Artemus Ward: Lincoln’s Favorite Humorist

The real Ward looked a bit different from the character he established in his humor and the illustrations that went with it

Portland Maine has produced three national geniuses, which is a lot for a city of its size: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, John Ford, and the writer Artemus Ward.

Ward, born this day in 1834, was the alter ego of Charles Farrar Browne. I discovered him when I was still in my teens (just how, I can’t remember — the local town library, which dates to the 19th century, must have had his books.) In my young adulthood I managed to secure an edition of his complete works published in the 1860s, a book I treasure past all measure.

In this illustration, the old rascal corrupts a bunch of supposedly celibate Shaker women. The Victorian era was not as chaste as it pretended. It simply… pretended!

Ward was a friend and contemporary of Mark Twain , and in his lifetime was indeed more popular than Twain. Ward (not Twain) was Lincoln’s favorite humorist. Lincoln read Ward’s story “Outrage in Utiky” to his cabinet (much to their distress ) before presenting them with the Emancipation Proclamation. Ward was also briefly the love interest of Adah Isaacs Mencken,  about whom we wrote a play.

Ward started writing these funny pieces when he worked for the Cleveland Plain Dealer,  in the form of badly misspelled, dialect- and slang-heavy letters to the editor from an imaginary traveling showman largely inspired by P.T. Barnum, but with more of a western, frontier flavor. (Viz, the title of that story he read to Lincoln. “Utiky” is of course “Uttica”. That gives you something of the flavor).  I love these pieces so much I have adapted them into various theatre pieces which I have presented over the years (I did a bunch recently for example at Dixon Place). I also adapted one of Ward’s longer monologues “Artmeus Ward Among the Mormons” and pitched it to Ohio theatres with Bryan Enk as the star (when he has a mustache, Enk somewhat resembles some pictures I’ve seen of Ward, and he also can do the Ohio accent, coming, as he does, from Ohio. But none of the Ohio theatres took the bait).

Anyway, as he grew in popularity, Ward took to the lecture stage, and the character in his pieces changed somewhat from the itinerant showman to something more like himself. Ward became something like an early stand up comedian or performance artist. His physical appearance was said to help with his comical delivery — he was very tall, very thin, and very strange. I imagine his delivery to have been something like the comedian Steven Wright’s. He was enjoying a SMASH tour of England in 1867 when he succumbed to tuberculosis at the very young age of 33. Oh, the things he would have accomplished if he hadn’t been stolen away!

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