William Wirt Howe ~ Conversational Depravity


To the Chief-Justice of Glenwood,

SUBLIME SIR: … What can be more destructive of the higher forms of conversation than a pun? What right has any one to explode a petard in the midst of sweet sociality, and blow every thing like sequence and sentiment sky-high? And therefore, since you, as translator of the Pasha’s Letters, have taken pains to publish his observations on many social subjects, I think it eminently proper that you should ventilate the ideas of his friend Tompkins upon a not less important theme.

Happily, I have been saved the trouble of original composition, by a discovery made by my landlady while I was boarding a year ago on St. John’s Park. Mr. Green, our attic boarder, went off suddenly one day to see a friend in the country, as he said. Of course our landlady searched his room, with a view of reading his letters; and in a brown hair-trunk, with a boot-jack, a razor-strop, a box of Seidlitz powders, and an odd volume of Young’s Night Thoughts, she found the following manuscript. The females of the house were satisfied with reading such letters as were left by Mr. Green in his apartment, and so this paper was handed over to me. I may say that it was marked with pencil, “Declined with Thanks.”



“I used to be corpulent, rosy-cheeked, and cheerful. I am gaunt, pale, and morose now. I used to sleep sweetly; but now I toss about upon my bed, terrified by hideous visions, and feelings as of a clammy hand or wet cloth laid on my face. I was wont to walk about our streets after business hours, and on Sundays, with a genuine smile of enjoyment lighting up my face; but now I hurry along with my eyes cast down, and I seek by-ways and dark lanes for my rambles. My friends think I am in love; persons who know me but slightly, suppose me a victim to remorse—imagine that I wear a hair shirt, and macerate my flesh. They are all wrong. An old bachelor like myself has long ago buried the light of love in a tomb, and set a seal upon the great stone at the door; and as for remorse, I owe no tailor any thing, and do not at present blame myself for any great fault, except having once subscribed for six months to the New York Morning Cretan. Nevertheless, my face grows haggard, my step weary, and even our Thursday’s beef à la mode fails to tempt my enfeebled appetite.

“I am haunted, haunted by a foul fiend. He meets me at six, P.M., in our festive dining-room, and the fork or spoon drops from my nerveless grasp. He follows me up to the parlor, where I sometimes talk of an evening to Miss Pipkin (Miss P. is our fourth story, front), and I become silent in his presence, and Pipkin votes me a bore. He sits by my side when I am playing at whist, and I trump my partner’s trick, and the dear old game becomes disgusting. He even dared once to follow me into church, but I cried ‘Avaunt!’ in a tone so peremptory, that he fled for a moment. He joined me, however, as soon as service was over, and walked from Tenth Street to Madison Square, with his grizzly arm thurst through mine, and his diabolical jeers drumming on my tympana. In dreams he perches on my breast, and clutches me by the throat.

“Like the arch fiend, he assumes many shapes. He is now a tall man, and again a short man; sometimes young and audacious, sometimes old and leering. He only once took a feminine guise: that blessed form was irksome to him. He prefers the freedom of masculinity and ineffables. He was once a bookkeeper like myself; then a young attorney; then a medical student; then a bald-headed old gentleman, who seemed to blow a flageolet for a living; and lately, he has taken the shape of a well-to-do President of ‘The Arkansas and Arizona Sky Rocket Transportation Company,’ but through all these shifting shapes, I recognize him and shudder.

“He is known as the Funny Fellow.

“Very glorious are wit and humor. I have heard many eminent lecturers discourse on the distinctions, definitions, and value of these airy good gifts. I remember being especially edified by the skill with which Spout, the eloquent, dissected the philosophy of mirth in the same style and with the same effect that the boy in the story dissected his grandmamma’s bellows to see how the wind was raised. I agree with Spout that wit and humor are glorious; that satire, pricking the balloons of conceit, vain glory, and hypocrisy, is invaluable; that a good laugh can come only from a warm heart; that the man in motley is often wiser than the judge in ermine or the priest in lawn. These qualities are goodly in literature. We all love the kindly humorist from Chaucer to Holmes, inclusive. How genial and gentle they are, as they sit with us around the fireside, chucking us under the chins, and slyly poking us in the ribs; and in the field how nobly they have charged upon humbugs and shams. They have been true knights, chivalrous, kind-hearted, brave, religious; their spears are slender, perhaps, yet sharp and elastic as the blades of Toledo; and as they have galloped up and down in the lists, gaily caparisoned and cheery, it has done our hearts good to see how they have hurled into the dust the pompous, sleepy champions of error and hypocrisy.

“So too, consider how pleasant a thing is mirth on the stage. Who does not thank William the Great for Falstaff, and Hackett for his personation of the fat knight? Who does not chuckle over the humors of Autolycus, rogue and peddler? Who has not felt his eye glisten, as his lips smiled, when Jesse Rural has spoken, and who will not say to Ollapod, ‘Thank you, good sir, I owe you one’?

“Ah me! how I used to read those jolly unctuous authors when I was young, in the old ‘sitting-room’ at home! The great fire-place glows before me now; its light dances on the wall; my mother’s hand is on my head; my sister’s eyes are beaming on her lover over in the darker corner; there is a murmur of pleasant voices; there are quiet mirth and deep joy. I lose myself in revery when I think of these pleasures, and almost forget the Funny Fellow.

“He is pestiferous. If I were in the habit of profanity, I would let loose upon him an octagonal oath. If I were a man of muscle, it would be pleasant to get his head in chancery, and bruise it. It would be a relief to serve him with subpoenas, or present him long bills and demand immediate payment. Was my name providentially ordered to be Green, that he might pass verbal contumely upon it? Does he suppose that a man can live thirty-five years in this state of probation, without becoming slightly calloused to a pun on his own name? Yet he continues to pun on mine as if the process were highly amusing. Then again he interrupts any little attempts at pleasing conversation with his infernal absurdities. I was speaking one day at the dinner-table of a well-known orator who had been entertaining the town, and I flatter myself that my remarks were critically just as well as deeply interesting. The wretched being interposed—

“‘Mr. Green, when you say there was too much American Eagle in the speaker’s discourse, do you mean that it was a talon-ted production, and to what claws of the speech do you especially refer?’

“Miss Pipkin, who had been deeply intent on my observations, commenced to titter; what could I do but hang my head and swallow the rest of the meal in silence? If I had been possessed of a quick tongue, I would have lashed him with sarcasms, and Pipkin would have rejoiced with me in his groans. But no—I am slow of speech—and so I was bound to submit. After that he was more tyrannical than ever. He would come stealthily into my room and garotte me in a conversational way. He would seem to take me by the throat, saying, ‘why don’t you laugh—why don’t you burst with merriment?’ and then I would force a dismal grin, just to get rid of him.

“I said to myself, I will leave this selfish Sahara called the city and county of New York I will leave its dust, dirt, carts, confusion, bulls, bears, Peter Funks, Jeremy Diddlers, and, best of all, the Funny Fellow. I will take board in some rural, as well as accessible place; the mosquitoes and ague of Flushing shall refresh my frame; the cottages of Astoria, with their pleasant view of the Penitentiary, shall revive my wounded spirit; I will exile myself from my native land to the shores of Jersey; I will sit beneath the shadow of the Quarantine on Staten Island. No—I won’t—I will go to Yonkers—Yonkers that looks as though it had been built on a gentle slope, and then had suffered a violent attack of earthquake; daily boats shall convey me from my ledger to my bed and board, at convenient hours, so that while I post books in New York by day, I may revel in breezes, moonbeams, sweet milk, and gentle influences, by night. There, said I, in a burst of excusable enthusiasm, I will recline beneath wide-spreading beeches, and pipe upon an oaten reed. There will I listen to the soft bleating of lambs, and scent the fresh breath of cows; Nature shall touch and thrill me with her gentle hand; I will see the dear flowers turn their faces up to receive the kiss of the rising sun, or the benediction of the summer shower. There, too, I will meet the members of the mystic P.B., so that I shall talk of books other than day-books and blotters: we will discourse reverently of authors and their creations. I will not meet the Funny Fellow, for such a wretch can be produced only in the corrupt social hot-bed of Gotham.

“So to Yonkers I went. I chose a room looking out upon the Hudson and the noble Palisades. I took with me a flute, a copy of the Bucolics of Virgil, and numerous linen garments. A great calm came over me. I was no longer haunted, goaded, oppressed. With peace nestling in my bosom, I went down to my first supper in the new boarding-house. A goodly meal smoked on the table, and the savor of baked shad, sweetest of smells, went up. While I sat choking myself with the bones of this delicious fish, I heard a voice on the opposite side of the table that sent the blood to my heart. If I had been feminine, there would have been a scene.

“He was there: his eyes gloated over the board, a malicious quirk sat astride his fat lips. The Funny Fellow spoke to Miss Grasscloth:

“‘Why are the fishermen who catch these shad like wigmakers?’

“‘I don’t know,’

“‘Because they make their living from bare poles.’

“I ate no more supper. A nausea supervened. I left the table, rushed into the cool evening air, and let the fresh breeze visit my faded cheek. I strolled up the main street of Yonkers, and as I crushed my toes against the stones which then adorned that highway, I resolved to call on my sweet friend Julia ——. Her gentle smile, said I, will console me. She is not a Funny Fellow. We will talk together calmly, earnestly, in the moonlight, close by the great river. I will sit as near to her as her fashionable garments will permit, and forget my foe.

“We walked together—Julia and I. We talked of things good and true. We spoke of the beauty of the nocturnal scene. Alas! a fearful, a demoniac change came over the girl’s face. She said:

“‘Yes, my friend, we ought to enjoy this scene—for we are fine-night beings.’

“I bid a hasty farewell to the large eyes and gentle smile. She was not much offended at my abrupt and angry departure, for my salary is small, my hair is turning grey, and I do not dance. But I was not entirely discouraged. I resolved to give Yonkers a fair trial, and a true verdict to render according to the evidence. So I frequented the tea-parties and sociables so common in that wretched town, and strove to shake off the melancholy that clung to me like the Old Man of the Sea. To my horror, the Funny Fellow became multiplied like the reflections in a shivered mirror. Men and women, and even young innocent children, became Funny, and danced about me in a horrible maze, and squeaked and gibbered, and tossed their jokes in my face. In one week I made five mortal enemies by refusing to smile when their tormenting squibs were exploded in my eyes. I felt like a rustic pony, who comes in his simple way into town on the Fourth of July, and has Chinese crackers and fiery serpents cast under his heels. One evening, in particular, they asked me to play the game of Comparisons (a proverbially odious game, that could exist only in an effete and degenerate civilization), in which the entire company tried to see how Funny they could be; and because I made stupid answers, I was laughed at by the young ladies.

“I became disgusted with Yonkers, and returned to my intramural boarding-house in St. John’s Park. The sidewalk near the house was in a dilapidated state, through the carelessness of the contractor, who had stipulated to pave it properly, but had not paved it at all, except with good intentions. And therefore, as I came along, I first besmeared my boots with muck then tripped my toes against a pile of brick: and finally fell headlong into the gutter. As I rose up and denounced, in somewhat loud language, the idleness and inefficiency of the contractor who had the work in charge, the Funny Fellow stood before me, his eyes glaring with triumph. He spoke in reply to my denunciations:

“‘ My dear Green, do not call the contractor lazy and inefficient. I am sure that his is an energy that never FLAGS!’

“I rushed to the room where I am now sealed. There is but one hope left me.

“In the Territory of Nebraska, far to the west thereof, lies a tract of land which the early French trappers, with shrewd fitness called the’ Mauvaises Terres.’ It is a region of rocks, petrifactions, and other pre-Adamite peculiarities. In a paper written by Dr. Leid of Philadelphia, and published by the Smithsonian Institute, we are assured that there once lived in these bad lands, turtles six feet square, and alligators, compared with which the present squatter sovereigns of the territory are lovely and refined. The fossil remains of these ancient inhabitants still encumber the earth of that region, and make it unpleasant to view with an agricultural eye; but here and there the general desolation is relieved by a fertile valley, with a running brook and green slopes. White men, whisky, and Funny Fellows have not yet penetrated there. I will go to this sanctuary. A snug cabin will contain my necessary household—to wit—twelve shirts and a Bible. I will plant my corn, and tobacco, and vines on the fertile slope that looks to the south; my cattle and sheep shall browse the rest of the valley, while a few agile goats shall stand in picturesque positions upon the rocky monsters described by Dr. Leidy. My guests shall be the brave and wise red men who never try to make bad jokes. I do not think they ever try to be Funny; but to make assurance doubly sure, I shall not learn their language, so that any melancholy attempts they may possibly make, will fall upon unappreciative ears. By day I will cultivate my crops and tend my flocks and herds; and in the long evenings smoke the calumet with the worthy aborigines. If I should find there some dusky maiden, like Palmer’s Indian girl, who has no idea of puns, polkas, crinoline, or eligible matches, I will woo her in savage hyperbole, and she shall light my pipe with her slender fingers, and beat for me the tom-tom when I am sad. I will live in a calm and conscientious way; the Funny Fellow shall become like the dim recollection of some horrible dream, and”—

Mr. Green seems not to have finished his interesting reflections, and I shall not attempt to complete them. As well might I try to finish the Cathedral at Cologne. But I heartily sympathize with the feelings he has expressed, and trust that his new home in the West will never be invaded by conversational garroters.

Sincerely your friend,



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