- Thomas Jefferson Snodgrass Goes to England
In late 1856 and early 1857, three comic letters appeared in the Keokuk Post signed “Thomas Jefferson Snodgrass.”1 Written in an exaggerated vernacular, the letters relate the humorous adventures of a wide-eyed Keokuk bumpkin, who travels for the first time to big cities like St. Louis, Chicago, and Cincinnati. Snodgrass variously finds himself amazed by the steam action of a train, baffled by the events of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, startled at the hellishness of Chicago, and tricked into taking a baby in a basket (whom he is later caught trying to dispose of in water).2 Snodgrass is, in short, a gentle idiot. He is also a work of fiction, created by a young Samuel Clemens. Writing under a pseudonym, Clemens published the trio of travel letters in the Post for a total commission of fifteen dollars.3 They are thought to be among the earliest newspaper pieces, if not the very earliest, Clemens wrote for payment. In his later years Clemens maintained that he did not recollect writing them,4 but the three letters are assuredly his. No additional letters by Thomas Jefferson Snodgrass are known to exist.
But there is one more. It did not appear in the Keokuk Post, nor any other American newspaper, but rather in the London Speaker for 1891, a full thirty-four years after the writer had last signed off as Snodgrass. At the time, the Speaker published weekly theatrical reviews, most of them signed by one “A.B.W.” In the July 4, 1891 issue “A.B.W.” argued that although anti-theatrical sentiment was then widespread in London, those in the business of theater should embrace such dismissiveness as a compliment. As the reviewer puts it, [End Page 175]
deep down in the hearts of men there persists the feeling that to make a public show of yourself for money, to be always expressing ideas not your own, and emotions which you do not feel, to pretend in short to be what you are not—to clap a hump on your back and call yourself Richard the Third, as Johnson puts it—is to violate the dignity of a citizen and a free man, to resign the “captaincy of your soul.”5 You may consider this feeling Philistine, if you will; call it “ignorant” with Mr. [Henry] Irving, “bitter and unreasoning” with Mr. [John] Hare; but the point is that nearly all men, whether consciously or unconsciously, entertain it. I am not defending the prejudice. I am merely trying to appreciate it. Why will not the actors do the same? Why will they not frankly accept the situation, and regard themselves—with a certain pride—as a class apart?
The solution, apparently, is to grin and bear it—that is, not to discuss it so “uncritically,” but rather to understand that “the prejudice against them is a more or less unconscious—and if they will only look at it philosophically, not unflattering—recognition.”6
“A.B.W.” was Arthur Bingham Walkley, by day a clerk at London’s General Post Office and by night a book and theater critic. Today, he is probably best remembered as the addressee of Bernard Shaw’s introductory epistle to Man and Superman (1903). In this lengthy letter, Shaw aims to convince his close friend Walkley that the best plays are not comedies of manners or wit, but of social conscience. “It is your favorite jibe at me that what I call drama is nothing but explanation,” writes Shaw,
but I have a conscience; and conscience is always anxiously explanatory. You, on the contrary, feel that a man who discusses his conscience is much like a woman who discusses her modesty. The only moral force you condescend to parade is the force of your wit: the only demand you make in public is the demand of your artistic temperament for symmetry, elegance, style, grace, refinement, and the cleanliness which comes next to godliness if not before it. But my conscience is the genuine pulpit article: it annoys me to see people comfortable when they ought to be uncomfortable; and I insist on making them think...