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Ellen Bremner is a graduate student working for her doctorate in English at the University of Chicago. Civil War Humor: Orpheus C. Kerr ELLEN BREMNER HOSEA BiGELOW, bill arp, artemus WARD, and Petroleum V. Nasby are, according to present-day rankings, the most effective of the satiric commentators on the Civil War. Probably the people of the ISWs would have added another name to this list: Orpheus C. Kerr. This pun upon "officeseeker " was the pseudonym of Robert Henry Newell (1836-1901), whose contributions began as correspondence from Washington to the New York Sunday Mercury and continued to other publications until 1868.1 The Orpheus C. Kerr Papers were published in book form in several series: 1862, 1863, 1865, and, under the new title Smoked Glass, in 1868. In 1871, the letters were collected in a single volume.2 Such a printing history is in itself evidence of Newell's popularity; further evidence comes from the publisher's advertisement for the Orpheus C. Kerr Papers facing the title page of Newell's novel, Avery Glibun , published in 1867: To say these criticisms of Orpheus C. Ken are universally known, admired, and laughed at, would be superfluous. Their inimitable wit and sarcasm have made their author famous, and since his letters have been published in book form their circulation has been enormous.3 1 Stephen Leacock, "Robert Henry Newell" in Allen Johnson, (Editor) Dictionary of American Biography, 21 volumes (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 192837 ), XVII, pp. 458-59. 2 Robert Henry Newell, The Orpheus C. Kerr Papers (New York: Blakeman and Mason, 1862); Robert Henry Newell, The Orpheus C. Kerr Papers: Second Series (New York: Carleton, 1863); Robert Henry Newell, The Orpheus C. Kerr Papers: Third Series (New York: Carleton, 1865); Robert Henry Newell, Smoked Glass (New York: G. W. Carleton, 1868) and Robert Henry Newell, The Orpheus C. Kerr Papers (New York: G. W. Carleton and Co., 1871). 3 Robert Henry Newell, Avery Glibun; or, Between Two Fires (New York: G. W. Carleton and Co., 1867). 121 122ELLEN BREMNER According to another advertisement, the "world-renowned" Papers had an American sale of more than fifty thousand, and were printed in four English editions.4 This reputation survived, at least as a memory, as late as 1897, when Robert Ford, including Orpheus C. Kerr in an anthology of American humor, remarked on the letters' popularity: ... to say they were relished as they appeared is a mean way of stating their effect; they were actually devoured with avidity, and the delight they afforded then is not forgotten even now.6 Likewise, the New York Sunday Post, in an article occasioned by Newell's death in 1901, commented on "the tremendous popularity of his Orpheus C. Kerr Papers during the war".8 Nor was this reputation exclusively a popular one. Newell's publisher embellished an 1868 advertisement with a sampling of critical comment. The New York Independent ranked Orpheus C. Kerr "at the head of American humorists." According to Wilkes' Spirit, the public reception of the Orpheus C. Kerr Papers was similar to the first reaction to Dickens' Pickwick Papers. The London Star classified Newell with Lowell, Holmes, and Artemus Ward as the "very great" American humorists.7 ? Robert Henry Newell's failure to retain the high rank which his contemporaries gave him so freely is puzzling. Perhaps his place in the tradition of American humor has been obscured because his political satire, compared with Lowell's, Nasby's, or Sut Lovengood's, is dispassionate and non-partisan, and its tone is therefore far less bitter and violent. A London reviewer of the 1860*s comments with pleased surprise on the impartiality and good nature of Orpheus C. Kerr's political humor.8 While a difference in kind between Newell and other Civil War humorists is clear, the relation of this difference to his failure to survive is hard to make. Their very partisan violence excuses the excesses of Nasby and Bigelow once the occasions which provoked their anger have passed, and no longer involve the reader's own partisan sympathies. Newell, whose target is universal human nature in its wartime manifestations, perhaps retains more satiric sting for a modern reader...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1533-6271
Print ISSN
0009-8078
Pages
pp. 121-129
Launched on MUSE
2013-01-02
Open Access
No
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