illness: This eating of Custard first of all gave me a Cachexy, and ’twas my-Misfortune that there was no Brandy to be had in the House,- for in all probability a Cogue of true Orthodox Nantz, would have corrected the Crudity of the Custard. This Cachexy in twelve Hours turned to a Dolor alvi, that to a Peripneumonia in the Diaphram, to to an Epyena in the Glandula Pinealis.

In his use of Thomas Brown’s work, The Humourist is clearly paraphrasing rather than quoting, but he has the decency, integrity, and honor to credit the author.

Perhaps, in view of the above discussion, The Humourist is vindicated—somewhat.  If not, I (at least) have worked my way out of my snit.  More important, though, I have shed light on the essay in a far more meaningful way than I did initially. Thus, perhaps, I, too, am vindicated!