Happy 185th to Petroleum V. Nasby

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

September 20 marked the 185th 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.” Last year I posted a brief appreciation; I republish it below, with a few minor revisions.

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. The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, and Other Sketches, Twain’s first book, was 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.