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Ward, Artemus (1834-1867)

Editor, Essayist, Journalist, Lecturer, Novelist, Travel Writer

Born in small-town New England, Charles Browne began his career as a young contributor to the Boston Carpet Bag, a humor magazine, and later at Cleveland’s The Plain Dealer he adopted the persona of circus showman Artemus Ward. As Ward, he began writing letters from this fictional character whose travels inspired social commentaries, satires, and burlesques. In 1860 he became editor of New York’s Vanity Fair in addition to writing the Artemus Ward stories and letters, and by 1862 Artemus Ward, His Book, a collection containing the best of the Artemus sketches and letters, was published. The Ward sketches play on the regional differences of the country, combining Down East drollery with Southwest humor.

By the early 1860s, "Artemus Ward" became a traveling road show, and Browne began offering lectures as Ward in territories as far-flung as the American West, Canada, and London. His comedy routine was called The Babes in the Wood (203). Pfaff’s regular Elihu Vedder recalls that when Ward lectured, all of them would go to see him; once Ward joked about Vedder’s painting, The Lair of the Sphinx, and in the recognition that followed, Vedder states that "I felt what Fame was, for the first time" (Digressions 242). Browne capitalized on the success of his crafted persona, publishing the work, Artemus Ward, His Book, which became a best seller and even attracted the attention of President Abraham Lincoln, who read parts of the book before presenting the Emancipation Proclamation to members of his cabinet (Martin 204-5). A contemporary of Ward, William Winter described the comedic genius of his act saying "he was comically eccentric, equally as a character and as a writer. . .He possessed, in an extraordinary degree, the faculty of maintaining a solemn composure of countenance while making comic of ridiculous statements,--as when, in his first lecture in New York, he mentioned the phenomenal skill of his absent pianist, who, he said, 'always wore mittens when playing the paino,'--and he could impart an irresistible effect of humor by means of a felicitous, unexpected inflection of tone. There is little in his published writings that fully explains the charm he exercised in conversation and in public speaking" (285-6).

At the age of 26, Browne was first introduced to Pfaff's when he moved to New York City from Cleveland to work at a magazine (Martin 127-8). In the words of Junius Browne, "he was a pure Bohemian, thoroughly good-natured, incapable of malice toward any one, with a capacity for gentleness and tenderness, like a woman's, open-handed, imprudent, seeing everything at a queer angle, and always wondering at his own success" (154-5). Charles Browne developed a close relationship with many Pfaffians, as a contributor to the Saturday Press. Furthermore, according to scholar Justin Martin, Browne often experimented with his work as "Artemus Ward" at Pfaff's in front of the artists and writers gathered there with whom was "quick to make friends" (132-3). It was with the help of Pfaffians that Browne developed a costume for his alternate persona, Artemus Ward (Martin 134). In August 1865, he would try and help fellow Pfaffians who had allowed him to test out his performance. Brown, along with Henry Clapp, Charles Pfaff, George Arnold, and others, attempted to restart the Saturday Press (Lause 115).

In 1866, Brown traveled to London to perform his famous act, The Babes in the Wood, to a new crowd. Here, Brown continued his habit of going out and drinking following his shows and became acquainted with a group of writers fro the humor magazine, Punch, to which he contributed several articles. However, his bad habits began to take their toll, and he eventually became unable even to make it through his performances. He contracted tuberculosis after two months in London, progressively growing sicker until his death in March of 1867 fulfilling Vedder’s assessment that Ward "looked so frail and delicate that he gave an impression of one doomed to die young" (Digressions 242).. Brown was 32 years old when he died, another member of the Pfaffian crowd to die at a young age (Martin 255). Brown’s legacy was his Artemus Ward performances and use of deadpan humor, which influenced Mark Twain’s public persona on lecture tours (see the letter from Twain to Ward in the "I remain" collection). Ward was also involved in Twain’s literary career; as Twain later recalled, it was Ward who suggested publishing what would become one of Twain’s most famous sketches, "The Famous Jumping Frog of Calaveras County," in The Saturday Press.