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.

Colonial Charleston’s Biggest Literary Mystery Is Solved!

Candidly, the name in the obituary meant nothing to me in and of itself.  However, I knew that I had to explore it to see whether that person might have been The Humourist. Luckily for me, I hit pay dirt.  All of the clues—all the patterns—that I had found in the essays lined up perfectly with everything that I was to find out about the ingenious person whose obituary I had stumbled upon.

Solving Colonial Charleston’s Biggest Literary Mystery

A Presentation at The Charleston Library Society

Charleston, SC

Thursday, August 8, 2013


Thank you for such a warm welcome.  You make me feel quite at home. I want to extend my deepest thanks to the Society’s “Special Events and Programs” Committee for inviting me here as well as for their impressive publicity promoting my work on The Humourist.  Actually, I was blown away earlier this week when I went to the Society’s web site and saw:  “Join us for Colonial Charleston’s Biggest Literary Mystery!”  Thank you!

I can’t begin to tell you how thrilled I am to be with you this evening.  I’m thrilled for two reasons.

First, libraries and librarians hold a special place in my heart.  Before I became a professor of English at Lord Fairfax Community College in Virginia, I worked for twenty five years at The Library of Congress where I fell in love with books, where I fell in love with research, and where I fell in love with life-long learning.    And simply because we are all gathered together this evening, I know that libraries, librarians, and lifelong learning are important to you as well.

Here’s the second reason why I’m thrilled to be with you.  For me, this is a homecoming of sorts.  My work on The Humourist—your very own Humourist, your very own writer, living right here in Colonial Charleston—actually  began right here in The Charleston Library Society in 1973—forty years ago—when I was a doctoral student at The University of South Carolina, taking a Colonial American Literature class with Professor Calhoun Winton.  I remember the details well.  I was reading Leo LeMay’s Bibliographical Guide to the Study of Southern Literature, and in it he noted that The Humourist essays were of such high caliber that someone needed to edit them, publish them, and identify the author.

I was intrigued and challenged.  The essays appeared originally in the South Carolina Gazette.  Only one complete run of the newspaper exists, and it’s housed right here in the Charleston Library Society.

So for an entire semester, I traveled here from Columbia on weekends where inside these walls I read and studied The Humourist essays and came to agree with LeMay:  these were some of the best Colonial American essays that I had ever read.

However, I didn’t do anything further with Professor Lemay’s challenge, except to file it away in my mental storehouse of “one-day, some-day” ideas to be tackled further down the road when the time was right.  Instead I went on to edit the letters of New England writer, Mary E. Wilkins Freeman, and to publish them as The Infant Sphinx:  Collected Letters of Mary E. Wilkins Freeman.  Instead I went on to pursue a fabulous career at The Library of Congress.

Now, four decades later, I discovered to my surprise—and, candidly, to my joy—that no one else has accepted Professor Lemay’s challenge.  The Humourist essays that he lauded have remained unedited, unpublished, and the author unidentified.

Now, four decades later, as a 2012-2014 Chancellor’s Professor in the Virginia Community College System, I have the opportunity—a second chance, if you will—to be the student who takes Professor Lemay’s idea and runs with it. I have the opportunity to be the student who brings these essays to full light.  I have the opportunity to be the student who sees to it that these essays take their rightful place in the American literary canon.  And I have the opportunity to be the student who solves the mystery:  Who wrote those essays?

That why I’m here tonight:  to share with you what I have been doing with these essays during the last year, and—based on a preponderance of textual clues in the essays—to announce for the first time ever the author—the man who up until tonight has been Colonial Charleston’s biggest literary mystery.

My goal is a simple one:  make these essays available not only to students, professors, and scholars but also to the reading public at large.

Last fall, I launched a blog titled “The Wired Researcher,” and in it I have shared with students, faculty, and everyone who is interested my personal research experiences—“live,” from start to finish:  my work, my methods, my discoveries, my challenges and frustrations, and my joys.

Let me share with you the general flavor and background of The Humourist essays.

If you open up November 26, 1753, issue of The South Carolina Gazette—and you can, right here in this Library—you will notice the first of many essays to be published in that newspaper under the title, “The Humourist.”  With the note, “From my chambers in the air,” the essay begins:

It is necessary to premise that I am a Man of a peculiar odd Way of Thinking, and I shall consequently make myself very merry at the Particularities of other People. Thus much for Preface. 

The Humourist will never pester the World with incoherency or unnatural Occurrences, under the specious Pretence of painting true Life or copying after Nature.  Thus much for Self-Praise.

Then, after providing a fast-paced, informed, and comprehensive overview of literary tastes ranging all the way back to “past times” and all the way up to the new  literary genre of his day, the novel— which, by the way, he calls “Novel writing without Reason, and Lies without Meaning”—he ends his first essay with:

The utmost Aim of my Compositions shall be directed to please; and if I now and then chance to tour uncommon Heights, the World must understand that I am improving the Method of Writing, and that my Habitation is in the Air.

I am an aerial Spirit; and as an inducement to the World to Read my Paper, they may shortly expect a Present of my Picture, which, like the Statue of Mercury in the Fable, shall be thrown into the Bargain.

As we continue to read the weekly Gazette through December 1753 and through January, February, March, and April of 1754, we uncover a total of 17 essays, 7 letters that The Humourist wrote to himself using various other pseudonymns, 3 poems, 2 advertisements, and 2 related items—all by “The Humourist.”  Finally, on April 9, 1754, we come to his “Retirement Notice”.  Let me read the opening sentence:

The Humourist is become an Invalid, and as he loves Retirement must quit the foolish busy World, and please his vacant Hours with the secret Satisfaction of having intentionally displeased no one.

I’ll come back to this “Retirement Notice” later in my talk.  For now, suffice it to say that the essays which began so mysteriously ended thus strangely and inexplicably.  The retirement notice was the last contribution by “The Humourist.”

As a professor of American Literature, I can tell you—and, for now, you’ll have to take my word for it until you read the The Humourist’s essays in my blog:  at this point in America’s development—1753/1754—we simply don’t have essays of this caliber, even in New England, and we certainly don’t have true essays of this caliber from this time period in the South.  The Humourist is a new voice, a fresh voice who deserves to be read widely, who deserves to be celebrated widely, and who deserves to be anthologized widely so that future generations are mindful of the important contributions that he made.

The work that I have been doing with The Humourist essays has offered several challenges.  The first challenge relates to editing and annotating a collection of essays that exists in the only surviving copy of the South Carolina Gazette housed here in the Charleston Library Society.  Fortunately, and with Rob Salvo’s help—and before him, with the help of Carol Butler here at the Society—I have completed that task, and I have made a preliminary version of the essays available in my blog, The Wired Researcher.  Formal publication will follow in a year or two.

The second challenge relates to conducting the authorship study—the challenge of solving this literary whodunit mystery!  I’ve done so, in large part, simply by giving the essays what is called a “close-reading.”  This is an ancient method, going all the way back to Roman literary critic Quintilian.  (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 language and all of its details!  That’s what I’m doing:  paying attention to details—cataloging them, if you will, and cross referencing them to establish patterns.

For the last few months, I have shared my “close readings” with my blog audience in a weekly post called “Controlled Revelation.”  Clearly I had to control how much I divulged about the author in any given week because I didn’t want my readers to solve the literary mystery prematurely!

So, week by week, I’ve analyzed the essays and revealed—in a controlled manner—what I have found.  Let me share with you some of the highlights of those clues—the patterns—that have surfaced.  Again, keep in mind that these are simply highlights.  You can read the full discussion in my blog.

Here are some broad patterns.

The Humourist  knows the classics including:  Aristotle, Virgil, Horace, Longinus, Quintilian, Dionysius, Plutarch.

The Humourist knows history and talks about:  Tacitus, Trajan, Pope Adrian VI, and Borgia.  One of his most frequently used words is Ancients. (His reference to Borgia is important.  Later on you will see why.)

The Humourist knows literature and quotes from:  Shakespeare, Milton, Spencer, Samuel Butler, James Thompson, Edward Young, Samuel Garth, Fielding.

The Humourist knows poetry, evidenced not only by his extensive poetic references  but also by his own poetic flights.  He wrote three poems, “Song by The Humourist,” “The Rising Beauty,” and his unfinished allegorical poem “Happiness.”

The Humourist knows drama:  Shakespeare.  Bayes Rehearsal. He talks about the records of drama.  And, equally important, he shows himself knowledgeable of theatrical language.   (Remember “theatrical language.”  You’ll see why later on.)

The Humourist knows painting, drawing, and engraving:  This is a really important clue, so I want to focus on it a little more fully.  You will recall that even in his first essay he comments:  “as an inducement to the World to Read my Paper, they may shortly expect a Present of my Picture.”  In one of his later essays, he writes a letter to himself under the pseudonym, Proteus Maggot, and he encloses a “catalog of several paintings and drawings.”   The offerings, of course are fictitious, but they show The Humourist’s knowledge of painting and drawing and engraving:

  • An antique whole Length of Signior Adam. Notice his use of the Italian word Signior.  Later on you will see why it is important.
  • Several half Lengths of Nimrod, Alexander, Julius Caesar, Nero, Borgia, Lewis 14th, Charles 12th.  Again, keep in mind his reference to Borgia.  Later on you will see why it is important.
  • Above 500 grotesque Pieces (several in Chinese Taste) of which the Humourist Family are generally great Connoisseurs:  Many of these are Drawings and Etchings, and give great Light into Antiquity, and a Display of the unaccountable Humours of the Ancients.
  • Half-finished Pieces of Miscellaeous Matters not yet arranged in Order, among which are, the Flight of the Long-Bay, Impregnable Fortresses constructed of Sana and Oyster-Shell, a Church half-finished, Plantations deserted, a View of Georgia, Acts of Assembly made into Kites, etc.  (Note well his reference to Acts of Assembly.)

In addition to his in-depth knowledge of painting and drawing, The Humourist knows about Egyptian mummies:  In one of his essays, he writes a letter to himself under the pseudonym Peter Hemp.   In the letter Peter Hemp makes a most interesting  comment about Green Tar, who, he maintains “boasts of preserving the most antient Egyptian Mummies down to the Present Time.”  I am intrigued that The Humourist would mention something as esoteric as the preservation of Egyptian mummies.  We’ll come back to it.

And, as might be expected, The Humourist knows, loves, and promotes Colonial Charleston and Colonial South Carolina and makes several references to the General Assembly, almost as if he had insider information about the Assembly’s undertakings.  Later on you will understand why his references to the General Assembly are important.

In terms of loving Charleston, in his January 1, 1754, essay exploring New Year’s customs and traditions, he writes:

It is evident, that the Ancients looked upon those Customs as promotive of the social Duties, and as so many Obligations of the Performance of them.  I am sorry to say, that modern Elegance is endeavouring to suppress these noble Emanations, but I am far more grieved to own, that such Virtues are incompatible with modern Graces.

It is with Sincerity I offer my Thoughts on this Subject, tho’ far more unnecessary in this Place (than in my others) where so noble a Generosity, joined with an hospitable Dignity, prevails.

In another essay he discloses the general location of where he lived in Charleston, observing that he is a “Man of Penetration, and can, with surprising Discernment, see a Church by Day-Light.”  In fact, The Humourist had a home on what is now Meeting Street and indeed he would have been able to see St. Michael’s Church.

Also, the essays show The Humourist to be a promoter of South Carolina.  He recognized the challenges facing the Colony of South Carolina in terms of industry, trade, manufacturing, and social issues, and he addressed them.

Writing under the pseudonym of as Alice Wish-For’t, the Humourist makes a strong plea for giving preference to commodities produced in South Carolina:

Nothing adds to the Wealth of a People and encourages Industry, than the Exclusion of foreign and Use of their own Manufactures.  All wise Nations and judicious Subjects, industriously avoid the purchasing of that from abroad, which they can be well supplied with at Home.


I confess myself quite unskill’d in Trade, therefore hope, the above Hints will be considered as arising from the Love of my Country.  I have a Fortune sufficient to purchase Wheat-Flour, yet chuse to eat nothing but Rice, because it’s of our own Growth; nor will I touch even a Piece of Johnny-cake, except made of Wheat-Flour sent from the Back-Settlements; all the Furniture of my House, etc. is of Carolina Make; so is my riding Chair, and most of my Cloaths; and Mr. Scott’s Beer (as soon as I saw his Advertisement) had the Preference to all foreign Liquours, and is become my constant Drink.  I wish every Lady in the Province was of my Humour; what a Number of Dollars should we then have at Command more than at present!

Writing under the pseudonym of Calx Pot-Ash, The Humourist makes a plea for manufacturing pot-ash along with rice and indigo and goes so far as to suggest that the proposal be taken to the General Assembly:

But, as the Reasonings of private Persons can seldom prevail against public Prejudice, I would ask your Advice, if it would be improper to recommend myself to the General Assembly, for their Encouragement and Support, as their Notice of me would bring great Numbers of British Subjects annually to settle your back Countries, would liquidate the Public Debts, and put your Currency on a Par with the Cash of your Mother Country. 

Writing under the pseudonym of Pine Green-Tar, The Humourist promotes green tar:

On further Enquiry, am told by Mr. Pot-Ash, Merchant, that He is of the same Sentiments with myself; and that we both should meet with Encouragement among you, had you any Person well skilled in bringing us to hear:  But the Process is so easy, and the Profits so considerable, that it’s amazing, you think it not worth while to send an ingenious Person to see how we are managed.

Writing under the pseudonym of Peter Hemp, the Humourist proposes that Indigo, Pot-Ash, Green Tar, and Hemp can live in one house along with Rice.

Finally, writing under the pseudonym of Urbanicus, The Humourist discusses:

  • Building a lighthouse with cannons on Cumming’s Island, for defense;
  • Building a pest-house for dealing with individuals infected with Small Pox;
  • Purchasing fire engines at the expense of the parishes of St. Philip and St. Michael to prevent future devastation by fire;
  • Tightening controls on the number of retailers licensed to sell liquor and on baking and the weight of bread;
  • Reviewing the qualifications of constables; (Remember that word—constables.  You’ll hear it later in my talk.)
  • Reminding plantation owners of the requirement to have one white person for every ten Negroes;
  • Building a jail of sufficient quality;
  • Walling in the White-Point section of Charleston to prevent hurricane damage; and, finally,
  • Building a bridge over Ashley-River. 

Of the proposed bridge, Urbanicus notes—if such a bridge is to be built, “to be sure there must be an Act passed for it. It would really be a good Thing:  And, if you, Mr. Humourist, are in the A—-y, we, and Thousands of others, hope you’ll befriend such a Bill.”  In terms of the word “A—-y,” The Humourist is using a convention standard that writers often use:  omitting letters from a word to suggest that they dare not use the word itself but providing enough letters that everyone would understand.  Thus, that part of the sentence becomes:  “if you … are in the Assembly, we and Thousands of others, hope you’ll befriend such a Bill.” Again, remember the General Assembly.

So, I’ve shared with you highlights—and they are just that:  highlights—of the clues that I found in the essays, and I have shared brief selections from the essays.

Now, let’s return to the Humourist’s final publication in the South Carolina Gazette, his Retirement Notice that I mentioned earlier in my talk.  It appeared on April 9, 1754.  It’s short, so I’ll read it all of it:

The HUMOURIST is become an Invalid, and as he loves Retirement must quit the foolish busy World, and please his vacant Hours with the secret Satisfaction of having intentionally displeased no one.  He thanks the Publick for having generously construed these Papers; but, for some private Reasons, is under a Necessity of declaring, that he will never more (either under this or any other Title, or on any Pretence, or on any Occasion whatsoever) enter the Lists of Authorism in this Province.

I was floored—no, flabbergasted—to see these wonderful Colonial American essays end so abruptly.  And what was I to make of this retirement notice?  Was it true?  Had The Humourist become an invalid, really?

As I pondered those questions, I recalled a lesson taught me by Sally Hambrick—librarian, mentor, friend—when I first started working at the Library of Congress.  Sally and I were both editors of The National Union Catalog, Pre-1956 Imprints, and one of our tasks often involved trying to establish authorship for works that appeared under titles only or that appeared under pseudonyms.  Our research often took us into the library stacks.  When we found the book that we were looking for, Sally would look at me and say, “Always remember to explore all the books 2 feet to the left and 2 feet to the right.  Those books will be in the same classification scheme, and we might find our answer there in one of them.”

So, it was from that research perspective that I kept exploring the South Carolina Gazette.  Two feet to the left and two feet to the right, if you will.  I re-read the entire newspaper for 1753 and 1754, up to The Humourist’s Final Notice.  Then I decided to keep reading.  “What if, “ I asked myself, “what if he really had become an invalid?  What if he died?  Maybe the Gazette would carry an obituary.”  I knew that was a long shot because based on my exploration of the Gazette for this period, obituaries did not appear that often.

At any rate, I followed my hunch, and I kept reading!  It paid off.  Four months after The Humourist’s “Retirement Notice,” The Gazette ran an obituary that made me sit up and take notice:

On Monday last died, of a Mortification, occasioned by the cutting of a Corn, the ingenious

I’ll stop reading the obituary at this point—even now, I want to control the revelation of The Humourist’s identity—I’ll save his name until the very end!

Keep in mind that mortification is a medical term that means gangrene.  Mortification occasioned by the cutting of a corn.  So, indeed, The Humourist had become an invalid when he posted his Retirement Notice.  And even though his departure from the New World was not a glorious one, whoever wrote his obituary notice knew that he was Ingenious.  Yes, indeed.  We see that trait in all his essays!

Candidly, the name in the obituary meant nothing to me in and of itself.  However, I knew that I had to explore it to see whether that person might have been The Humourist.

Luckily for me, I hit pay dirt.  All of the clues—all the patterns—that I had found in the essays lined up perfectly with everything that I was to find out about the ingenious person whose obituary I had stumbled upon.

Obviously, some of the individual clues that I discovered in The Humourist essays might point us to any number of learned and sophisticated people living here in Colonial Charleston.

But when all the clues in the essays—including the esoteric ones—point to one person—and to one person only—it provides rather irrefutable evidence that we have found our author.

Let’s do a crosswalk comparison.

The ingenious person whose obituary I had stumbled upon was born around 1692, presumably in Aberdeen, Scotland.  He earned his master of arts’ degree at Aberdeen University, and was proficient in classical and modern languages and had a talent for music and fine art.  It appears that after leaving Aberdeen University, the ingenious person whose obituary I had stumbled upon taught languages, music, and possibly drawing in Aberdeen and may have been a traveling tutor in France, Germany, and Italy.  Remember:  the Humourist essays show extensive knowledge of the classics, of languages, of literature, and of drawing and painting.  Remember, too, his reference to Adam using the Italian term “Signior.”

Subsequently, and for a good number of years he achieved considerable distinction as an operatic tenor.  From 1716-1719, he made operatic appearances in Italy.   He returned to England in 1719 where a benefit concert for him was held at the Lincoln’s Inn Fields, London.  He continued to be involved in opera and the theater, though with less and less frequency, until 1741. During this period he wrote what appears to be his only play:  Lupone, or the Inquisitor:  A Comedy, published in 1731.  Remember:  the Humourist essays show extensive knowledge of the theater and of drama.

Aside from being involved in theater, the ingenious person whose obituary I had stumbled became interested in antiquarian studies and decided to investigate the Roman antiquities of Scotland and northern England.  His antiquarian explorations occupied his focus between 1723-24.  In 1725, he was elected to the Society of Antiquaries and to the Society of Roman Knights.  In the next year he published his Itinerarium Septentrionale:  or, A Journey thro’ Most of the Counties of Scotland, and those in England.  In two Parts.  The Whole Illustrated with Sixty-Six Copperplates.  The work is considered to be a “record of great contemporary importance and some lasting value.”  He continued his antiquarian studies concentrating on “Roman sites of the lowlands,” on the Agricolan advance, and on the Antoine Wall.  In the latter exploration, he was accompanied by James Glen, who was provost of Linlithgow and also an antiquarian.  In 1729, he published The Lives of Pope Alexander VI, and His Son Caesar Borgia.  (Pope Alexander VI and Caesar Borgia were Italian.)   In 1730, appeared his published A Compleat History of the Antient Amphitheatres, More Particularly Regarding the Architecture of these Buildings, and in Particular that of Verona.  And in 1733, he translated The Book of Common Prayer into ItalianRemember:  the Humourist essays show extensive knowledge of history and “the antients,” and the essays make specific reference to Borgia.

Also, do you remember when I mentioned that The Humourist essays show knowledge of Egyptian mummies?   

Well, the person whose obituary I had stumbled upon published two essays related to Egyptian mummies.  The first in 1737 titled An Essay towards Explaining the Antient Hieroglyphical Figures, on the Coffin of the Ancient Mummy Belonging to Captain William Lethieullier. The second, also in 1737: An Essay towards Explaining the Antient Hieroglyphical Figures on the Egyptian Mummy in the Museum of Doctor Mead, Physician in Ordinary to His MajestyThe person whose obituary I had stumbled upon also served for a short time as secretary to the Egyptian Club.

Finally, in 1741 the ingenious person whose obituary I had stumbled upon left the Old World and came to the New World as secretary to his old friend James Glen who was now the new Governor of South Carolina.  From then until his death in 1754, the ingenious person whose obituary I had stumbled upon served—here in Charleston—as Clerk of His Majesty’s Council.

Let me pause here to make a brief observation about Colonial South Carolina at this point in its history.  The “legislature was established consisting of two houses. The upper house was designated [as] His Majesty’s Council and consisted of 12 persons, who served unlimited terms, appointed by the King. The Council worked directly with the royal governor and further served as the highest judicial court. The Commons House of Assembly, elected by colonists, was the lower house. The two houses—jointly—were called, like their British counterpart, the ‘Parliament.’ The Parliament and the royal governor, when referred to as a singular entity, constituted what was known as the General Assembly.” [emphasis supplied.]

Remember:  The Humourist essays mention the General Assembly three times.  Remember, especially his comment, “If you, Mr. Humourist are in the Assembly.” 

Additionally, the ingenious person whose obituary I had stumbled upon served for a while as Registrar of the province and as Constable—a justice of the peace.  (Remember:  The Humourist mentions “constables” in his essays.) He prospered here. He owned land in Charles Town itself as well as in Ansonborough, profitably developed for houses. He became a member of the St. Andrew’s Society and “associated with the leading professional men of the province.” Finally, he wrote about colonial South Carolina, and in a description that he sent to the Royal Society he spoke of “its admirable fertility, and wonderful produce of unnumerable curious and useful things—the vine, wine, sesamum, oil for soap, cotton, mulberry, silkworms […] hemp, flax, potash, etc. etc.  But after all this profusion of nature’s bounty, the inhabitants … made no profit or improvement in any one article for commerce, employing themselves wholly in the culture of rice.” Remember: in his essays, he specifically advances the notion of buying  Carolina  products instead of importing foreign commodities , and on several occasions he makes the point that hemp and potash and indigo can live in the same house with rice and suggests such a proposal be taken to the General Assembly.

Finally, the Last Will and Testament of the ingenious person whose obituary I had stumbled upon contains several bequests along with a directive that reinforce my identification of the author of The Humourist essays.

These bequests deal specifically with paintings and drawings.

I give, devise, and bequeath unto the Honourable Hector Berrenger De Beaufain, Esq, his picture, portraiture, or effigies by me [ …] painted, drawn and represented as aforesaid.

I give, devise, and bequeath unto the Reverend Mr. Heywood, his picture, portraiture, or effigies by me [ … ] painted, drawn, and represented as aforesaid.

I give, devise, and bequeath unto my son Alexander Gordon, my own picture, together with all and singular the paintings, views, and other representations by me […] painted, drawn and represented.

Remember:  the Humourist essays show extensive knowledge of drawing and painting.

Finally, the directive in The Last Will and Testament deals with an unpublished manuscript about Egyptians.

It is my express will and desire, and I do hereby order and direct, that my said son shall, as conveniently as may be, cause to be printed and published my book now remaining in manuscript and titled, “A Critical Essay towards the Illustrating the History and Chronology of the Egyptians and other most Ancient Nations, from the Earliest Ages on Record till the Times  of Alexander the Great.”

Remember:  the Humourist essays show extensive knowledge of history and “the antients,” including a reference to Egyptian mummies.

I think that it is abundantly clear:  all of the clues—all the patterns—that I found in the essays line up perfectly with everything that I found out about the ingenious person whose obituary I had stumbled upon.

Now, to wrap up my presentation and to reveal—for the first time ever—The Humourist’s identity, let me return to the ingenious person’s obituary that I stumbled upon in the South Carolina Gazette for August 29, 1754.  This time I will include the name his name:

“On Monday last died, of a Mortification, occasioned by the cutting of a Corn, the ingenious Continue reading

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!