The Other Side

Dogs have a way of finding the people who need them, and filling an emptiness we didn’t ever know we had. 

–Thom Jones (1945-2016; American writer, primarily of short stories)

What can I say about the dogs in my life? Well, for starters, I’ve had quite a few. Now, stop it already. I’m not talking about those dogs. I’m talking about real dogs, the four-legged ones. You know. Our pets. Our best friends. Our confidantes.

The first dog in my life was Brownie. All that I remember about him–tapping into nothing more than my own memory–is his curly brown hair and his wonderfully large, black, wet nose. I was hardly more than a toddler, and he was my mother’s dog. Anything else that I might know about Brownie, I learned from my mother. Dog memories run deep. My mother saw Brownie through.

My dad brought the next dog into my life. Spotty was a coal-mine foundling. All mine. He had the spotted coat of a brown-and-white Beagle, but his stocky frame, unusually large ears, large paws, and short-but-wavy hair barked Collie. Spotty lived outdoors and slept in a doghouse that my dad and I built, outfitted with a bed that my mother made. Since I was a grade-schooler, he spent more time with my mother than with me. He followed her around all day, especially when she was outdoors, hanging laundry on the clothesline. My mother taught Spotty to sing, and she enjoyed mimicking his operatic accomplishments. I never heard Spotty sing, but I learned that love is not diminished when shared. My mother saw Spotty through.

My next dog, Lassie, leaped into my life right out of the popular television series Lassie. Both Lassies were Collies. Somewhere I have a Polaroid of me, summer-sun-bleached hair, holding my prize-winning sunflower. Lassie was surely nearby, but she’s not in the photo. I discovered quickly after one short season that she would be far happier running the wide open farm fields that became her new home. Sometimes love means letting go. I wonder who saw Lassie through.

After that summer of 1959, I didn’t have another dog in my life for many, many years. Actually, I was a graduate student, and the name Brecca caught my fancy as I studied Beowulf. I decided to buy myself a dog associated with water and swimming. A Saddleback English Springer Spaniel seemed perfect. Brecca was my first pedigree dog, and he was the first dog in my life to live with me indoors. Brecca watched over me through thousands of hours of graduate work–the endless cycle: Reading. Research. Writing. Repeat.–and never grew weary. When I completed my doctoral work and returned to DC, I was the winter caregiver for my mom and dad for a decade. Brecca followed my dad up and down the hall as he walked to regain strength after a stroke left him partially paralyzed. And when my niece/goddaughter, Janet, came along, Brecca followed her as she crawled all around the house and up and down the stairs, always positioning himself to ensure her safety. When his ear cancer proved untreatable after a first surgery, he would patiently lie on his side as I applied homeopathic compresses. His follower-trust triumphed to the end. I saw Brecca through.

Sparky–a Dalmatian–came next, followed by Maggie–a Blue Tick Coonhound. Grief can be sudden as I came to learn and as the speaker in Robert Frost’s “One More Brevity” had learned long before:

I was to taste in little the grief
That comes of dogs’ lives being so brief,
Only a fraction of ours at most.

My family veterinarian saw Sparky through.

I saw Maggie through.

After those two doors closed, Hazel entered through an open one. My late partner, Allen, and I decided to adopt a dog. Since we both worked and were away from home during the day, we planned to adopt two dogs so that they would be company for one another.

As we started the adoption process, “Must play well with other dogs” topped our list of requirements. The animal shelter assured us that Hazel loved other dogs, so we brought her home. She was a mature, nine-months-old puppy. She was house trained within a week. She jogged right past her chewing stage. She never jumped up on chairs, sofas, or beds. She was well behaved, even off leash. Then came the day when she ventured to a neighbor’s house and started a fight with a dog twice her size.

At that point, we knew that we would not adopt another dog to keep Hazel company. She adjusted beautifully to our mountain home and to our professional schedules. We found ourselves molding our lives around hers, taking more and more vacations at dog-friendly VRBO destinations. Though calm and serene, Hazel always looked like the reddish blonde Husky-Lab puppy that we first fell in love with. She played the part flawlessly right up until the night of her last day. Allen and I saw Hazel through.

We both knew that we would bring another dog into our life. But we were both quiet. For some reason–inexplicable to me, even now–I wanted Allen to take the lead in finding our new best friend, so I waited for him to initiate the conversation. When he did, he agreed to do the solo search, even agreeing to my single stipulation: no black dog. He understood why after I explained that one of my sisters had a black dog that died tragically.

After a week or two, Allen came home and gave me his angelic, twinkly-eyed smile.

“I’ve found the perfect puppy for us!”

“What kind?”

“I’m not sure. She’s a mix, about seven months old, and she’s been spayed.”

“Photo?”

“No. But I met her today. You’ll really like her.”

As I found out, “Perfect Puppy” belonged to one of the hospital surgeons with whom Allen worked. Allen had arranged a visit for both of us the next afternoon.

When Dr. Stevens opened the door to greet us, a black puppy–yes, black, all black except for a small, white brushstroke on her chest that an artist might have forgotten to color over–made her escape and raced down the walkway. I sat down on the stoop and watched. The puppy turned, saw me sitting there, and came charging back–a whirlwind of short-haired, shiny waves–and sat down, smack dab on my feet.

The black puppy won my heart then and there.

I beamed Allen my widest smile. “She’s going home with us.”

We worked out the details with Dr. Stevens. Allen wanted to bring our new best friend home in his Toyota Tacoma. I headed on home in my Jeep.

When they arrived, I was sitting in my reading chair in the living room. As if she knew exactly where to find me, the black puppy ran to where I was and sat down, smack dab on my feet, just as she had done at Dr. Stevens.

Allen sat across from us on the sofa, and the three of us stayed in position for the next several hours.

Finally, Allen got up. Without invitation, the black puppy jumped on the dark brown, leather sofa and put her head on a ruby-colored throw. The color contrast was striking, and, in an instant, I knew.

“Husband, I’ve got a name for our puppy.”

“Yeah? What do you have in mind?”

“Ruby.”

He came back into the living room, looked at her, then at the throw, and, finally, at the sofa. He knew, too. Ruby became our Valentine’s Day gift, one to the other, each to the other two.

Ruby has the general build and gentleness of a Labrador Retriever; the face and solo-bonding bent of a Boxer, and the strong-willed temperament of a Beagle.

Whatever she is–and she’s all of those things and more–she’s the perfect dog that Allen sized her up to be when she was just a perfect puppy.

From the start, she knew how to show each of us equal love. She was always with Allen while he sipped his morning coffee and perused his various digital newspapers. She was always with me while I pondered evening academics online. She was always with both of us when we watched Star Trek or, her favorite, the Great British Bake Off. When Allen and I cooked, she always watched from the dining room door where she stayed until we finished our meal and Allen put his last bite in her dish. When we gardened, she ran back and forth between the two of us.

To Allen, the joy of feeding Ruby. To me, the joy of having Ruby smack dab on top of my feet whenever I sat down, or, as time went on, on my lap. To me, the joy of brushing her.

I usually brushed her in my office after finishing my evening academics, the two of us sprawled out on an Oriental rug. As I brushed, she would give me knowing looks from a far-off, far-away land. Invariably I felt the need to talk with her.

“I don’t know who you are, Ruby, but I know that you are an old, old soul come back to see me through. Who are you?”

Ruby never seemed to mind my one-sided conversation. In fact, she seemed to nod in knowing affirmation. And I became more and more convinced of what I felt from the start. How can it be that I don’t know who she is? And, yet, I have known her. And, yet, I know her.

The three of us continued our daily routines and rituals from February 14, 2018–when Ruby entered our lives–until January 28, 2021, when Allen lost his life, after a short, three-month, lung-cancer battle. I saw Allen through.

The rituals and routines, though not the same, go on and on and on. Ruby still likes to sit on the deck of an afternoon around 4:00, fully confident that once more she will see her other “daddy” driving up our mountain road in his Toyota Tacoma. Some days, I wait and watch with her.

What the three of us once did together, Ruby and I now do as the inseparable Dynamic Duo that we have become. She is always at my side, always by my feet, always within earshot. Listening. Watching. Waiting.

I hope that the rest of our journey–Ruby’s and mine–lasts for a long, long time. With every passing day, I am more and more convinced: Ruby is an old, old soul come back to see me through to the other side.

Writers: Our Forever-Friends

“Day by day and night by night we were together—all else has long been forgotten by me…”

Walt Whitman, “Once I Pass’d through a Popular City” (Leaves of Grass, 1855)

Whenever I teach a literature course, I tell my students that aside from celebrating their achievements as they master the course content, I have one special hope for each of them. I want them to find one writer who will be their friend. One writer who will never unfriend them as other friends sometimes do. One writer who will be with them through all the storms of life, for a lifetime. A writer who will be a forever-friend.

What I have in mind is similar to the handful of real-life, forever-friends whom we might have, if we are lucky. It’s never many. At least it has never been many for me. I have perhaps one handful of such friends. All right. Perhaps two handfuls who are in the friends-forever category. With us, we’ve shared so many past experiences that even if we have not seen one another in years, when we reconnect, we pick up magically on the same conversation that we were having when we last met, and we do so without missing a beat. Friends. Forever-friends.

Writers can be our forever-friends, too, with an added bonus. We can have lots and lots of them. As we read more and more, we discover more and more writers who might end up as our friends. We like them. We like what they have to say to us. We like how they inspire us. We like how they make us believe. We like how they make us feel…unalone. We like how they heal our…brokenness. Before long, we want to hang out with them. We can. Whenever we want. For as long as we want.

The great thing about writers who are our forever-friends is that when they pop up unannounced and uninvited, it’s never a problem. We don’t have to clean for them. We don’t have to cook for them. And we don’t have to clear our calendars for them. They can tag along with us just as we are. And they will do just that if we let them.

All that we have to do is be attentive, smile when they arrive, and even smile when they leave, knowing that they will come back to visit us again and again and again.

Their arrival coincides with something that we are experiencing that makes us think of something else. It’s the power of association. Robert Frost captures it best:

“All thought is a feat of association; having what’s in front of you bring up something in your mind that you almost didn’t know you knew.”

That’s the beauty of having writers who are forever-friends. Their arrival is based exclusively on what’s right in front of you or something that you’re thinking about. Something that you almost didn’t know you knew.

No doubt, you have your own writers who are your forever-friends, just as I do.

Obviously, I don’t know about yours, but mine visit me multiple times throughout the day, every day without fail. I never know which writers will visit or when. But I go forth daily, confident of being strengthened and girded up by their company.

For example, Walt Whitman shook his silvery locks right in front of me as I was writing this post. I was thinking about the fact that only a snippet of a writer’s work comes to my mind during an association, while all the other details of the work are seemingly long forgotten. Instantly, the lines from Whitman’s “Once I Pass’d through a Popular City” flashed across my mind:

“Day by day and night by night we were together—all else has long been forgotten by me…”

Here’s another example.

When I met with my Creative Writing class for the first time this semester, I had a slap-stick time promoting this blog. It was nothing more than nonsensical banter aimed at entertaining my students, but they picked up on it.

Not long after I managed to restore myself to a modicum of seriousness, one student raised her hand as if to ask a serious question.

“Professor Kendrick, did you say that you have a blog?”

I started laughing, as did the rest of the class.

A little later on, her hand went up again. I was on to her by then, but I was having far too much fun, so I acknowledged her.

“Professor Kendrick, did you give us the name of your blog?”

(When our laughter died down, my forever-friend Edward Albee paid me a momentary visit. He has chummed me since the 1960s when I was in college and he was a controversial Broadway playwright.)

“Very funny! You know, Caitlin, my hell-bent banter to promote my blog to a brand-new group of students, reminds me of the first line from Edward Albee’s The Zoo Story.”

In the play, Jerry approaches Peter, a total stranger, sitting on a bench in Central Park.

I’ve been to the zoo. [PETER doesn’t notice.] I said, I’ve been to the zoo. MISTER, I’VE BEEN TO THE ZOO! 

I was thrilled by Albee’s visit, especially since I was able to share it with my class. He came as he did and when he did because of my dogged determination to tell my students–a group of strangers, if you will–all about my blog. In the process, I remembered Jerry’s insistence on telling Peter, a total stranger, that he had been to the zoo.

My students got it. They saw the association with great clarity.

On another occasion, something similar happened at the start of the same class.

As I drove on campus. I was aware–painfully so–that the grassy, undeveloped acreage all around the college was being gobbled up by townhouses.

At the start of class, one of my students shared the same observation.

In that nanosecond, former United States Poet Laureate Phillip Levine appeared. Immediately, I walked to my teacher station, googled his poem “A Story” and flashed it on the screen for students to see as I read it aloud.

It captures perfectly what my students and I had witnessed with pain that morning.

Levine chronicles the life and death of the woods that once surrounded us and ends with a chilling doomsday prophecy:

where are the woods? They had to have been

because the continent was clothed in trees.

We all read that in school and knew it to be true.

Yet all we see are houses, rows and rows

of houses as far as sight, and where sight vanishes

into nothing, into the new world no one has seen,

there has to be more than dust, wind-borne particles

of burning earth, the earth we lost, and nothing else.

And right now as I typed the above quotation, Canadian singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell popped into my head, chanting a few lines from her “Big Yellow Taxi”:

Don’t it always seem to go

That you don’t know what you’ve got

Till it’s gone

They paved paradise

And put up a parking lot.

My writers–my forever-friends–visit me far more in my alone times than they do when I am teaching or, for that matter, when I am socializing.

Maybe they appear then because they know that in my alone times friends can add a richness to any moment, even ordinary ones.

Ordinary moments like weed whacking. Somehow, I end up doing that chore on Sunday instead of going to church. That’s no big deal to me. I consider myself Spiritual But Not Religious (SBNR). Emily Dickinson must be SBNR, too, because she is always with me on my Sunday morns. Her “Some keep the Sabbath going to Church” overpowers the Stihl noise through all the stanzas, rising triumphantly in the final one:

God preaches, a noted Clergyman –

And the sermon is never long,

So instead of getting to Heaven, at last –

I’m going, all along.

Or sometimes it’s as simple as visitorial moments that occur when reading emails from regular friends who aren’t writers. Recently, a friend who is my age wrote that his hands had grown old. I sensed his sadness and immediately thought of a poem about aging by former United States Poet Laureate Stanley Kunitz: “Touch Me.” It includes the poignant lines:

What makes the engine go?
Desire, desire, desire.
The longing for the dance
stirs in the buried life.

One season only,
and it’s done.

[…]

Darling, do you remember
the man you married? Touch me,
remind me who I am.

And then I immediately thought of Ben Speer singing “Time Has Made a Change in Me.” The title alone was touchstone sufficient. And that led me to W. S. Merwin reading his “Yesterday” with the ever-chilling line:

oh I say
feeling again the cold
of my father’s hand the last time

It’s amazing: the rich literary company that embraced me, all because of one single solitary email sent my way!

Sometimes, though, my forever-friends arrive as I try to make sense of all that’s going on in our world. The ongoing COVID pandemic. The invasion of Ukraine. Recent SCOTUS decisions. The January 6 Hearings. Global Warming. Poverty. Food scarcity. Gender inequality. Homophobia. Transphobia. Growing humanitarian conflicts and crises. The 21st anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks on America.

Need I go on? Sadly, I could. Gladly, I won’t. It’s far too sobering.

But in those dark moments when I find myself spiritually staggering under the weight of it all, I take strength from William Faulkner’s Nobel Acceptance Speech, delivered in 1950 when the world was staggering under the burden of the Cold War:

Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it. There are no longer problems of the spirit. There is only the question: When will I be blown up? […] I decline to accept the end of man.  […] I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance.

Maybe, just maybe, the need to have writers who are our forever-friends, boils down to nothing more than this. They come regardless of what we are facing. They reassure us that goodness and mercy shall prevail. They remind us to grapple with our soul, to grapple with our spirit.

They come, as Robert Browning came to me just this second, to calm us and anchor us in the full and steadfast belief that despite all the injustices, all the wrongdoings, all the travail, and all the sorrows,

God’s in His Heaven,

All’s right with the world.

Pippa Passes, Song I (1841)

Ricocheting Around Inside My Blog!

I love words. In fact, I’m a word enthusiast. No, actually, I’m a word aficionado. I like the way words look, the way they sound, and the way they require me to rearrange and reposition my tongue and lips and teeth! I like the “mouth feel.”

I love euphonious words, especially: supine, scissors, fantabulous, panacea, disambiguate, luscious, discombobulate, scintilla, tremulous, orbicular, woebegone, sonorous, ethereal, pop, holler, britches, entwine, hullabaloo, phantasmagorical, serendipity, slew, velvety, liminal, dusk, ever, and even meniscus.

I love euphonious phrases, too: thread the needle, rev the engine, a touch ticklish, doplar sonar, sweet and sour, bad’s the best, or one of my own creation–recalled from a dream that I once dreamt–blue-pigeon-feather happy.

However, all of my favorite melodious phrases and words pale in comparison to the phrase considered by many linguists (who study phonaesthetics and know all about the properties of sound) to be the most beautiful word in the English language: cellar door! I was flabbergasted when I made that discovery, but matters of sound are so momentous and so weighty that lengthy debates surround them. For example, many people attribute the coinage of cellar door to fantasy writer J. R. R. Tolkien who used it in his 1955 speech “English and Welsh.” But as American lexicographer Grant Barrett established in his February 11, 2010, New York Times article aptly titled, “Cellar Door,” we must give credit to Shakespearean scholar Cyrus Lauron Hooper who used cellar door in his 1903 novel Gee-Boy.

Sometimes one of these little beauties gets stuck inside my head and manifests a fierce determination not to go away. For example, the melodious word ricochet has been bouncing around in there for an epoch at least—perhaps even longer—and it’s not alone. It’s flourishing there as part of an entire phrase—an entire stanza, actually—from “The Lanyard,” a poem by Billy Collins, former United States Poet Laureate:

The other day I was ricocheting slowly
off the blue walls of this room,
moving as if underwater from typewriter to piano,
from bookshelf to an envelope lying on the floor,
when I found myself in the L section of the dictionary
where my eyes fell upon the word lanyard.

Mind you: I don’t mind the fact that the stanza from the poem and the word ricochet won’t go away. I love poetry just as much as I love melodious words and phrases. And who doesn’t love Billy Collins?

And it’s easy to understand why this particular stanza from Billy Collins’ poem would linger in my mind. Like the speaker in his poem—presumably Collins himself—I, too, have been ricocheting slowly off the walls of my home library, moving from my cluttered desk with my personal computer (where I carry out my home-style professorial responsibilities) to my even more cluttered farm table with my considerably smaller tablet (where I fulfill whatever it is that I achieve when I write—whatever writing is—and where I first began this blog on November 26, 2012.

And continuing to compare myself to the speaker in Collins’ “The Lanyard” so that I might perhaps stop the word ricochet from ricocheting around in my head, I, too, am moving from my professorial computer to my writerly tablet, from stacks of papers on the former to stacks of books and two envelopes on the latter.

And it is on the two envelopes that my eyes fall even as I type this post. It is on the two envelopes that my eyes have been falling for several years. And it is on the two envelopes that my eyes will forever fall until I muster courage to open them.

My blog followers will perhaps remember those two envelopes, first mentioned in my December 31, 2014, post:

I have in my possession copies of critical Alexander Gordon manuscripts obtained from libraries in Scotland and England. Although I have had the packages for several months, I have not opened them yet because I know that the contents will take my Humourist research to new heights, and I have had neither time nor nerve to make the journey.

However, January 2015 will place me exactly where I need to be in terms of time and nerve to open the packages, review the manuscripts, and share my findings with you, right here in this blog.

So, there! Now you know! Those two envelopes are still on my desk waiting to be opened. I cannot claim that I have not had time, for I have had time aplenty. And I cannot claim that I have not had nerve to open the envelopes because I remain confident that the contents will take my Humourist research to new heights and higher ground.

In reality, I have no more time now than before, and I have no more nerve now than before. But what I do have now is the knowledge that now is the right time to write. Simply put, I have created the space, and I have allowed myself to enter. (Thank you, Natalie Goldberg, for reminding me:

…we never question the feasibility of a football team practicing long hours for one game; yet in writing we rarely give ourselves the space for practice (Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within).

So I am ricocheting slowly off the walls of my library for three reasons and three reasons only.

Ricochet Reason One. I have been away from my blog for so long that the resulting space is galatic, a perfect home for the word ricochet. And as I type, I cannot help but wonder: Is it really the word ricochet that is bouncing off vacuum space? Or is it really guilt? Perhaps both, but, now—on this momentary reflection—I suspect the latter. And that’s perfectly fine because my guilt makes me perfectly American, or, as Ezra Pound said about Robert Frost, “vurry Amur’k’n” (Dear Editor: A History of Poetry in Letters, edited by Joseph Parisi and Stephen Young).

Just by writing what I have written here, I have given rest to reason one. What a blessed relief.

Ricochet Reason Two. I cannot help but wonder about my followers—my blog followers. At one point, they numbered well over 100, and the blog had more than 5,000 visits from people in exactly 100 countries. Not bad for a blog dedicated to the challenges of research, specifically—for now, at least—to the challenge of identifying the author of a group of noteworthy and heretofore pseudonymous Colonial American essays.

Are any of the faithful still with me? I wonder.

And if I post, will they read what I have to say? Will anyone? And if no one reads, will I have written anything at all, really?

It is very much the same as the proverbial old question, “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” 

Philosophers have long argued that sound, colour, taste, smell and touch are all secondary qualities which exist only in our minds. We have no basis for our common-sense assumption that these secondary qualities reflect or represent reality as it really is. So, if we interpret the word ‘sound’ to mean a human experience rather than a physical phenomenon, then when there is nobody around there is a sense in which the falling tree makes no sound at all. […] Without a measuring device to record it, there is a sense in which the recognisable properties of quantum particles such as electrons do not exist, just as the falling tree makes no sound at all. (Jim Baggett, Quantum Theory: If a Tree Falls in the Forest …).

Followers, be my measure. If you are out there, measure me with comment.

And if you are not yet following, follow. (I am reminded of the Iowa corn farmer in Field of Dreams and the voice that he heard telling him to build a baseball diamond, “If you build it, he will come.” The farmer built it, and they came. Perhaps in my rebuilding, my followers will come. If you do, measure me with your comments, too.)

Just by writing what I have written here, I have given rest to reason two as well. Again, what a blessed relief.

Ricochet Reason Three. Of the two envelopes waiting to be opened—those two parcels that will take my Humourist research to new heights—which shall I open first? The one from Scotland measuring 14 x 10/16 inches and weighing a hefty 17.21 ounces? (Is bigger better?) Or the one from England, measuring 6 x 3/4 inches and weighing a nearly weightless 1.16 ounce? (Do good things really come in small packages?)

To give rest to reason three—and be thrice blessed—I must open both envelopes. 

Perhaps what I face is like picking petals off a daisy: “I love him. I love him not.” However, in this instance, both envelopes are equally good and the last petal will be an affirmation.

Or, maybe, a more apt comparison would be to Frank Stockton’s famous American short story “The Lady, or the Tiger?” published in The Century magazine in November 1882. In the story, a young man must choose between two doors. Behind one, a beautiful lady. Behind the other, an awful, relentless tiger.

Stockton leaves his readers with an open ending:

And so I leave it with all of you: Which came out of the opened door,—the lady, or the tiger?

For me, both doors—both envelopes, if you will—are equally good and both will be auspicious and bodacious.

Unlike Stockton, however, I will be straightforward and honest. I will let you know what I find not only in the first envelope but also in the second. In fact, I will chronicle each and every detail as I open the envelopes and as I discover the joys that await me.

This I promise: in next week’s post, I will write all, right here.

Controlled Revelation #5: A Man Who Knows Humor, Who Lives Near a Church, and Who Knows Children’s Books

“Happiness makes up in height what it lacks in length.”
——Robert Frost

The magic and serendipity that I witnessed last week on my research trip to Charleston, South Carolina, was of such joyful intensity that I am reminded of a Robert Frost poem, “Happiness Makes Up in Height What It Lacks in Length”:

O stormy, stormy world,
The days you were not swirled
Around with mist and cloud,
Or wrapped as in a shroud,
And the sun’s brilliant ball
Was not in part or all
Obscured from mortal view—
Were days so very few
I can but wonder whence
I get the lasting sense
Of so much warmth and light.
If my mistrust is right
It may be altogether
From one day’s perfect weather,
When starting clear at dawn
The day swept clearly on
To finish clear at eve.
I verily believe
My fair impression may
Be all from that one day
No shadow crossed but ours
As through its blazing flowers
We went from house to wood
For change of solitude.

I daresay that the intensity will not come my way again for some while, and, perhaps that’s a good thing:  I’m wired enough already!

This week we’ll apply our close-reading strategy to The Humourist’s essay of January 8, 1754.   You might want to click on the link and take a moment to revisit the essay.

Actually, this is one of my favorite “essays” from the collection, if, indeed you can call letters to yourself essays.  Yet, for the first time, The Humourist shows that he can be humorous.  Consider, if you will, the fact that he has disguised his identity under the pseudonym “The Humourist.”  And then he dares come forth with a letter beginning, “The HUMOURIST to himself, Greeting:”, followed by two more letters written to himself, though signed as “TOM SPRIGHTLY” and “IGNOTUS.”

To say that he’s stretching pseudonymity is an understatement, yet I find it amusing.

I find equally entertaining—albeit rather dated for us moderns—the story that he shares about his grandfather who was “reading the Latin Motto of a Book the other Day, and with great Vehemence and Extasy cried out, Oh! ’tis a noble Thing to be well versed in Greek!”

He’s clever as well in wordplay, as one of his correspondents writes about some Trials at the Old Bailey and notes “Yesterday the above Malefactors were hang’d at ‘Tyburn.'” The Humourist then questions, “Whether the Prisoners being made up of Men and Women, the latter can, by any reasonable Arguments, be proved to be Male-factors.”

To be certain, the humor in this essay is subtle, but it’s there, nonetheless, and we have not seen it before.

I am intrigued as well by the statement at the beginning of the essay that “you are a Man of Penetration, and can, with surprising Discernment, see a Church by Day-Light.”  Until last week’s research trip, I didn’t know what to do with that comment.  Now, however, having had access to the Last Will and Testament of the person I have identified as the Humourist, I understand.  He owned property and had a home on what is now Meeting Street, and, indeed, he would have been able to see St. Michael’s Church at the corner of Meeting Street and Broad Street.

St. Michael's Church

St. Michael’s Church, Charleston, S.C.
(Image from Art.com)

This strikes me as a rather significant clue.

Finally, a new Humourist dimension emerges in this essay.  I noted in an earlier Controlled Revelation that The Humourist was a bibliophile.  I find it interesting in this essay that he shows his knowledge of children’s literature.  He mentions “Jack the Giant-Killer,” an English fairy tale from the early eighteenth century.  Also, he mentions The Circle of the Sciences, a series of “instructional books for young boys and girls. The books were edited/published between 1744-1748 by John Newbery, considered to be the “Father of Children’s Literature.”  He was so important to the creation and marketing of children’s books that the American Library Association awards the Newbery Medal annually for the most important children’s book published in the previous year.

This week, then, we can see that The Humourist does have a sense of humor.  We can see that he lives close enough to St. Michael’s that he can see it by daylight.  And we can see that he has some knowledge of children books, including contemporary ones.

Week by week, The Humourist.’s profile (like his Aerial Mansion) is becoming “fitted up,” and before the end of summer it will be complete!