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!

6 thoughts on “Controlled Revelation #8: Glimpses into The Humourist’s Demeanor

  1. This is so incredibly intriguing. Not only the topic and analysis of the writings alone, but especially the way you go about presenting the information. I can’t wait for the next post to come out every time! Thank you so much for doing this!!!


    • Thank you so much for being a fascinated-and-wired enthusiast! It’s intriguing for me as well, and, like you, I can’t wait for the next post to come out! I’m always surprised! Yesterday’s post was supposed to be totally different than it turned out to be, but when I started writing it, something swept me in an entirely different direction. I love the spontaneity!


  2. How interesting that The Humourist was writing for a particular audience. I hadn’t thought of his columns that way, but of course they were! It’s not as if he were syndicated like Dave Barry and being read all over the country in states with less well-educated populations. I must confess, most of his learned allusions are way over MY head!


    • Your observation is an astute one. Without doubt, The Humourist was writing for his Charleston readers who were well read and savvy! That makes me believe that Charleston readers–other than the printer of the South Carolina Gazette–did NOT know The Humourist’s identity: he could have been anyone amongst them! In terms of his allusions, trust me: many of them are over my head as well and require considerable research. Fortunately, I love the discoveries that I make!


  3. I’m sitting at my computer, reading your post. I’m really exercising my brain, trying to think about The Humorist, and then the question occurred to me, “Is it even someone I’ve ever heard of or is it someone I don’t know?” I’m wondering, because if it is someone I don’t know (for example, someone who isn’t covered in English 241…) then I have to start over…


    • Thanks, Curious, for your post!

      First, I am glad that you are exercising your brain! Make a point of doing mental calisthenics every day! Second–and to answer your question: I’m certain that when I reveal The Humourist’s identity, you will NOT recognize his name. Unfortunately, he is not covered in American Literature survey courses, such as English 241. He should be, however. And that’s precisely why I’m working on this project. That’s precisely why I’m working on a critical, scholarly, annotated edition of his essays. His voice–as the ONLY Southern literary voice from this period–deserves to be heard. His essays deserve to be read and studied in American Literature survey courses. In the near future, they will be!

      Now, let me add this. His name DOES appear in the annals of British Literature, as a footnote to a well-known British writer. So, he might appear in a British Lit survey course–again as a footnote. Further, let me add this: he is no doubt mentioned in any British History/Culture course.

      There! I believe that I have answered your question quite fully! Also, I have provided some clues–perhaps stronger than any I have provided in my posts so far. Thank you for pushing me to the edge–though I am mindful of every word choice in my reply to you because if I were to use one–perhaps two words–anyone (based on all that I have disclosed so far)–would be able to announce The Humourist’s identify BEFORE I do!

      Keep exercising your brain. Who knows: maybe YOU will solve the mystery without that additional word or two!


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