Wilkie Collins. The Woman in White. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1860.
In the Civil War era few American humorists were as popular as Charles Farrar Browne (1834-67), a vagabond reporter and lecturer better known by his pseudonym–Artemus Ward. Starting his career as a typesetter for Boston’s Carpet-Bag in 1851, by the middle-fifties Browne was based in Ohio, writing and editing for newspapers in Cincinnati, Dayton, and a number of smaller cities. In 1858, as local editor of the Cleveland Plain-Dealer, he developed his Artemus Ward persona, and over the next decade cultivated a public following in the United States and abroad.
During his short lifetime, working in a genre that rarely results in canonization, Ward nonetheless made several important contributions to American letters. Perhaps the most significant of these was his influence on the young Mark Twain, whose comic sensibilities derive in large part from Ward’s writings and lectures.
Ward’s earliest appearances in print were spurious letters to the editor, interviews, travel pieces, and the like, characterized by a sardonic tone and featuring what can be described as his own unique form of the English language, in which our spelling and grammar rules do not apply.
Ward’s first letter to the editor, from January 1858, is a typical example of his style:
Pitsburg, Jan. 27, 18&58
The Plane Deeler:
i write to no how about the show bisnes in Cleeveland i have a show consisting in part of a Calforny Bare two snakes tame foxies &c also wax works my wax works is hard to beat, all say they is life and nateral curiosities among my wax works is Our Saveyer Gen taylor and Docktor Webster in the ackt of killing Parkman. now mr. Editor scratch off few lines and tel me how is the show bisnes in your good city i shal have hanbils printed at your offis you scratch my back i will scratch your back, also git up a grate blow in the paper about my show don’t forgit the wax works.
p S pitsburg is a 1 horse town. A. W.
By the start of the Civil War this linguistic grandstanding had earned Ward a large following in the Midwest. In 1861 he moved to New York, where he became an editor and writer at Vanity Fair, a humor magazine (unrelated to the current magazine). Vanity Fair brought Ward to a national audience, and his popularity soon spread throughout the Civil War North. Ward’s readers even extended to the White House. President Lincoln was such a fan that he read aloud a new Ward piece, “High-Handed Outrage at Utica,” to open an 1862 cabinet meeting. Then he read something else–his first draft of the Emancipation Proclamation.
In late 1861 Ward capitalized on his new-found fame, launching his first comic lecture tour across the North. By 1863 he was performing to packed houses as far west as California. “Lecturing” on current events and skewering public figures, his act wandered wherever his whims took him. In effect, he became one of the first American stand-up comedians.
At one tour stop in 1863, at Virginia City, Nevada, he met a wily young reporter named Sam Clemens (Mark Twain), whose life would be changed forever by the experience. The two men shared the same sense of humor and, legend has it, the same barrel of whiskey: after a night of raising hell, the Virginia City constable reportedly threatened them with his shotgun. Clemens would be a disciple of Ward’s for the rest of his life.
Ward continued in this fashion, writing, lecturing, and creating publicity everywhere he went. In 1866 he took his talents to England, where he increased his celebrity by performing his act and submitting humor pieces to Punch. And in England he died, of pneumonia, in 1867.
Since his death, Ward has nearly faded into obscurity, and today his name is recognizable to few readers aside from scholars and students of nineteenth century America. As a former English literature major, I fall into the latter category, and so I was overjoyed recently when I stumbled upon a book that was originally purchased by Ward.
Several weeks ago I was browsing the 823s in the Library’s Main Stacks, when I picked off the shelf a first American edition of Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White (New York: Harper & Bros., 1860).
In itself, this was an interesting find: an early edition of one of the first (and finest) mystery novels. What made the discovery truly exciting was the inscription on the flyleaf, to Geo. Hoyt from one “A. Ward.” The full inscription reads, “Presented to Geo. Hoyt as a slite Evijence of my regard for his Talenks as a Sculptist. A Ward. Nov. 18, 1860.”
Although I had never seen Ward’s handwriting, I was initially convinced that the inscription was authentic due its venturesome spelling choices and wry tone. Examining the book closer, I found that a magazine article, “Artemus Ward at Cleveland,” had been pasted into the front of the book.
The article, published by C. C. Ruthrauff in the October 1878 issue of Scribner’s Monthly (later to become The Century Magazine), details Ward’s relationship with a George Hoyt–the same “Geo. Hoyt” from the inscription. According to the article, Hoyt was the Cleveland Plain-Dealer’s chief illustrator when Ward was its local editor. The two collaborated on a number of articles during Ward’s tenure (1858-61), and as a show of his affection for Hoyt’s work, Ward bought for his colleague a copy of the newly published Woman in White, writing the inscription shown above.
Within the year, Ward would leave Cleveland for fame and fortune in the East. Hoyt would stay behind, eventually becoming editor and publisher of the Plain-Dealer. And Hoyt’s copy of The Woman in White would find its way to our University Library, first as part of the Main Stacks collection, and now as a new addition to the Rare Book and Manuscript Library–a small, but valuable, complement to the Franklin J. Meine Collection. RR