A Forgotten 19th-Century Maine Comic Writer Spends His Day in the Sun

Ethan Spike of the imaginary town of Hornby, Maine was the literary creation of Matthew Franklin Whittier (1828-1883), a seldom-remembered brother of nationally acclaimed poet, John Greenleaf Whittier (1807-1892). Long lost in various newspapers printed between 1846 and 1879, Spike’s articles were painstakingly recovered by the ever resourceful Maine historian Larry Glatz in a book published by the museums of the Bethel Historical Society.

At first I believed that my ignorance of Spike/Whittier constituted a significant gap in my knowledge of Down East literature, but when State Historian Earle G. Shettleworth, Jr., professed the same and when the wonderful omnium gathering of American comedians by Peter M. Robinson , “The comedians dance” (2010) did not even rate our man, it became clear that even during his lifetime “Spike” was hardly a household name . Yet despite his mutilation of the English language, he had a following, spoke for or about a segment of society, and deserved to be remembered along with Maine’s Seba Smith, Charles Farrar Brown and Billy Nye, although it is true that the latter all the books published during their lifetime.

Still, I’m not sure how to put it: reading “Diggio, Haybis Korpus & E Plewrisy Unicorn!” is a bit like biting into an all-spiced porcupine sandwich or finding a thorny but significant portal into the politics of our region before the 1880s. California gold as printed in the Weekly Chronotype on February 8, 1849:

“We are all a bit here! Kallyforny fever broke out everywhere, a terribly hydrophobic, fluinzy rage or chin cough had nothing to do with it. Kernel Peabody went mad as a coot, and the old Jinkins preach every Sabberday on Ofer’s gold, and the sidewalks of the new Jerewsalum-Father’s offered the steers, two shotes, the old hoss and half a dozen hens at less than half price, and he swears if he can get the money together, he’ll strike for the good digs, little yard. Mother’s greatest joke Worried about it to death and made father bleed three times, and has mustard poltis on his feet every night, hoping to snatch the idea from him. But he doesn’t improve very quickly and raves about Sacrymenters, Fransiskers, Sangewans, Boony visters, like all possest.

The forced spelling, sometimes “do”, sometimes “do”, and broken rules assail the poor reader from every point of view. Additionally, historian Glatz offers several caveats, such as: “The stories in this book were written from the perspective of a character who is a reprehensible fanatic. As such, they contain many examples of highly inflammatory racist language that have not been edited. The intended audience for this book is adult readers interested in the politics, events and social attitudes of the 19th century.

It should be noted that editor Glatz has provided copious and thoughtful footnotes that explain the context of even the most obscure statements about people, events, and language. This critic had no idea, for example, that “bulldozing” in the Reconstruction era meant “the use of force applied by white Southerners to potential voters being equivalent to the force applied from a whip to oxen when clearing the fields”.

Glatz suggests that: “If Whittier had a talent, it was as a portrait painter, not as a persuasive one. As a result, his works cannot be probed for sophisticated insights into the philosophies or motivations of his contemporaries. They may, however, allow modern readers to see Spike as the political bogeyman Northeastern Whigs (and later Republicans) feared most… at the same time, since Whittier embellished his sketches with Maine-specific imagery. whom he knew so well, the works provide fascinating details of contemporary life that are difficult to find in general histories.

Therefore, readers interested in specific topics such as the Gold Rush, Abolition, Reconstruction and Know-Nothings opinions or individuals such as James G. Blaine, Zachary Taylor, Louisa May Alcott, Israel Washburn, Jr., and politician Shep Cary, will be rewarded with a fine set of footnotes, a top-notch index, illustrations, a list of Whittier’s published works, and much more. While not everyone’s cup of tea, if you’re willing to take it slow, pull out some feathers and think about it, you’ll find some fascinating material here. “Diggio, Haybis Korpus & E Plewrisy Unicorn!” is a very scholarly but overall entertaining book.

William David Barry is a local historian who has authored/co-authored seven books, including Maine: The Wilder Side of New England and Deering: A Social and Architectural History. Currently writing a history for the Maine Historical Society, he lives in Portland with his wife, Debra, and their cat, Nadine.

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Daniel K. Denny