Nasby’s birthday

“A nickel-plated son of a bitch”: Petroleum V. Nasby.

A short post here to note the 184th anniversary of the birth of David Ross Locke, the Civil War-era journalist who created the Rev. Petroleum Vesuvius Nasby, described by his creator as “a nickel-plated son of a bitch.” Locke was born on this day in 1833. Back in the Pleistocene Era when I was wasting my time on a master’s degree, I was hoping to prepare some kind of dissertation on Locke’s work before common sense dissuaded me from a career in academia. Still, I remember it fondly.

David Ross Locke.

Locke and Mark Twain were close friends and drinking buddies, and Twain has some very nice things to say about the man in his autobiography. I’ve just finished reading the Oxford Mark Twain edition (the series itself is at the top of my current wish list, by the way) of The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, and Other Sketches, Twain’s first book, published in 1867. The same year saw the publication of Swingin’ Round the Cirkle, perhaps the best collection of Locke’s Nasby letters. It’s an interesting juxtaposition. By the end of the Civil War, Locke was recognized as the most important satirist of his generation; in the persona of Nasby — a drunk, racist opportunist — Locke underscored the hypocrisy and plain stupidity of the Democrats and Copperheads who emerged from the Civil War and laid the groundwork for today’s version of “white rage.” By 1865, Locke had become Lincoln’s favorite humorist: Lincoln once said, “I intend to tell him if he will communicate his talent to me, I will swap places with him!” And legend has it that just before his journey to Ford’s Theatre on the evening of April 14, 1865, Lincoln was reading the latest installment of the letters.

Like Twain, Locke (as Nasby, who shared a few of his creator’s weaknesses for alcohol and poor hygienic habits) had a phenomenally successful career on the lecture circuit, for humorists the precursor to stand-up comedy; unlike Twain, Locke had already developed a blisteringly satiric perspective on the American culture of the Civil War years and immediately thereafter. It may be too much to say that Locke paved the way both for Twain’s later, bitter vision of America’s racial heritage, and for the likes of Stephen Colbert. But it may not. Occasionally Locke and Nasby arise in the most curious places, most recently in the New York Times. In a 2012 column, Jon Grinspan, now a Curator of Political History at the Smithsonian Institution, wrote about Locke, Nasby, and their legacies, and Nasby’s prejudices echo today:

Beginning in early 1862, [Locke] aggressively lampooned dimwitted reactionaries who, in Nasby’s words, pined for “the Union ez it uzd to was, and the Constitooshn ez I’d like to hev it.” …

In letter after letter, Locke parodied the deluded belief in white supremacy. Nasby was proudly bigoted because “it is soothing to a ginooine, constooshnel, Suthern-rites Dimekrat to be constantly told that ther is a race uv men meaner than he.” Though he could barely “rede and rite,” Nasby worried that emancipation might mean that “our kentry will be no fit place for men uv educhashen and refinement,” like himself. Ultimately, Nasby fretted that freed slaves would begin “tyranizin over us, even as we tyrannize over them.”

Locke even defended interracial marriage, at the time reviled by almost all Americans. The Democratic Party accused Republicans of wanting to marry white women to freed slaves, a concern Nasby shared. He joined a rally by white women against miscegenation, but concluded that the hideous protesters he met had nothing to worry about; no freed slave would have any interest in them. Nasby did make an exception for sex between married masters and slaves, so long as “yoo temper it with adultery.” …

Through his risky satire, the slovenly, drunken Locke probably had more influence on the direction of American history than any other humorist.

Nasby’s own language, as you can see, may lead to a few orthological headaches for the contemporary reader — a not uncommon problem with the “Phunny Phellows” of this era — but there are rewards to be had. So here’s to the Rev. Petroleum V. Nasby, that nickel-plated son of a bitch whose descendants continue to fill the voting booths and the rosters of the GOP. You can read Swingin’ Round the Cirkle — still a book ripe for someone’s dissertation, especially when race remains a central problem of the American experiment — for free right here. And in 2013, Ron Gorman, a volunteer docent at the Oberlin Heritage Center, wrote this appreciation, which features more of the Nasby letters and fills in quite a few biographical blanks.

Prost! for an Emmy win

He cooks.

I often note here that I enjoy spending my Friday afternoons at Cafe Katja, the lovely Lower East Side Beisl owned and operated by my friends Andrew Chase and Erwin Schrottner. I haven’t seen much of Erwin lately, but he’s been busy with Erwin Cooks, his new show for PBS39 dedicated to Central European cuisine and culture.

And more recently he was apparently in Pennsylvania, picking up his Mid-Atlantic Emmy Award for “Lifestyle Program – Feature/Segment” for the Erwin Cooks episode on schnitzel and reisling (scroll down to #47 here). Not bad for a first-season show, and I must offer him congratulations and kind wishes on his well-deserved win. You’ll agree; the Emmy-winning episode is below. I’m hungry (and thirsty) already.

See you Friday at … well, you know where.


Hal Holbrook in “Mark Twain Tonight!”

Comedy week here at the blog: on Tuesday I pointed the way to a fine speech by Ben Tarnoff on Mark Twain, vulgarity, and the 21st century; yesterday I enjoyed a recent interview with veteran Monty Python comedian and satirist John Cleese.

Speaking of Twain, I leave you this week with news that Hal Holbrook, who has been performing his one-man show Mark Twain Tonight! since 1959, is retiring the show after touring with it for 58 of his own 92 years. I never saw the show live (there is a recording of a 1967 performance available at, and I’m sorry I didn’t. Holbrook is a highly-respected actor, of course, but also something of a Twain scholar-at-large, and he kept Twain’s writing in the public eye for more than half a century. Fellow Twain scholar Shelley Fisher Fishkin wrote this appreciation of Holbrook for the Center for Mark Twain Studies, and below is a short excerpt from that 1967 performance. See you next week.

Not much fun in Stalingrad

“Death is certainly present in my life, and there’s humor to be mined from it,” the 77-year-old John Cleese tells Vulture‘s David Marchese in a new interview. “Somebody was saying to me last week that you can’t talk about death these days without people thinking you’ve done something absolutely antisocial. But death is part of the deal.”

And so, in a way, is being antisocial. It’s been a part of Cleese’s humor since his years with Monty Python’s Flying Circus, but on his own he’s written and appeared in Fawlty Towers, perhaps the best television comedy ever produced, and A Fish Called Wanda. In his creation of Basil Fawlty, Cleese came up with one of the most enduring comic creations in history, sharing traits with Fawlty’s ancestor W.C. Fields and his descendant “Larry David”: paralyzingly fearful, irritable and impatient, prone to fits of explosive rage, devious (even if his deviousness inevitably leads to humiliating, embarrassing disaster), greedy, vain, elitist, puritanical, obsequious with the rich and titled, and prejudiced against race and nationality, Fawlty is a human coagulation of all of the most universal failings known to the race. And Cleese’s embodiment of the character, ill-dressed, eternally ill-at-ease, and clumsy, demonstrated a physical ineptitude that served as a bodily metaphor for all these traits. As he tells Marchese:

The thing about Fawlty Towers is that almost anyone can understand the comedy of it. It’s just about people getting frightened or scared or trying not to get blamed. A child of 8 can follow everything in it. … People get embarrassed when they watch Fawlty Towers. I was in a therapy group once with a judge; when he joined the group he had no idea who I was. Most of the other people in England at that time would have some idea but he didn’t. When I told him what I did for a living, he said he’d watch Fawlty Towers. When I saw him next he said he’d started to watch it and had become so embarrassed by everybody’s behavior that he had to leave the room. The vicarious embarrassment was too much for him.

Ah, funny because it’s true. So cruelly true.

Here are a few other tidbits from the interview:

You’ve lived in America part-time for decades. Did Donald Trump’s election change your thinking about Americans?
Mm-hmm. What I found surprising was that the least successful people supported Trump. You understand the wealthy wanting tax cuts, but why on Earth did the less successful people think Trump was going to do anything he said he was going to do to help them? I’ll give an analogy: I remember going to see professional wrestling when I was 18 — wonderful entertainment, obviously rigged. The thing that astounded me as I looked around Colston Hall in Bristol is that quite a lot of the audience thought what they were seeing was for real. That’s what’s incredible to me about such a large swath of the American people: They can’t see that Trump is fake. And if they can’t see that when it’s right in front of them, how can you convince them of anything critical about the man? It’s like holding up a red sign to a person and the person says it’s blue. You can’t logically argue them into seeing red. The inability of people unable to intuit what was going on with Trump — I was impressed by it, not repelled. It was extraordinary to me that people couldn’t see how clueless he is.

Tell me more about your impression of Trump.
What also appalls me is the language of him and his cronies — people talking about sucking on their own cocks and such. I don’t know if it’s universal or distinctly American, but the vulgarity of the language of powerful men: It all comes down to penises and pissing and cocks. They talk like out-of-control 6-year-olds. …

There’s absolutely nothing that gives you any hope about the future of human society?


So why get up in the morning?
Just because you can’t create a sensible world doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy the world you’re in. I think Bertrand Russell once said that the secret to happiness is to face the fact that the world is horrible. Once you realize that things are pretty hopeless, then you just have a laugh and you don’t waste time on things that you can’t change — and I don’t think you can change society. I’ve spent a lot of time in group therapy watching highly intelligent, well-intentioned people try to change and they couldn’t. If even they can’t change …

The full interview can be found here. And if you’re puzzled by the title of this post, here’s the most amusing source:

Donald Trump and the vulgarity of Mr. Twain

The vulgar Mark Twain.

Those who think of Mark Twain as the quintessential twinkly-eyed American sage have another think coming. Last month, Ben Tarnoff delivered the keynote speech at the Eighth International Conference on the State of Mark Twain Studies, sponsored by the Center for Mark Twain Studies and held in Elmira, NY; the title of his speech was “Vulgarity from Below Versus Vulgarity from Above: Twain in the Age of Trump.” Without mentioning the name of the 45th President of the United States, Tarnoff mused upon what Twain’s own reaction to our current situation may have been, and concludes that it would not have been kind.

Ben Tarnoff in Elmira.

In doing so, Tarnoff with a sly, subversive humor provides an excellent lesson in one of the most important periods of American humor and literary history — the Southwest of the mid-19th century; a good anthology of this Southwest humor is Walter Blair and Raven McDavid’s The Mirth of a Nation, now unfortunately out of print — and urges upon his listeners a new “vulgarity” and “barbarism” based on Twain’s own moral and satiric perspective, which Twain developed before he came east with the 1869 publication of The Innocents Abroad, the book that put him permanently on the map. Tarnoff’s 35-minute speech can be heard below, and it’s worth your sustained attention.

Ben Tarnoff is the author of The Bohemians: Mark Twain and the San Francisco Writers Who Reinvented American Literature (Penguin, 2014). He also writes regularly (and extremely well) for The Guardian on technology and politics, and is founder of Logic, a new magazine about technology. Mr. Tarnoff, take it away: