Controlled Revelation #11: The Humourist’s Reputation Preceded Him to Colonial South Carolina

“It is the office of justice to injure no man; of propriety, to offend none.”  —Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 BC), De Officiis, Book I:20

As  noted elsewhere, The Humourist was a man of considerable distinction in his own country, and, for that matter, he was well known throughout much of Europe.  So extensive was his reputation that he received rather frequent front-page coverage in numerous eighteenth century newspapers.  Obviously, when The Humourist arrived in Colonial South Carolina, his reputation preceded him.

He was a known authority—expert, if you will—in at least one area of study, and he was a master in several other areas.  Generally well respected, it seems, nonetheless, that he came to learn first hand (and, perhaps, the harsh way) the bitter reality behind Benjamin Franklin’s pithy saying, Glass, china, and reputation are easily cracked, and never mended well.”

In the “Old World,” many people saw him as someone whose ambitions often exceeded his grasp; as someone who took on many projects without seeing them all to successful completion; as someone who dabbled in many occupations so that he could earn enough money to keep creditors at bay; and as someone who was not always honest. Others saw him as fickle, mercurial, anti-Catholic, and overly zealous of his nationality.

These “cracks” in his reputation were not known to the public at large and, to be certain, they were never of such alarm or magnitude that they made it to the press.  Still, the cracks were there—in journals, diaries, and letters:  the sorts of documents to which The Humourist would not have been privy.  Generally, they were comments make by others about him, behind his back.  In that sense, I am reminded of what American novelist and newspaper/magazine editor would say many years later, What people say behind your back is your standing in the community.”

In the “New World,” it appears that The Humourist fared better.  Occupationally, he seems to have settled down to one or two positions, and he seems to have prospered.  He acquired land in Charleston, erected homes quite profitably, and participated in small groups focused on belles lettres. When he died, the inventory of his extensive estate suggests that he had enjoyed full success as a transplanted European.  Of his reputation, one word from his obituary is notable:  ingenious. The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word thusly, “Having high intellectual capacity; able, talented, possessed of genius.”  If The Humourist had not quite managed to repair his reputation in the New World—and it is possible that it may have never been sullied on these shores to begin with—he, at least, established and maintained his reputation as a man of keen intellecual abilities.

It is clear, however, as we examine The Humourist’s essay of February 19, 1754—the focus of this week’s Controlled Revelation—that he knew all about gaining and losing a reputation.  It is clear that The Humourist knew the various types of people who “whisper away their Neighbour’s Reputation.”  It is equally clear that he held in contempt  those who eat away at and sully the reputation of others.  He held in contempt those “unsocial brutes” who undermine the influence of others.   

In one part of the essay, I suspect that he is reflecting on his younger years in the “Old World” when his own reputation was attacked by “mean and sordid” detractors, intent on “dissect[ing] characters, and devour[ing] good Names: 

There are a Kind of Detractors, tho’ last mentioned, not least in the Cause of Evil, who being mean and sordid, will condescend to collect a Catalogue of Stories, to humour a Patron and tickle a Friend.  Such Men as these, do almost come up to a literal Sense of what the Psalmist spoke in a figurative, (and eat up People for Bread;3) dissect characters, and devour good Names, for the monstrous Entertainment of a servile Master.

How shocking is it, to think, that such unwarrantable Favour should be shewn these People, who make no Allowances for Actions which frequently arise from sudden Passions, or are the unhappy Attendants of some Constitutions, or are the Errors of a hasty Judgment, and now are form’d into Crimes, and charged as the highest , when Good-Nature and good Sense must certainly have overlook’d them.

Of all The Humourist’s essays, his essay of February 19, 1754, is one of my favorites.  It contains truths which, if followed, help make us honorable and noble human beings and, of equal importance, help us to be cautious and circumspect before we speak (or write) words that harm someone’s reputation.

Of all The Humourist essays, his essay of February 19, 1754, provides the fewest clues in terms of his identity  At the same time, this week’s Controlled Revelation is itself riddled with clues aplenty!

4 thoughts on “Controlled Revelation #11: The Humourist’s Reputation Preceded Him to Colonial South Carolina

  1. It is a timely quote you’ve handed down today: “What people say behind your back is your standing in the community.” Here’s what they are saying: The rumor is that we are never going to hear of the true identity of the Humourist. We are being toyed-with, held at bay, hostage to our hunger for this most-privileged piece of information. I was asked this very morning by perhaps the most prominent and respected (yes, always perhaps) member of our professional community as to whether the Good Professor had yet revealed the identity of the Humorist, or when was it finally going to happen, or was the Good Professor playing the aging cat who tires the mouse at length, to make capture more certain…. I admitted to an imminent, yet agonizingly slow death waiting for the outcome, the identity, the name…. I promised I would be in touch, once I heard the excited and anticipatory whistle of the train actually arriving at the station….

    • The quote that you selected may be timely, but, far more appropriate, for today’s Controlled Revelation addressing such a weighty topic as “reputation” would be today’s headnote: “It is the office of justice to injure no man; of propriety, to offend none.” —Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 BC), De Officiis, Book I:20.

      Mind you, I have not been injured nor have I taken offense, because I am certain that the strength of friendship is sufficient that you would have dispelled any and all seeds of doubt that might prevail because of rumors! Further, I am confident that you hear–even now–the “whistle of the train” arriving at the station!

      More, though, I am rather amused. Actually, I’m amused a lot! I love being the “Good Professor” playing a cat and mouse game with his research! And I love knowing that those who are “prominent and respected” are talking about it!

      An Oscar Wilde quote seems appropriate to the situation: “There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.”

      By all means: get back in touch with your colleague and perhaps share the specifics that I shared here on April 16:

      “[Here’s] my PLAN for sharing with you the extensive clues that have allowed me to solve this Colonial American “Literary Whodunit”.

      “My plan is, as Dr. Watson might have said (but, in fact, did not say, except in the movies), “Elementary, dear Watson.”

      “I have shared with you the Humourist’s essays, week by week without fail, since last November 26. As I shared them with you, I kept copious and extensive notes of my own reactions, insights, and investigative excursions. I have given his essays a carefully controlled and disciplined “close reading”. This is an ancient method, going all the way back to Roman rhetorician and literary critic Quintilian (Institutio Oratoria, composed about 92-96). (The Humourist himself would be delighted because he, too, was familiar with Quintilian, quoted him on at least one occasion, and knew the value of paying attention to every detail!)

      “It goes without saying (I should hope) that while the controlled revelation of the clues will be important, of equal (or, perhaps, greater importance) will be the candid disclosure of my process: what clues led me to particular revelations and what clues came together, ultimately, to allow me solve this literary mystery.

      “Starting next week, I will make my posts available on Monday. Thus, on Monday, April 22, I will share with you my close reading of the Humourist’s first essay from November 26, 1753. (Go ahead: click on the link and re-read that essay now. See what clues YOU find. Start with the obvious ones and see where they lead. I welcome your comments sharing your own observations and insights!)

      “The following week (Monday, April 29), I’ll provide a close reading of the Humourist’s second essay. I will continue that week-by-week strategy until we have come full circle to the Humourist’s last essay.

      “Then, dear followers, my controlled revelations will have ended. Then I will reveal the Humourist’s identity. The revelation will be stupendous!”

      We are fast approaching The Humourist’s last essay, and, as a result we are fast approaching “the revelation.” Mark your calendar: I will reveal The Humourist’s identity at some point during the week of August 5th!

    • Conspiracy? NOT! As I noted in an earlier comment, “Mark your calendar: I will reveal The Humourist’s identity at some point during the week of August 5th!” Beyond that however, “lazy researcher” is (as I am sure you know and appreciate) an … oxymoron! Research requires hard work and heavy lifting!

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