If you had visited Pittsburgh in the later 1700s, you might have been surprised to find that the little frontier city seemed to have a thriving literary culture. It had a little paper filled with witty and clever items that would shame many of the Eastern papers—the Gazette, which by random luck has survived since 1785 (through various combinations) to be one of the world’s oldest metropolitan newspapers. Bookshops displayed interesting and useful volumes printed in the city. There was every indication that Pittsburgh was becoming a haven for authors of substance.
You might have been even more surprised to discover that all this culture was the work of one man. Hugh Henry Brackenridge financed the Gazette and persuaded its editor to haul a press across the mountains to Pittsburgh; Hugh Henry Brackenridge wrote the cleverest columns in that little newspaper (under the names of numerous fictitious correspondents who frequently argued with one another); Hugh Henry Brackenridge poured forth an unending torrent of pamphlets, treatises, and poems; and—above all—Hugh Henry Brackenridge wrote the novel that everyone was reading, and talking about, and laughing over.
Modern Chivalry was the book described by Charles Frederick Heartman as “one of the greatest novels ever written in the English language.” It is a rambling picaresque tale of a wandering captain and his Irish servant, often compared to Don Quixote—but with this difference: that the master is usually the voice of sanity, and the servant carried away by delusions. Nevertheless, it is the ignorant servant who succeeds in American society, which of course is the satirical point. There is no place for an accomplished gentleman; the new country belongs to the unprincipled rogues.
Fashion is probably the main reason for the eclipse of Hugh Henry Brackenridge’s memory. He is the only American novelist of the school of Fielding, Smollett, and Sterne. When he wrote, romanticism had already taken over serious literature; and it is a principle of all arts that the fashions of the generation immediately previous are always repudiated as the most barbarous fashions in the history of art. By the time the United States developed a strong literary culture of its own, Brackenridge was ignored by serious readers—who, by the way, also found Fielding, Smollett, and Sterne far too vulgar for their tastes. When the canon of American literature was forming, Brackenridge was left among the sweepings on the floor. He was still read, though: editions of Modern Chivalry continued to appear throughout the first half of the nineteenth century, snapped up by the old folks who remembered it as that book they had laughed at so much when they were young. (John Quincy Adams was a big fan.) One very attractive edition had pictures by F. O. C. Darley, the best American illustrator of the middle nineteenth century.
The novel is still reprinted about once a generation, when some academic rediscovers the book and attempts to bring it back into the public eye through a university press. These editions usually end up in remainder bins.
A review of an 1847 edition of Modern Chivalry tells us this story of Brackenridge and President Washington: “Judge Brackenridge was accounted a great wit in the days of Washington, whom he endeavored to entertain with his stories upon one occasion at a public dinner, but without effect, the Presidential decorum not relaxing a muscle; but at night when the Father of his Country was laid aside with the buff and blue, the humorist had the satisfaction of hearing the bottled-up laughter of the day explode with many a gurgle through the thin partition which separated their bed-rooms. Such was the prudence of Washington, and such the humor of Brackenridge.”
Hugh Henry Brackenridge is well represented in Dr. Boli’s Anthology of American Humor, the book your bathroom has been begging you for.