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Shaw, Henry Wheeler (1818-1885)

Essayist, Journalist, Lecturer, Poet, Travel Writer

Henry Wheeler Shaw was one of the "brightest and most popular humorous men of the day" (J. Derby 239). He was best known as a talented "humorist, a homespun philospher [sic], and a conscious literary artist. One of his chief strengths was originality; in such a graphic epigram as ’when a feller gits a goin down hil, it dus seem as tho evry thing had bin greased for the okashun,’ even the deliberate misspellings fade into the background behind the compelling image" (Kesterson). At age seventeen, Shaw began a ten year exploration of western portions of the United States. In 1845 he returned to Lanesboro, Massachusetts and married Zilpha Bradford. The couple moved repeatedly during the next nine years while Shaw worked as a farmer and a coal miner before settling in Poughkeepsie, New York.

In his free time, Shaw began submitting humorous essays to local newspapers using various pseudonyms. He finally found success as “Josh Billings.” In 1864 Shaw published “Essa on the Muel, bi Josh Billings.” It was “a piece that employed misspellings and faulty grammar in the mode of Artemus Ward’s writings” (Kesterson). At this point Shaw’s work was in high demand and, with the help of Artemus Ward (Charles Farrar Browne), he published Josh Billings, Hiz Sayings in 1865. A few years later Shaw released Josh Billings on Ice, and Other Things (1868). Kesterson describes how "both [books] contain the aphorisms, short essays, and sketches so characteristic of Shaw’s writings [...] Written in characteristic cacography and distorted grammar, they cover every subject from beauty to boredom. They are filled with comic devices of understatement (’[I] found the ice in a slippery condition’), anticlimax (’Buty is power; but the most treacherous one i kno ov’), and antiproverbialism (’"Give me liberty, or giv me deth"--but ov the 2 I prefer the liberty’) [...] Shaw’s ’afferisms’ convey a sense of ease and spontaneity that belies the actual effort and time that went into their composition. He once said he worked three hours on one particular saying, just ’to get it right.’ The imagery is sharp and original, and the sayings excel in succinctness."

In 1867, Shaw moved to New York City where he wrote full-time as "Josh Billings." He had previously published in the New York Saturday Press in 1865-1866 and, after his arrival in the city, he began writing a column for the New York Weekly. His column, which was "variously called 'The Josh Billings Papers,’ 'Josh Billings’ Spice Box,’ and 'Josh Billings’ Philosophy,’” was filled with the same humorous writings that had been so popular in his books. The column ran for the remainder of Shaw’s life and was even reprinted after his death (Kesterson).

In 1869 Shaw began publishing Josh Billings’ Farmer’s Allminax. J. C. Derby calls the book a "curious commercial success" in which "he [Shaw] intended to burlesque the old fashioned Farmer’s Almanac in vogue half a century ago" (242-43). Over one hundred and thirty thousand copies of the book sold in its first year. Shaw was also kept busy by traveling around the United States as a lecturer. Kesterson explains that "Shaw’s lectures were usually on one of three topics--’Buty and the Beasts,’ ’What i Kno About Hotels,’ and the frequently given ’Milk. These were open-ended topics that allowed Shaw, in the persona of Josh Billings, much latitude."

Shaw remained active until a few months before his death. In 1885 he traveled west to California where, on October 11, he died of apoplexy. Kesterson characterizes Shaw’s "broad, classical concept of humor that matched his general philosophy of life. He interpreted his comic talent as the ability to cause a 'smile continually on the face of every human being on God’s footstool, and this smile should ever and anon widen into a broad grin’ . . . Though deep enough a thinker to ponder the failures of civilization and sometimes judge the progress of mankind with skepticism, he usually managed to override gloom with lighthearted witticisms that convinced an audience that life was worth living after all."