Date of Award
Master of Arts (MA)
College of Humanities and Social Sciences
Thesis Sponsor/Dissertation Chair/Project Chair
Daniel R. Bronson
It is generally accepted that during his lifetime, Mark Twain was considered the preeminent American master storyteller and lecturer of humor. The tsunami that is Twain’s literary achievement can easily overwhelm the earlier vast movement of the American literary scene that led to its creation. The “underwater earthquake” of this movement is Charles Farrar Browne, but his more famous pseudonym is Artemus Ward.
While there were earlier as well as contemporary humorous writers, Artemus Ward was regarded by William Dean Howells as “the humorist who first gave the world a taste of the humor that characterizes the whole American people” (Pullen 26). In fact, New Jersey’s own American novelist and short story writer Albert Payson Terhune commemorates Ward as “the man ‘who taught Americans to laugh’” (Nock 9). Indeed, in 1862, President Lincoln laughed heartily while he read to his Cabinet passages from Ward’s first book. Ward’s uniqueness in telling a story from the lecture platform enthralled thousands throughout the United States and in Canada; he was also “the first deadpan comedian to take England by storm” (Austin, Ward 19).
Despite these views, today Ward’s literary reputation is largely forgotten. Yet he was distinctive and influential in the American tradition of his day and is deserving of study. This thesis will analyze the construction of his literary reputation by showing that what made Ward so popular in his time was that his literary humor was rhetorically gentle. This is seen through his numerous fictitious letters to the Cleveland Daily Plain Dealer. Vanity Fair and reprinted largely throughout the country. The success of his humorous letters was displayed in a character that exuded confidence without conceit, and whose observations of contemporary issues contained neither sarcasm nor malice. He did not allow himself to be emotionally caught up in his humor. His satiric wit was enjoyed by all of its targets. Furthermore, Ward parlayed the success of his nationally published letters into a commercially successful career as the first comedic lecturer to tour the nation.
In his time, Ward achieved a fascinating dichotomy with his genial humor. His letters to the Plain Dealer showed a very confident, middle-aged, pot-bellied P.T. Bamum-like character of a traveling tent show of unusual animals and wax figures, and who used humorous misspellings then in vogue to “comment” on a variety of topics. However, his lectures, billed as “Artemus Ward Speaks a Piece,” startled audiences that saw instead the real Charles Ferrar Browne, a gaunt young man of twenty-seven who dressed quite distinctively and spoke very formally in a humorous stream of consciousness with a seriousness of expression (Pullen 46).
A full appreciation of Ward’s humor requires this thesis to be divided into three parts, with Parts II and III being the bulk. Part I will be extremely brief, though necessary in the construction of his literary reputation in his short life of thirty-three years, solely as it developed and influenced his humor. This part’s focus will be on historically pertinent references to the native American humor as it affected his humor during his lifetime.
During his lifetime, Ward wrote Artemus Ward, His Book (1862) and Artemus Ward; His Travels (1865). His executors published three works posthumously: Artemus Ward in London, and Other Papers (1867), Artemus Ward’s Panorama. (As exhibited at the Egyptian Hall, London! (1869), and The Complete Works of Artemus Ward, (1898). Part II will critically analyze his literary reputation in selected letters from these works and will historicize his rhetorically gentle humor that “commented” on such topics as politics, reform movements, the Civil War, and some of our various human foibles.
Part III will examine his lecture techniques as reasons for the commercial success of his humor. Ward’s innate sense of aesthetic humor was natural and was closely allied with his extraordinary rapport with his lecture audiences (Austin, Ward 72). His success as a lecturer included the deliberate uses of “mock gravity, the look of innocent surprise when the audience laughed, the anticlimaxes, pauses, non sequiturs, and wanderings of thought” which delighted his spectators everywhere (Pullen 94). Lastly, though his humor was natural, he altered it for successful appearances on the lecture circuit through deliberate and methodical preparation in delivery.
Pascal, John Raymond, "Artemus Ward : The Gentle Humorist" (2008). Theses, Dissertations and Culminating Projects. 1229.