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It's said you can pick your friends but you can't pick your relatives or your unsolicited e-mails.
For example, an e-mail came over the transom here at Storyteller Central the other day from someone who said he had been reading a book on “the humor of Abe Lincoln” and it said somewhere that the Great Emancipator's favorite humorist was Maine native Charles Farrar Browne, aka Artemous Ward. The e-mailer wanted me to provide him with a little information on the once famous, now obscure, 19th century humorist. The e-mailer also demonstrated once again the trouble you can get into when you engage in the seemingly innocent activity of reading books.
For those who don't know, Charles Farrar Browne was born in the western Maine town of Waterford in 1834. When he was old enough to put pen to paper he began contributing humorous pieces to any daily or weekly newspaper that would print them – something like what some of us are doing to this day, no names mentioned.
It was around this time that Browne decided to shake the dust of Waterford off his heels and set out into the world to seek his fortune. They say he never looked back, and as far as we know he never went back.
From the beginning Browne wrote under the pen name of Artemous Ward, and once he became famous he began to think that his real surname, Brown, needed a little boost, a little affectation, too, so he decided to add the always impressive “e” to the end, which, apparently made a world of difference.
In 1858 Browne's first Artemous Ward columns started appearing in the Cleveland Plain Dealer. The columns were so popular they were later collected and published and Browne became a huge literary celebrity in both the United States and England.
At the tender age of 26, Browne became editor of Vanity Fair magazine, but that gig didn't last long. Soon afterwards the magazine, as it was then, went belly up so Browne decided to try the lucrative lecture circuit, where they say his eccentric humor attracted large, enthusiastic audiences. His lecture techniques were later imitated by Mark Twain.
After a lecture in St. Louis one evening a man came up to Browne and said he too was from Oxford County in Maine and he thought he'd be interested in knowing that the town of Waterford had erected a nice sign in front of his family's home.
Touched and a little flattered by the information and assuming the sign told passers-by about the famous person who once lived there, Browne asked the man what the sign said.
"It says: Six miles to Norway," the man replied.
Browne was the original author of the much-quoted line: "When a fellow says it's not the money but the principle of the thing, it's the money." On the subject of the Civil War he once wrote, "I've already sacrificed two cousins to this war and stand ready to sacrifice my wife's brother as well."
As we said Artemus Ward was the favorite humorist of President Lincoln and before presenting the Emancipation Proclamation to his Cabinet, Lincoln read to them one of Browne's latest columns titled "Outrage in Utiky," also known as High-Handed Outrage at Utica.
Some cabinet members like Secretary of State William Seward and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton were not amused but Lincoln thought a few laughs were just what was needed at that time.
John McDonald is a humorist and storyteller who performs regularly
throughout New England. John’s e-mail address is mainestoryteller@yahoo.com.
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