THE LIFE OF ARTEMUS WARD.*
MR. HINGSTON made the acquaintance of Mr. Charles Browne, better known as Artemus Ward, in Cincinnati in the year 1861, and subsequently acted as "agent in advance "for him throughout a professional tour in California and the Western States. Acting, he says, on the advice of friends, he has now determined to publish all he knew of the life of Artemus Ward, and, as Artemus himself just before his death requested him to do, " use up those note-books," kept during their wanderings, and containing all the "good things" they met with. "That note-book was a nuisance on the road," said Artemus characteristically, "but you should turn it to account now." So Mr. Hingston not only relates all the facts of the humorist's life that came within his knowledge, but gives his experiences of America from a show- man's point of view, the first time that such a task has been attempted. Mr. Hingston has failed, or rather has scarcely attempted, to solve the great problem of how it comes that not- withstanding the admixture of races by which the "great West" is peopled, something in the climate, mode of life, or habits of thought develops in one and all with strange rapidity an absolutely original and unique species of grotesque humour,— a humour of which Artemus, though New England by birth, had become by Western residence a singularly representative exponent. For although it is easy to trace in the humour of Artemus evidences of an education in the New England school of which the Biglow Papers may be taken as the most characteristic example, it was undoubtedly the influences of his Western experiences that formed him into the humorist whose very first utterances in England at once carried away the multitude and attracted the attention of the keenest critics. The reader must not expect to find in Mr. Hingston's pages any critical appreciation of Western humour, but he will find some very characteristic illustrations of it, and a good many curious anecdotal reminiscences of Western travel. His volumes are, as might be ex- pected, very discursive and altogether note-booky; but, on the whole, well worth the attention of any student of Western manners and customs. As Mr. Hingston puts it, quoting from an American editor who was asked to define the principles of his paper, "Up and down the Democratic plank our principles are as straight as a ramrod, but we've got some ideas which creep out underneath at the sides. They creep and they creep till they get their grip of the whole creation." This book has, mutatis mutandis, similar diver- gent tendencies. Substitute the life of Artemus Ward for the Democratic plank, and anecdotes for ideas—which are not Mr. Hingston's forte, to use the favourite phrase of his subject—and you have a fair illustration of the book.
There was nothing particularly remarkable in the bringing up of Mr. Browne, at least nothing that would seem remarkable to an American. The son of a country land surveyor in the wild and rocky districts of Maine—the Caledonia of America—he was by no means physically a fitting representative of the sturdy, hardy, * The Genial Showman, being Beminiseenees of the Life of Artemus Ward. By Edward P. Hingston. 2 vols. London : I. C. Hotten. 1870.
determined giants who form the pride of the State. He left school early, after all the education his parents could afford, and began life at sixteen as a compositor at the office of a small village newspaper, the Skowhegan Clarion, mastering apparently a strong "turn" for the stage, and an ambition to have something to do with a circus. How he set off to Boston to seek his fortune ; got his first "comic copy" inserted by a paper for which he was working as printer ; then went out West as assistant on various papers, in which, as in the majority of Western journals, the comic element was not confined to a separate column, but pervaded the entire production, from Federal politics to police reports ; and finally developed into an itinerant humorist lecturer, is all told by Mr. Hingston at length ; and though the vicissitudes of his life may seem strange enough to English readers, they would scarcely in themselves attract passing attention in the States. Throughout his press career he manifested a longing for that change and excitement and those chances of studying fresh oddi- ties and grotesqueries of character which pertain to the life of a "showman," for every kind of entertainment, from opera down- wards, is known as a " show " in the West. Though fond above all things of his rustic " homestead" in Maine for a certain time in the year, spending his time in scribbling, reading, playing with children, and bewildering the innocent rustics with " goaks " of all kinds, practical and otherwise, he always seemed to have craved after a time for the excitement of the stage and the lecture- hall. And while "speaking his piece," as the American phrase runs, in almost every city between New York and San Francisco, even Salt Lake ,City included, he gradually and fully developed the character first outlined by him in an Ohio journal, and after- wards known to fame as "Artemus Ward, the showman." his idea from the first, as Mr. Hingston says, was "the creation of a quaint old hypothetical showman," in whom
"The shrewdness of a Barnum was to be united with the stupidity of an uneducated itinerant exhibitor, who had gained his experience by roughing it in the West amongst the towns and villages on the outer edge of the circle of civilization, and in a state of society where the more refined forms of amusement are comparatively unknown. The old showman was to have the smartness of a Yankee, combined with the slowness of one whose time had been chiefly spent among the back- woods ; he was to blend humorous stupidity with unscrupulous menda- city, to have very little of the reverential about him, a modicum of the philosophic, and a large amount of the broadly comic. His home was to be in Indiana, that being a State of the Union abounding in quaint specimens of uncultured and eccentric people ; and he was to be the possessor of a show consisting of Three moral Bares, a Kangaroo (a amoozing little rascal, 'twould make you larf yerself to death to see the little cuss jump up and squeal), wax figgers of G. Washington, Genl. Taylor, John Bunyan, Captain Kidd, and Dr. Webster, besides several sniscellanyous moral wax statoots of celebrated pirate and murderers.'"
How the idea grew and prospered few readers on this side of the Atlantic are unaware, and none of those who were fortunate enough to hear with their own ears the last intensely humorous utterances of the poor dying "showman" are likely ever to forget them, or think but with sincere regret of the untimely death of their entertainer.
But it is mainly as depicting Western America "from the showman's point of view" that Mr. Hingston's volumes will be appreciated by the majority of readers. London visitors in little country towns and villages often think the "shows" of all kinds which delight the rustics at the fair or the small tradesmen at the large room at the village inn must be the ne plus ultra of gro- tesque imposture and absurdity. But reading in Mr. fling- ston's pages of the kind of thing which stimulates the imagi- nations of the benighted " Hoosiers " of Indiana, or tickles the fancy of the mob of Cincinnati, or pleases the simple-minded farmers of the great corn-growing States, or serves as a sensation for the rough miners of Nevada, English readers are simply lost in bewilderment. Take, for instance, Mr. Hingston's story about the wax-work figures in the Museum at Cincinnati, where the showman apologizes in private for that of General Fremont being too large, because they had nothing to spare for it but the body of the Emperor of Russia, with which they had done, as the "var- mints had got into his clothes ;" and where the failure of the Queen of Sheba to kneel properly in presenting her gifts to King Solomon was thus accounted for :—
" 'We were a bit skeart,' said the attendant, 'for she was awful nervous. I saw her shake all over as if she had the chills and fevers. That was after she dropped the royal presents. When we'd got the people out we undressed her, and thar in her stomach, and half-way up her arm, we found that cussed snake.'"
Nor will his readers fail to appreciate the adventurous nature of the American showman and his herald, when they have to deal with a public like that to be found in Carson City, Nevada,— where the upset of a coach with loss of life, is only noticed by the formula that "the coach turned over and killed the turnovers," —where a brutal murder by a man with "a kink in his brain" is thought only worthy of a paragraph headed "A man for break- fast,"—and where the populace disport themselves as follows :-
"In the afternoon I gaunter outside the town to see the 'rooster- pulling ; ' not knowing what kind of an entertainment I am destined to witness. That the inhabitants of Carson City are not given to elegant frivolities I am quite prepared to expect ; but that they should indulge in any such villanous sport as that to which I am treated is matter for sincere regret. A ' rooster ' is the American term for the male bird among poultry. Many roosters have been provided for the match—fine strong fowls. Each competitor seats himself on a log of wood with his feet against a board. He first deposits and then takes one of the rooster,a, places it between his legs with its head downwards, and seizing the feet of the poor fowl, pulls with full force. If he succeed in pulling the legs of the rooster clean off he will win the bird ; if not, he will lose the dollar. Few succeed in the attempt. I notice that the fowls, though subjected to such severe torture, do not make any noise, and I ask Dr. Schemmerhorn the reason."
Dr. Schemmerhorn, a Baltimorean who owns the theatre, and
announces himself as having "lived in these d—d mountains, and the Rocky Mountains, and all other d—d mountains for the last eighteen years," replies, "They can't. They are too much ab- sorbed." No wonder that Mr. Hingston concludes that "eighteen years' life in the mountains is not favourable to fine feeling ;" and
is not sorry when the time arrives for him to remount another coach and start for Virginia City. Revolting as this story is in the atrocity of the cruelty of the " sport " and the brutal levity of the doctor's remark, it is a wonderfully striking illustration both of the callousness of feeling amongst these wild "pioneers," and the reckless audacity of imagination which enables every Westerner "racy of the soil" to express anything and every- thing that occurs in some startlingly grotesque form. The key-note to half Artemus Ward's humour is to be found in the
mountain-haunting doctor's application of the word "absorbed," with its accustomed associations of "absorbed in reflection," "absorbed in the game," &c., to the dying agonies of a rooster. We have no space for further extract, but we can assure our readers that a perusal of Mr. Hingston's work will give them a fresh insight into the eccentricities and pastimes of the people of the Far West which they aro scarcely likely to obtain elsewhere.
And it is by no means destitute of more solid information. The account of the Mormon industries and civilization, though of
course not so elaborate as others which have recently appeared, is full of facts, and interesting, and brings out at least one striking point in Brigham Young's character,—he had the craftiness to ba very civil to Artemus, in order, probably, to induce him to abandon the satire and ridicule which had hit the Mormons so terribly in his former work. But Artemus, however, took good care when ill not to drink the physic offered him by a Mormon whom he recog- nized as chief of the band of Danites, or Destroying Angels, be- lieved to execute the vengeance of the Prophet on anyone whom it may be desirable to get rid of in a quiet but effectual way.