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Last week I wrote about Marshall Dodge and how he brought Maine humor to the nation through his “Bert and I” records. He was not the first to do so.
A century earlier, a Maine humorist named Charles Farrar Browne earned nationwide fame with his writings and comedy tours. Along the way he invented stand-up comedy, became Abraham Lincoln’s favorite writer, and launched the career of Mark Twain.
Browne, a rather jolly looking fellow with a big mustache, was born in Waterford on April 26, 1834. According to Britannica.com, he started his newspaper career as a typesetter and printer’s apprentice. Soon he moved to Boston and started writing for a humor magazine called the Carpet Bag. Later he moved to Ohio and worked at other magazines, and then became an editor for Vanity Fair in New York.
In the spirit of Benjamin Franklin’s Mrs. Dogood, Browne began writing to the paper under a pseudonym: Artemus Ward, a barely literate circus sideshow manager who toured the country and wrote about the people and events he saw.
I find his “reports” about religious groups especially amusing: Shakers who like kissing a lot more than they should, and the miserable life of Joseph Smith as he tries to deal with 80 wives in Utah. These writings were collected into several bestselling books. President Lincoln read stories from one of them to lighten up the mood before introducing the Emancipation Proclamation to his cabinet.
Browne himself seems to have been a pleasant and amusing person. One of his fellow humorists, Charles Pfaff, described him as “a pure Bohemian, thoroughly good-natured, incapable of malice toward anyone, with a capacity for gentleness and tenderness, like a woman’s, open-handed, imprudent, seeing everything at a queer angle, always wondering at his own success.” Others reported seeing him writing with one long leg hooked over the arm of his chair, howling in laughter as he wrote.
He began travelling the country as Artemus Ward, playing to packed houses. On stage he was famous for his deadpan delivery, telling outrageous stories with a straight face, as if he were a simpleton who had no idea that he was being funny. While he would never earn a Netflix special in today’s world, and many of his stories would be extremely racist to modern ears, Browne’s lectures give him the reputation of “Father of Stand-Up Comedy.”
According to the Mark Twain Project, Browne met Twain at a show in Virginia City, Nevada, and the two became friends. Twain was unknown at the time, and Browne invited him to submit a funny story for a humor compilation he was working on. The story, “Jim Smiley and his Jumping Frog,” arrived too late for the publication, but appeared later in a New York paper. It was a smash hit and launched the career of America’s most famous humorist.
Browne took his new show, “The Babes in the Wood,” to London. After two months in England he contracted tuberculosis. One friend reported that he “looked so frail and delicate that he gave the impression of one doomed to die young.” Sadly, that is exactly what happened. Charles Farrar Browne died at 32 in England and was buried there, though his body was eventually sent back to Maine.
Here are a few quotes: “I am not a politician, and my other habits are good also.” “I have already given two cousins to the war and I stand ready to sacrifice my wife’s brother.” “Let us all be happy and live within our means, even if we have to borrow money to do it.” “The Puritans fled from a land of despotism to a land of freedom, where they could not only enjoy their own religion, but prevent everyone else from enjoying his.”
Zac McDorr is the founder of the Bath Maine History Center on Facebook.You can reach him at email@example.com.
A pen-and-ink drawing from the collectoin of the Waterford Historical Society of Charles Farrar Browne performing as Artemus Ward in the early 1860s.