“The fack can no longer be disgised that a krysis is onto us.” – Artemus Ward, pseudonym of Charles Farrar Browne

This time, something a little different. I’ll be taking a look at the brief life of Charles Farrar Browne (1834-1867), American writer and humorist born in Waterford, Maine (even though the city of Cleveland tries to claim him as its own).

In 1858, while working at the Cleveland “Plain Dealer,” Browne published the first of what would become a very popular column using the pen name Artemus Ward (a name he’d probably borrowed from Revolutionary War General Artemas Ward).

The fictitious Ward was said to be an old failure, a manager of an itinerant sideshow who wrote in to the newspaper to comment on many of the various subjects of the time. For humorous effect, his wit relied largely on the use of puns and gross misspellings.

For example, he feigned sympathy for others similarly afflicted, noting “It’s a pity that Chawcer, who had geneyus, was so unedicated. He’s the wuss speller I know of.”

By 1860 Ward had moved to New York where he became the editor of Vanity Fair, a humor weekly that would ultimately fail just a few years later.

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The following year Browne’s alter ego began giving live lectures and before long his brand of eccentric humor had earned him a large following that included President Lincoln, who once remarked that Ward was his favorite writer.

“I can’t sing,” he opined. “As a singist I am not a success. I am saddest when I sing. So are those who hear me. They are sadder even than I am.” On the bright side, Ward reminded folks that “I am not a politician, and my other habits are good, also.”

At a time when people went to lectures to learn something and perhaps be entertained a bit, Ward’s lectures were designed not to inform but strictly to entertain and amuse his growing audiences, arguably making him the world’s first standup comedian. It’s said that the savvy humorist even sent his agent ahead to San Francisco to drum up publicity for his appearances weeks before his arrival.

Even though his lectures weren’t intended to edify his audience, he did manage to dispense a few bits of useful information every now and then, such as “Let us all be happy and live within our means, even if we have to borrow the money to do it with.”

Ward’s lecture techniques even exercised much influence on a slightly younger man who’d soon be going by his own pseudonym, Mark Twain (1835-1910). In fact, Ward recommended Twain to the editors of the New York Press and urged him to go to New York.

According to humor historian Ritch Shydler, “Mark Twain said Artemus was the funniest guy he ever saw, and he based everything in his own performance on what he saw Artemus Ward doing, which was making people laugh just on his wit.”

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A good example of Ward’s clever and sometime cutting commentaries is “The Puritans nobly fled from a land of despotism to a land of freedom, where they could not only enjoy their own religion, but could prevent everybody else from enjoying his.”

That observation may have been what prompted him to ask, “Why is this thus? And what is the reason of this thusness?’

His opinions on family life ran the gamut from “The female woman is one of the greatest institutions of which this land can boste,” to bemoaning a friend’s unfortunate situation: “He is dreadfully married. He’s the most married man I ever saw in my life.”

Ward’s tune changed when it came to children, with him remarking that “their eyes sparkled like diminds, their cheeks was like roses, and they was charmin enuff to make a man throw stuns at his grandmother, if they axed him to.”

In 1866 Ward took his show on the road to England, where he became wildly popular. While there, he also contributed pieces to the humor magazine Punch.

In March of 1867 Artemus Ward died of consumption, now called tuberculosis, in Southampton, England, where he was buried. His remains were moved to Elm Vale Cemetery in his hometown of Waterford the following year.

Jim Witherell of Lewiston is a writer and lover of words whose work includes “L.L. Bean: The Man and His Company” and “Ed Muskie: Made in Maine.” He can be reached at jlwitherell19@gmail.com.


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