I hate word games. I suffer Scrabble, abhor Boggle, and you’ll never catch me cross words. I prefer etymology, and catch myself wondering about the subtleties of language the way you might answer, “I’ll take New York Times crossword for $200, __”. Consider an example: in English the first ordinal number might also serve as the numerical superlative. Given the ordinal role shows rank, or position, and the “-st” ending it shares with the hyperbolic “most” or “best,” I am comfortable maintaining that while “first” may be subject to the same controversies and debates the application of any superlative generates, it inspires the same level of awe upon discovery.
I felt this sense of awe when reading E. P. Hingston’s Prefatory Note, “Artemus Ward as Lecturer,” at the beginning of Ward’s posthumous publication Artemus Ward’s Panorama (1869). You may know the name Artemus Ward as the pseudonym of Charles Farrar Browne (April 26, 1834–March 6, 1867), the printed humorist and lecturer whose career influenced that of a young Samuel Clemens when he first wrote under the name Mark Twain. Thirty years after Ward’s death, when describing the American art of telling a story, Mark Twain would commend Ward as one of the best representatives at telling it humorously:
The humorous story is told gravely; the teller does his best to conceal the fact that he even dimly suspects that there is anything funny about it…the rambling and disjointed humorous story finishes with a nub, point, snapper, or whatever you like to call it. Then the listener must be alert, for in many cases the teller will divert attention from that nub by dropping it in a carefully casual and indifferent way, with the pretence that he does not know it is a nub…Artemus Ward used that trick a good deal; then when the belated audience presently caught the joke he would look up with innocent surprise, as if wondering what they had found to laugh at.
Later Twain summarized:
To string incongruities and absurdities together in a wandering and sometimes purpose-less way, and seem innocently unaware that they are absurdities, is the basis of the American art, if my position is correct. Another feature is the slurring of the point. A third is the dropping of a studied remark apparently without knowing it, as if one were thinking aloud. The fourth and last is the pause. Artemus Ward dealt in numbers three and four a good deal. He would begin to tell with great animation something which he seemed to think was wonderful; then lose confidence, and after an apparently absent-minded pause add an incongruous remark in a soliloquizing way; and that was the remark intended to explode the mine—and it did (How to Tell a Story, 1897).
Young Mark Twain followed Ward’s professional footsteps when the Sacramento Union sent him to report on the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii) in 1866, and he returned with enough anecdotes to fill lecture halls out West.
Twain’s now famous use of language in the advertisement could be described in his own, later, language of dropping studied remarks with the printed effect of a pause by contrasting font size. Contemporary programs studying Mark Twain still rely upon advertising “The Trouble to begin at 8 o’clock”, but where would Twain be without Ward?
E. P. Hingston, Artemus Ward’s travel manager, described his employer thus:
Artemus Ward was always self-reliant; when once he believed himself to be in the right it was almost impossible to persuade him to the contrary. But, at the same time he was cautious in the extreme, and would well consider his position before deciding that which was right or wrong for him to do. The idea of becoming a public man having taken possession of his mind, the next point to decide was in what form he should appear before the public. That of a humorous lecturer seemed to him to be the best. It was unoccupied ground. America had produced entertainers who by means of facial changes or eccentricities of costume had contrived to amuse their audiences, but there was no one who ventured to joke for an hour before a house full of people with no aid from scenery or dress. The experiment was one which Artemus resolved to try. Accordingly, he set himself to work to collect all his best quips and cranks, to invent what new drolleries he could, and to remember all the good things that he had heard or met with. These he noted down and strung together almost without relevancy or connection. The manuscript chanced to fall into the hands of the people at the office of the newspaper on which he was then employed, and the question was put to him of what use he was going to make of the strange jumble of jest which he had thus compiled. His answer was that he was about to turn lecturer, and that before them were the materials of his lecture. It was then that his friends laughed at him, and characterized him as “a fool” (Artemus Ward’s Panorama, pp. 23–24).
In today’s parlance, Artemus Ward was a stand-up, and according to Hingston he was America’s first. What follows are examples of Artemus Ward’s “very original” lecture programmes as appendixed in the Panorama, Hingston’s edited reconstruction of Artemus Ward’s final lecture concerning the Mormons of Utah. Ward gave the lecture first at Dodworth Hall in New York, then followed it successfully in London at the Egyptian Hall, Piccadilly. Ward’s first lecture in London took place on a Tuesday, November 13, 1866. Four months later he died of tuberculosis at Southampton, bequeathing his style to Twain and all who succeeded him. To conclude with another superlative I’ll quote T. W. Robertson:
I cannot close these lines without mention of “Artemus Ward’s” last joke. He had read in the newspapers that a wealthy American had offered to present the Prince of Wales with a splendid yacht, American Built. “It seems,” said the invalid “a fashion now-a-days for everybody to present the Prince of Wales with something. I think I shall leave him—my Panorama!” (Artemus Ward’s Panorama, pp. 17–18).
Then the London programme: