Saturday, April 21, 2012

Josh Billings, 19th century humorist

Josh Billings
It is the birthday of writer Josh Billings (1818), who may be the greatest 19th century humorist nobody's ever heard of — at least in modern times. Why? Billings might have been eclipsed by Mark Twain, a contemporary. Like Twain, Billings is a pseudonym. The writer's real name was Henry Wheeler Shaw, not exactly the household name that even Samuel Langhorne Clemens is. Shaw was born in Massachusetts. His father (Henry Sr.), his uncle and his grandfather were all congressmen. Not Henry Jr., though. He didn't pursue politics. He got himself tossed out of college for pulling a sophomoric prank, held a series of jobs, coal miner, farmer, explorer and auctioneer, and finally settled down to make a living as a journalist. Writing as Josh Billings, he created works of witty, down-home wisdom in vernacular language and phonetic spelling. He wrote several books, including Josh Billings' Sayings, Choice Bits of American Wit and Josh Billings' Trump Kards, none of which are widely remembered today. Among the doggerel credited to Billings is this verse called The Kicker: I hate to be a kicker,/I always long for peace,/But the wheel that does the squeaking,/Is the one that gets the grease. John Steinbeck paid homage to Billings in his novel Cannery Row, set in Monterey, California. That's where Billings died (1885). According to Steinbeck's account, the town's only doctor (also an amateur mortician), prepared Billings body for burial by removing the entrails and packing it with sawdust. As usual, the good doctor tossed the entrails into a gulch behind his house. They were discovered by a young boy and his dog, who planned to used them for fishing bait but were stopped by locals who prevented the desecration (and the subsequent disgrace to the community) and forced the good doctor to perform a proper burial. Steinbeck noted, perhaps somewhat tongue-in-cheek that Monterey was a city proud of its literary heritage and couldn't let such a horrible thing happen.

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