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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Artemus Ward (Charles Farrar Browne) (1834–1867)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by Charles Frederick Johnson (1836–1931)
 
CHARLES FARRAR BROWNE, better known to the public of thirty years ago under his pen-name of Artemus Ward, was born in the little village of Waterford, Maine, on the 26th day of April, 1834. Waterford is a quiet village of about seven hundred inhabitants, lying among the foot-hills of the White Mountains. When Browne was a child it was a station on the western stage-route, and an important depot for lumbermen’s supplies. Since the extension of railroads northerly and westerly from the seaboard, it has however shared the fate of many New England villages in being left on one side of the main currents of commercial activity, and gradually assuming a character of repose and leisure, in many regards more attractive than the life and bustle of earlier days. Many persons are still living there who remember the humorist as a quaint and tricksy boy, alternating between laughter and preternatural gravity, and of a surprising ingenuity in devising odd practical jokes in which good nature so far prevailed that even the victims were too much amused to be very angry.  1
  On both sides, he came from original New England stock; and although he was proud of his descent from a very ancient English family, in deference to whom he wrote his name with the final “e,” he felt greater pride in his American ancestors, and always said that they were genuine and primitive Yankees,—people of intelligence, activity, and integrity in business, but entirely unaffected by new-fangled ideas. It is interesting to notice that Browne’s humor was hereditary on the paternal side, his father especially being noted for his quaint sayings and harmless eccentricities. His cousin Daniel many years later bore a strong resemblance to what Charles had been, and he too possessed a kindred humorous faculty and told a story in much the same solemn manner, bringing out the point as if it were something entirely irrelevant and unimportant and casually remembered. The subject of this sketch, however, was the only member of the family in whom a love for the droll and incongruous was a controlling disposition. As is frequently the case, a family trait was intensified in one individual to the point where talent passes over into genius.  2
  On his mother’s side, too, Browne was a thorough-bred New-Englander. His maternal grandfather, Mr. Calvin Farrar, was a man of influence in town and State, and was able to send two of his sons to Bowdoin College. I have mentioned Browne’s parentage because his humor is so essentially American. Whether this consists in a peculiar gravity in the humorous attitude towards the subject, rather than playfulness, or in a tendency to exaggerated statement, or in a broad humanitarian standpoint, or in a certain flavor given by a blending of all these, it is very difficult to decide. Probably the peculiar standpoint is the distinguishing note, and American humor is a product of democracy.  3
  Humor is as difficult of definition as is poetry. It is an intimate quality of the mind, which predisposes a man to look for remote and unreal analogies and to present them gravely as if they were valid. It sees that many of the objects valued by men are illusions, and it expresses this conviction by assuming that other manifest trifles are important. It is the deadly enemy of sentimentality and affectation, for its vision is clear. Although it turns everything topsy-turvy in sport, its world is not a chaos nor a child’s playground, for humor is based on keen perception of truth. There is no method—except the highest poetic treatment—which reveals so distinctly the falsehoods and hypocrisies of the social and economic order as the reductio ad absurdum of humor; for all human institutions have their ridiculous sides, which astonish and amuse us when pointed out, but from viewing which we suddenly become aware of relative values before misunderstood. But just as poetry may degenerate into a musical collection of words and painting into a decorative association of colors, so humor may degenerate into the merely comic or amusing. The laugh which true humor arouses is not far removed from tears. Humor indeed is not always associated with kindliness, for we have the sardonic humor of Carlyle and the savage humor of Swift; but it is naturally dissociated from egotism, and is never more attractive than when, as in the case of Charles Lamb and Oliver Goldsmith, it is based on a loving and generous interest in humanity.  4
  Humor must rest on a broad human foundation, and cannot be narrowed to the notions of a certain class. But in most English humor,—as indeed in all English literature except the very highest,—the social class to which the writer does not belong is regarded ab extra. In Punch, for instance, not only are servants always given a conventional set of features, but they are given conventional minds, and the jokes are based on a hypothetical conception of personality. Dickens was a great humorist, and understood the nature of the poor because he had been one of them; but his gentlemen and ladies are lay figures. Thackeray’s studies of the flunky are capital; but he studies him qua flunky, as a naturalist might study an animal, and hardly ranks him sub specie humanitatis. But to the American humorist all men are primarily men. The waiter and the prince are equally ridiculous to him, because in each he finds similar incongruities between the man and his surroundings; but in England there is a deep impassable gulf between the man at the table and the man behind his chair. This democratic independence of external and adventitious circumstance sometimes gives a tone of irreverence to American persiflage, and the temporary character of class distinctions in America undoubtedly diminishes the amount of literary material “in sight”; but when, as in the case of Browne and Clemens, there is in the humorist’s mind a basis of reverence for things and persons that are really reverend, it gives a breadth and freedom to the humorous conception that is distinctively American.  5
  We put Clemens and Browne in the same line, because in reading a page of either we feel at once the American touch. Browne of course is not to be compared to Clemens in affluence or in range in depicting humorous character-types; but it must be remembered that Clemens has lived thirty active years longer than his predecessor did. Neither has written a line that he would wish to blot for its foul suggestion, or because it ridiculed things that were lovely and of good report. Both were educated in journalism, and came into direct contact with the strenuous and realistic life of labor. And to repeat, though one was born and bred west of the Mississippi and the other far “down east,” both are distinctly American. Had either been born and passed his childhood outside our magic line, this resemblance would not have existed. And yet we cannot say precisely wherein this likeness lies, nor what caused it; so deep, so subtle, so pervading is the influence of nationality. But their original expressions of the American humorous tone are worth ten thousand literary echoes of Sterne or Lamb or Dickens or Thackeray.  6
  The education of young Browne was limited to the strictly preparatory years. At the age of thirteen he was forced by the death of his father to try to earn his living. When about fourteen, he was apprenticed to a Mr. Rex, who published a paper at Lancaster, New Hampshire. He remained there about a year, then worked on various country papers, and finally passed three years in the printing-house of Snow and Wilder, Boston. He then went to Ohio, and after working for some months on the Tiffin Advertiser, went to Toledo, where he remained till the fall of 1857. Thence he went to Cleveland, Ohio, as local editor of the Plain Dealer. Here appeared the humorous letters signed “Artemus Ward” and written in the character of an itinerant showman. In 1860 he went to New York as editor of the comic journal Vanity Fair.  7
  His reputation grew steadily, and his first volume, ‘Artemus Ward, His Book,’ was brought out in 1862. In 1863 he went to San Francisco by way of the Isthmus and returned overland. This journey was chronicled in a short volume, ‘Artemus Ward, His Travels.’ He had already undertaken a career of lecturing, and his comic entertainments, given in a style peculiarly his own, became very popular. The mimetic gift is frequently found in the humorist; and Browne’s peculiar drawl, his profound gravity and dreamy, far-away expression, the unexpected character of his jokes and the surprise with which he seemed to regard the audience, made a combination of a delightfully quaint absurdity. Browne himself was a very winning personality, and never failed to put his audience in good humor. None who knew him twenty-nine years ago think of him without tenderness. In 1866 he visited England, and became almost as popular there as lecturer and writer for Punch. He died from a pulmonary trouble in Southampton, March 6th, 1867, being not quite thirty-three years old. He was never married.  8
  When we remember that a large part of Browne’s mature life was taken up in learning the printer’s trade, in which he became a master, we must decide that he had only entered on his career as humorous writer. Much of what he wrote is simply amusing, with little depth or power of suggestion; it is comic, not humorous. He was gaining the ear of the public and training his powers of expression. What he has left consists of a few collections of sketches written for a daily paper. But the subjoined extracts will show, albeit dimly, that he was more than a joker, as under the cap and bells of the fool in Lear we catch a glimpse of the face of a tender-hearted and philosophic friend. Browne’s nature was so kindly and sympathetic, so pure and manly, that after he had achieved a reputation and was relieved from immediate pecuniary pressure, he would have felt an ambition to do some worthy work and take time to bring out the best that was in him. As it is, he had only tried his ’prentice hand. Still, the figure of the old showman, though not very solidly painted, is admirably done. He is a sort of sublimated and unoffensive Barnum; perfectly consistent, permeated with his professional view of life, yet quite incapable of anything underhand or mean; radically loyal to the Union, appreciative of the nature of his animals, steady in his humorous attitude toward life: and above all, not a composite of shreds and patches, but a personality. Slight as he is, and unconscious and unpracticed as is the art that went to his creation, he is one of the humorous figures of all literature; and old Sir John Falstaff, Sir Roger de Coverley, Uncle Toby, and Dr. Primrose will not disdain to admit him into their company; for he too is a man, not an abstraction, and need not be ashamed of his parentage nor doubtful of his standing among the “children of the men of wit.”  9
 
 
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