“…the foam-flakes that dance in life’s shallows
Are wrung from life’s deep.”
—James Rhoades, “On the Death of Artemus Ward,” Spectator, March 16, 1867
The annual Spiritualist encampment at Brady Lake was once visited by the spirit of Artemus Ward, according to a report by the Plain Dealer on July 9, 1899. The audience was kept in such stitches as the once-rangy and facetious spirit channeled some humdinger drolleries through the medium of the plump and earnest Mrs. Carrie Twing, that no one thought to ask the dead humorist an important question:
Mr. Ward, do you think Cleveland ought to name a school after you?
If they had done so, I expect that this forerunner to Will Rogers would have reacted as folklorist Clifton Johnson reported he did so often while living. “He would chatter and gurgle and burst into occasional explosions of laughter so hearty that he would sometimes slide out of his chair and land on the floor.”
This very question came up recently when I was talking with a friend about a review I’d just posted on Goodreads for a collection of stories by Cleveland’s most famous forgotten comedian. My review, while mostly favorable, had acknowledged Artemus Ward’s troubling tendency to draw from bigotry’s rancid well when quenching his insatiable thirst for hilarity. Even in the early part of the 20th century, when Jim Crow laws institutionalized racism, Artemus apologists like Don Carlos Seitz felt the need to acknowledge, “Like other professional jokers, he has some poor ones, at which it is wrong to smile.” My friend wondered: Does a guy who poked fun at people’s race, religion, gender, and disability really merit an honor like this?
While Charles Farrar Browne loafed around the Plain Dealer editorial offices between 1857 and 1860—filling his column with glittering nonsense because it was so much less fatiguing than actual reporting—he created the character of a showman named Artemus Ward, who traveled around the country displaying moral waxwork figures, sagacious wild beasts, and one especially contrary kangaroo.
Browne rose to international fame quickly after his first creatively misspelled “Artemus Ward” letters appeared in the Plain Dealer. After enough papers had reprinted the letters to make his pen name known across the country, Browne moved up to a position as the editor of a New York humor weekly, went on tour as a popular lecturer, and started publishing his jokes in book form. Mark Twain loved him, Abraham Lincoln loved him, London society loved him.
There was a lot that was lovable, and I’ll get back to that shortly. But first, let’s talk about Oberlin, where—as A.W. put it—“on rainy dase white peple can’t find their way threw the streets without the gas is lit, there bein such a numerosity of cullerd pussons in the town.”
The story from which that quote is drawn is among those that made the cut for the 1912 collection Artemus Ward’s Best Stories. And that was after editor Clifton Johnson had weeded out the ones that were “objectionably coarse.” Originally published in the Plain Dealer on March 30, 1858, “Oberlin” told the story of the fictional showman’s visit to the college town where—though Artemus didn’t specifically acknowledge it—Mary Jane Patterson was then preparing to become the first African American woman to be awarded a college degree.
Upon arrival in Oberlin, Artemus reports that he “kawled on perfesser Finney of the Kollidge,” referring to Rev. Charles Grandison Finney, who was then president. A representative snippet of their conversation:
“Sez he mister Ward dont yure blud bile at the thawt that three milyuns and a harf of yure cullerd brethren air a clankin their chains in the Sowth? Sez i, not a bile–let them clank.”
It’s interesting to me that when Browne brushed up this text for inclusion in his first book in 1862, he changed the name of the college professor from Finney to Peck. I assume this was because, a few months after the letter appeared in the PD, Professor of Sacred Rhetoric Henry Everard Peck gained some renown when he participated in the Oberlin-Wellington Slave Rescue that helped set a match to the kindling prior to the conflagration of the Civil War. That made him funnier, I reckon.
I suppose it’s partly because Oberlin’s is the atmosphere wherein I drew my own first breath that I find this Artemus letter especially problematic. I grew up with the understanding that the progressive goals of that community made it almost a hallowed spot, and it’s still jarring to find that other northern Ohioans found it ridiculous.
So scratchy do I find this letter, I think that if I had been a young black Clevelander in the summer of 1966—after the Cultural Gardens had been defaced with KKK and Nazi slogans, and the Hough riots had left four people dead and a neighborhood in shambles—and I had chanced upon a copy of Artemus Ward’s witticisms, my own right index finger might have started itching for the trigger of a spray paint can.
If we were to judge only from this isolated example of Artemus Ward/Charles F. Browne humor, it seems unlikely to me that any present or past Cleveland school board would elect to spell out his name in large letters over the heads of our city’s kids. So why did that happen?
Browne died of tuberculosis in 1867, not having quite reached his 33rd birthday. He had lived a short life, but he had accumulated an astonishing number of friends. Some of his old drinking buddies from Cleveland were among the founders of the Artemus Ward Club, a society of newspaper men who—besides enjoying convivial evenings in the club rooms—also endeavored to keep the memory of their namesake alive. Frequent press references were made to their colleague long after his death, so that for decades, Clevelanders would recall the comic whose work was quickly fading elsewhere.
It was undoubtedly in this same spirit of cheering for the home team that Mayor Harold H. White spoke up for Artemus during the installation of a bust of John Hay that had been donated to the Cultural Gardens at Rockefeller Park by B’nai B’rith. During that ceremony, just a few weeks before the Nazi invasion of Poland, the mayor suggested that, between them, Mark Twain, John Hay and Artemus Ward represented “the real American spirit,” and so all three should be represented in what was then the American Colonial Garden.
Each of these men, of course, were at least as flawed as any of us. Probably statesman Hay’s efforts to aid Jewish refugees of pogroms at the turn of the century helped everyone to overlook the fact that his own novel, The Bread-Winners, was very staunchly anti-labor. And Twain’s genius for painting literary portraits of durable American character has allowed him to weather many attempts to ban his books. But unlike the friend whose story about a jumping frog he helped to promote, Browne’s humor didn’t stand the test of time.
When his own friends and supporters—notably “dean of American letters” William Dean Howells—felt the need to acknowledge that much of Ward’s comedy crossed the invisible line and was best forgotten, it’s difficult to explain why the honor of having a school named for him was first promoted by one of the most literate people in Cleveland history: Linda Anne Eastman, who oversaw the construction of the main library while serving as the first female director of a major library system. She was also the head of the “Artemus Ward Committee” of the Early Settlers Association, which was urging the city to mark the centennial of Browne’s birth.
We all come to civic issues bearing our own pack of personal bias, and mine includes a sentiment against honoring comedians with school names when there are bona fide Cleveland scholars such as Edward Christopher Williams who remain unrecognized. But because Eastman is also one of my personal heroes, her support for this honor prompted me to really hunt for some justification among the small treasury of Browne’s extant words.
Funnily enough, I found some in his last published work, which bore the unpromising title, “Converting the Nigger,” when it was originally published in The Savage-Club Papers.
In this sketch, Artemus Ward is confronted by umbrella-brandishing missionaries out collecting money for tracts in order to send the word of God to the newly-freed slaves. Uppity female reformers being ever a favored target of lampooning by the more conservative Browne, Artemus enjoys a few pages-worth of barbs with these ladies before he turns to the one black man in the group, and the tone suddenly changes:
“I said, ‘My fren’, this is a seris matter. I admire you for tryin to help the race to which you belong, and far be it from me to say anything agin carryin the gospel among the blacks of the South. Let the gospel go to them by all means. But I happen to individooally know that there are some thousands of liberated blacks in the South who are starvin. I don’t blame anybody for this, but it is a very sad fact. Some are really too ill to work, some can’t get work to do, and others are too foolish to see any necessity for workin. I was down there last winter, and I observed that this class had plenty of preachin for their souls, but skurcely any vittles for their stummux. Now, if it is proposed to send flour and bacon along with the gospel, the idea is really a excellent one. If on the t’other hand it is proposed to send preachin alone, all I can say is that it’s a hard case for the niggers. If you expect a colored person to get deeply interested in a tract when his stummuck is empty, you expect too much.’
I gave the negro as much as I could afford, and the kind-hearted lan’lord did the same. I said, ‘Farewell, my colored fren’. I wish you well, certainly. You are now as free as the eagle. Be like him and soar. But don’t attempt to convert a Ethiopian person while his stummuck yearns for vittles.’”
This is a far cry from some of Browne’s earlier comments on race, which have been most usefully assembled by James C. Austin. While acknowledging that, “Browne was not a prophet and he did not, in this respect, rise above his times,” Austin, like Howells, Johnson, Seitz and Eastman concluded that Browne possessed qualities that, when combined, were worthy of commendation: the wit that made him famous, the selective compassion that earned him friends, and the pliancy that—had he been granted opportunity for greater maturity—might have eventually worked to root out his bigotry.
Of these qualities, it is the last one that is, to me, the most praiseworthy. Charles Browne had a conscience that, while conservative, was capable of change. Austin’s assessment of the sketch that was quickly renamed “The Negro Question” was that it “showed the triumph of his humanity over his partisanship.” While Browne openly and repeatedly acknowledged his own prejudice, sometimes in terms that are quite disgusting to prevailing modern sensibility, he continued to place himself among the very people he mocked, to make friends with them, and to try to understand them. And then, if his opinion about them changed, so did his writing. In these—and those—days of rigid, unwavering partisanship, this seems almost miraculous.
Is it enough to earn him a school? I don’t believe Browne would think so.
Charles Browne sincerely respected education (even the one provided by Oberlin College), and regretted for his whole life that he had been deprived of it by his father’s early death. In the will that provided for the disposition of his meager estate, the most notable provisions were for the education of his young valet and the awarding of his personal library to the child from his hometown of Waterford, Maine, who scored highest on the upcoming school exams. It’s very difficult for me to imagine that Browne himself would have seen a school as a suitable tribute to his work.
This is not to say that his work is wholly unworthy of tribute. In an unsourced excerpt published in Scribner’s Monthly in October, 1878, Browne stated his own case:
“Humorous writers have always done the most toward helping virtue on its pilgrimage, and the truth has found more aid from them than from all the grave polemists [sic] and solid writers that have ever spoken or written….They have helped the truth along without encumbering it with themselves.”
The most famous example of this fact has become part of our national mythology. Preserved by Wayne Whipple in his 1908 collection The Story-Life of Lincoln, gathered by him from an interview with Judge Hamilton Ward that was published in the Lockport Daily Journal on May 21, 1893, and based on a conversation or letter from some 25 years before that, former Secretary of War Edwin Stanton related to the judge this story from September 22, 1862:
On that day, the President Lincoln opened the meeting of his cabinet by reading a couple chapters from Artemus Ward: His Book, which was hot off the press.
When not a single member of the war-burdened cabinet joined in his jolly appreciation of the showman’s stories, he wondered, “Gentlemen, why don’t you laugh? With the fearful strain that is upon me night and day, if I did not laugh, I should die, and you need this medicine as much as I do.”
And then, Stanton reported, the president sighed, drew the draft of the Emancipation Proclamation out of his hat, and read it out loud to his astonished cabinet.
When he had recovered adequately from his amazement, Stanton shook Lincoln’s hand and gasped, “If the reading of chapters of Artemus Ward is the prelude to such a deed as this, the book should be filed among the archives of the nation, and the author should be canonized.”
It’s as difficult to say whether Browne’s words helped the Emancipation Proclamation on its pilgrimage as it is to conclude that they prompted the besmirching of his Cultural Gardens bust. If they did the former, as Stanton suggests, then he has surely earned his place among the saints. But I’m still not sure he’s earned his place on West 140th Street.