Controlled Revelation #4: Live from Charleston, South Carolina

This week I’m here in Charleston, South Carolina, where I am continuing my research work on The Humourist.  For this trip, however, I decided to stay off the beaten path:  I’m out on Sullivan’s Island, at the entrance to Charleston Harbor.  Edgar Allan Poe spent thirteen months here at Fort Moultrie, beginning November 18, 1827, and it was here on Sullivan’s Island that he wrote his famous short story, “The Gold Bug.”

Later this morning, I’ll be visiting the South Carolina History Room, Charleston County Public Library. I want to examine some land plats from the 1750s when the Humourist was publishing his essays in the South Carolina Gazette, and I want to examine some wills from the period.  Obviously, I’m looking for the will of the person I believe to be The Humourist.  I want to see whether the will contains any information that might confirm that he is actually the writer!

I realize, of course, that it’s a long shot, but who knows!  Last week, I was chatting with one of my colleague’s about my research, and I mentioned to him that I was 99% certain who wrote the essays, but I still hoped to find a direct statement somewhere that “Mr. X” was The Humourist.  My colleague looked at me and wisely replied, “You’ll never find it because it probably doesn’t exist.”  He’s probably right, and I know that I won’t find such a statement in The Humourist’s will.  However, I might find such a statement in someone’s diary, someone’s journal, or someone’s letters.  And who knows:  I might just find it on this research trip.

I keep reminding myself, however, that identifying the author of these essays is only part of my project.  The larger and more important part is making the Humourist essays available to students, scholars, and the world at large.  I am well on my way to doing just that by making the essays available here in this blog.

You will recall that last week’s Controlled Revelation #3 left me reeling because I discovered multiple passages in the Humourist essays that were identical to passages that had appeared in a series of “Castle Building” essays that had been published in The Student under the name of Chimaericus Cantabrigiensis.  I offered up two possibilities, as follows:

“The Humourist is a plagiarist, and I have just unwittingly disclosed what may well be the first documented case of academic dishonesty in Colonial America.

“Or, shifting to a more optimistic possibility, is it possible that Chimaericus Cantabrigiensis and The Humourist are one and the same?  If that’s the case, the parallel passages are all fine and well because a writer may certainly borrow from his own work and use it in multiple publications!  More, though, if that’s the case—if Chimaericus Cantabrigiensis and The Humourist are one and the same—I have just expanded significantly what I believed to be The Humourist’s literary canon.”

Since last week, I have discovered that Chimaericus Cantabrigiensis was a pseudonym used by English poet Christopher Smart (1722-1771).  Smart, not The Humourist, is the author of the “Castle Building” essays that appeared in The Student.

Therefore, I must report that Continue reading

Controlled Revelation #3: Numerous Confirmations and a New Research Discovery/Challenge that Has Me Reeling!

“All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;”

 Thus far we have seen the Humourist playing many parts:

  • Classicist
  • Bibliophile
  • Historian
  • Lover of Literature
  • Painter
  • Science Aficionado

This week, as we give his essay of December 24, 1753, a close reading, we will discover numerous confirmations that he played those parts well, but we will also discover a new research challenge that, quite frankly, has me reeling on my own research stage!

Let’s start with the confirmations that I have discovered this week.  We’ll save the new discovery/challenge for the end of this post, thereby allowing it to become the grand finale.

We have major confirmations, of course, that the Humourist is a lover of literature.  Interestingly enough, however, his literary selections and references begin to show a genre preference:  drama.  This week, for example, we find him quoting from Shakespeare’s “Prologue” to Henry the V: “Into a thousand parts divide one man, / And make imaginary puissance.”  Further, he makes reference to the “Abel Drugger”—a character in Ben Jonson’s comedy The Alchemist, first performed in 1610.

Equally important, notice his theatrical language:  “no man considers himself as ordained to act a part only; we are all universal players”.   It continues—with some significance that may point us in the direction of the Humourist’s general age—when he writes:  “after having run thro’ the several stages of life, am happy enough to find my finances in tolerable order.”

“Having run thro’ the several stages of life.” Candidly I have read this essay many, many times, and it was not until yesterday when I re-read it once more that those words caught my attention.  Several stages of life.  Of course!  Coming as it does in an essay with a Shakespearean quote as the headnote, the Humourist is referring to Shakespeare’s seven stages of life proclaimed by Jacques in As You Like It (2. 7. 139-167):

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. At first, the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms.
Then the whining schoolboy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress’ eyebrow. Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the canon’s mouth. And then the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lined,
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances;
And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slippered pantaloon
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side;
His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank, and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

Again, what we have is a confirmation that the Humourist is knowledgeable of drama.  More, though, we have a means of determining, with some accuracy, the Humourist’s age.  He says that he has run through the several stages of life and that he is happy to find his finances in tolerable order.  Clearly, he is past the fourth stage of life—the soldier stage—focused on seeking the “bubble reputation.”  The Humourist has achieved that already.  He seems to be in the fifth stage of life—the justice stage—focused on comfort and wise sayings and playing the part well.  This is the stage of life generally achieved in our fifties.  I feel fairly confident in saying that the Humourist is in his mid- to late fifties.

As might be expected, this week’s essay confirms that the Humourist was a lover of poetry:  “The pleasure is as great / In being cheated, as to cheat.” The quote is from Hudibras, Part II, Canto III by English satirical poet Samuel Butler (1612-1680). The full quotation reads: “Doubtless the pleasure is as great / Of being cheated as to cheat; / As lookers-on feel most delight, / That least perceive a jugler’s slight; / And still the less they understand, / The more th’ admire his slight of hand.”

Also, the essay establishes the Humourist to be a Poet, as evidenced by his “Song,” the first of several original poetic flights that he would take.

The Humourist continues to bring the art of Painting and Drawing into his essays:  “If a sign-painter can imagine himself possessed of the finger of a Raphael, that his portraits are surprising, his pencil bold and animating, and that his figures swell on the canvas and quicken into life, permit him to hug the blest idea.”

Further, in his “Advertisement” promising to publish the anatomy of human heads, he indicates that the work will be “illustrated with near a million of worthy personages, as engrav’d by the best masters.”  This new angle—engraving—intrigues me and will be set aside for further rumination.

Thus have I shared “gleanings” from my close reading of the Humourist’s December 24, 1753, essay—gleanings that confirm that which we knew already and at the same time sharpen the focus of what we know about the Humourist:  he’s a lover of literature, yes, but he is knowledgeable of the theater, and he is a poet.  He’s a painter, perhaps, but he knows how to draw and he may be familiar with engraving.  Finally, he shares with us the fact that he has run through the several stages of life and has his finances in order, thereby establishing (with some accuracy, I believe) that the Humourist is in his mid- to late fifties.

I have yet to share, however, the new research discovery/challenge that has me reeling! Continue reading