By Alice Askins, Education Coordinator at Rose Hill Mansion
The course of Lectures before the Young Men’s Association of Geneva, was inaugurated on Tuesday evening last by Chas. F. Brown, (Artemus Ward,) in the delivery of a humorous and characteristic production, denominated “the children in the wood.” Linden Hall was densely crowded by a highly appreciative audience, who appeared greatly to relish the eccentric drollery and humor of the entertainment. . . .From Geneva Daily Gazette, January 10 January, 1862
When I found this reference, I looked up Artemus Ward. Though I had seen his name before, all I knew was that he was a 19th-century humorist. Charles Farrar Browne lived from 1834 to 1867. He was better known by his pen and stage name, Artemus Ward. Born in Maine, Ward started in the printing and newspaper business quite young. He published his first humorous essay in the Cleveland Plain Dealer in 1858. His collected works were very popular in America and England. Around 1860, he began to appear as a lecturer, and attracted large audiences.
Ward was one of Abraham Lincoln’s favorite authors. Before Lincoln presented the Emancipation Proclamation to his cabinet, Lincoln read them “High-Handed Outrage at Utica.” When writing, Ward pretended to be a traveling showman with wretched spelling, who exhibited a menagerie and a group of wax figures. Here is the “High-Handed Outrage” -
In the Faul of 1856, I showed my show in Utiky, a trooly grate sitty in the State of New York. The people gave me a cordyal resepshun. . . . 1 day as I was givin a descripshun of my Beests and Snaiks in my usual flowry stile[,] what was my skorn & disgust to see a big burly feller walk up to the cage containin my wax figgers of the Lord’s Last Supper, and cease Judas Iscarrot by the feet and drag him out on the ground. He then commenced fur to pound him as hard as he cood. “What under the son are you abowt?” cried I. Sez he, “What did you bring this pussylanermus cuss here fur?” & he hit the wax figger another tremenjous blow on the hed. Sez I, “You egrejus ass, that air’s a wax figger – a representashun of the false ‘Postle.” Sez he, “That’s all very well fur you to say but I tell you, old man, that Judas Iscarrot can‘t show hisself in Utiky with impunerty by a darn site!” with which observashun he kaved in Judassis hed. The young man belonged to 1 of the first famerlies in Utiky. I sood him, and the Joury brawt in a verdick of Arson in the 3d degree.
As a platform speaker, Ward did not talk about wax figures or snaiks, but he did wander from topic to topic, playing with words and making puns, alluding to well-known songs and poems, making sly references to current events, and seldom referring to the subject of the title of the talk. Edgar M. Branch wrote an article about Ward’s “Babes in the Wood” talk in 1978.* Through newspaper accounts, Branch reconstructed some of the body of the talk and gives us an idea of what Genevans were laughing at 153 years ago.
Apparently Ward’s talk evolved over time, but appeared in very similar form under several different names including “the Children in the Wood,” “the Babes in the Wood,” “Robinson Crusoe,” and “the Ghosts.” Ward did not actually talk about those things, though he did mention several times during the two-hour performance that he was supposed to be doing so.
For flavor, I will give you just a few bits from Mr. Branch’s reconstruction. The parentheses are from one of the original reporter’s account of audience response.
We are often told that “a rolling stone gathers no moss;” and I suppose it don’t. And I don’t see what a rolling stone wants to gather moss for. I don’t see what good it would do the rolling stone – provided it could gather moss. But – I am reminded that I have an entirely different subject upon which I propose to address you. . . .
As it was better to go [to California] by way of the sea, I went. . . . The sea was rather rough the first few days we were out, and my friend Augustus Chilson was very sea sick, indeed. I did all I could for him. I carried him raw pork, swimming with molasses, which he positively refused. I offered him a strong cigar – a very strong cigar . . . and that he also refused. There was a frightful sea on the second day out. I happened on deck, and overheard the following dialogue between a young married couple. The young man first spoke:
Young man – “Yes, dearest Ellen, it was noble in you to throw up – (Great laughter . . .) so exalted a position in society, and accompany me, a poor adventurer, to a far distant land.” (Renewed laughter . . .)
Ellen – “No, dearest Henry, you have thrown up far more than I have. (Renewed laughter.) Your commission in the army, did you not throw that up? (Laughter.) You talk to me about throwing up, when you know you have thrown up more than I have.”
Young man – “Don’t, my dearest Ellen, talk so much about throwing up.”
A few moments later, mid the solemn vespers of the sighing winds, I saw them mingle their dinners with the flashing waves. (Great laughter . . .) . . .
I have a grandmother, among other things. (Laughter.) I do not boast of any superiority or originality on this account. A great many men are situated the same way. (Laughter.) . . .
As the man said of the yellow fever, there is one thing about it, “It don’t detain you long.” . . .
I want to assure you . . . that poetry never did occur to me as the subject of a lecture. I flatter myself I have some of it within me. It is pleasant, for instance, to rise in the morning, when the dew is on the grass – which is a kind of way the dew has of doing. (Laughter.) In the summer season it dews it more perhaps than it dews in the winter season. (Laughter.) . . .
I have a theory of my own, that we better stay in the sunshine while we may, inasmuch as we know the shadows will come all too soon. . . .
Mr. Branch argues that Ward was gently lampooning the usual run of deadly serious lecturers of the day, in particular Ralph Waldo Emerson, who seems to have drifted from point to point in his talks. Observers of the time also mention that much of Ward’s humor came from his onstage persona (very innocent and confused) and the way he spoke. The humor of another time, like its fashion, sometimes baffles us today. Artemus Ward’s legacy may rest largely in his inspiration of Mark Twain, who once said “I think his lecture on the ‘Babes in the Woods’ was the funniest thing I ever listened to.”
*“The Babes in the Wood”: Artemus Ward’s “Double Health” to Mark Twain by Edgar M. Branch. Publications of the Modern Language Association of America (PMLA) 93 October, 1978: 955-72.