The first edition of Modern Chivalry by Hugh Henry Brackenridge. This copy includes four volumes as they were issued: the first two published in Philadelphia, the third in Pittsburgh (misdated 1713 instead of 1793), and the fourth in Philadelphia again (after Brackenridge quarreled with his Pittsburgh publisher).

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.


  1. Interesting. A quick question, and this is perhaps the perfect place to ask…what is up with the little curlicues connecting the top of lower-case t’s with the preceding letter? I tried reading the Introduction to Modern Chivalry, but kept getting distracted by the typography. Not just the f-looking long lowercase S’s, which are par for the course for books of that era, but whenever a word ends in ct or ft, the top of the final t is connected to the previous letter by a near-semicircular line whose purpose eludes me. Did typesetters have special digraph pieces for such occasions, or did the ink just run together? Or is this like the blended AE symbol you also see in old books, which had at one point (and still is, in some languages) its own unique letter, but which hung on long after that ceased to be true for English, used by people trying to appear more intelligent than they were. As is seen in the logo of the Arts and Entertainment cable channel A&E, which tries to still be as respectable as they once were, despite now being overtaken primarily by reality-TV soap operas.

    • Dr. Boli says:

      Yes, printers kept many combined characters, which are known as “ligatures.” In addition to the Latin diphthongs like Æ, there are ligatures for many character combinations—ct, ft, ſt (that’s long-S plus T), fi, ffi, and so on. Even today, they are available in better OpenType fonts:

      Ligatures of Adobe Caslon Pro, by Max Naylor (Gnu Free Documentation License).

    • Dr. Boli says:

      And incidentally, if eighteenth-century typography distracts you, try the Getz & Buck/Carey and Hart edition, which uses more modern typography. Click on the title page with the Darley illustration above to go to the first volume.

  2. My query concerns punctuation.

    I was taught never to place a comma in a position that would divide the subject of a sentence from its verb. This rule has always seemed reasonable to me, but earlier generations of writers (and some current-day British) see no problem in not following this rule. Brackenridge appears to be one of these:

    JOHN FARRAGO, was a man of about fifty-three years of age, of good natural sense, and considerable reading; but in some things whimsical, owing perhaps to his greater knowledge of books than of the world; but, in some degree, also, to his having never married, being what they call an old batchelor, a characteristic of which is, usually, singularity and whim.

    What, therefore, is the first comma doing in this sentence? Is it telling us: “Slow down and remember this man’s name”? There is some humor in the surname, I suppose, but do we really need a comma to clue us in to that?

    Anyway, what is that comma doing?

    Jeffery Hodges

    * * *

    • Dr. Boli says:

      In the eighteenth century, punctuation was done more by instinct than by rule; and, furthermore, the rule you mention (which is a good one, and not to be tossed aside) is of later growth. But there is some logic to eighteenth-century punctuation if you assume that writing must always be a transcription of speech. The comma, then, represents a pause or breath; and we may imagine that a storyteller who introduces the name of his hero in capital letters has spoken it very slowly and distinctly, and would very probably take a breath before going on.

    • Goznor says:

      Wait… Doesn’t that break the ”FIRSTNAME LASTNAME VERB” rule? Or does the comma somehow disqualify this one?

  3. Actually, I find that I had heard of Brackenridge, but only by way of his memoirs. (Really awesome memoirs, as he actually fostered out by his dad and sent all the way to Catholic Louisiana and the French settlements of Ohio as a tiny kid. A Protestant tiny kid. Yeah, his dad was weird. Flatboats and canoes both appear. And later there’s a lot of interest in how he read for the law.)

    So if you want to read about old Pittsburgh, Recollections of Persons and Places in the West is awesome.

    • Dr. Boli says:

      Henry Marie Brackenridge was the one who wrote the fascinating memoirs. Hugh Henry was the weird dad. When his wife died, he seems to have had a bit of a panic attack about the idea of being left with a child to take care of, so we can say that he was perhaps not an ideal father.

      On the other hand, Henry Marie Brackenridge, who was terrified of his father as a child, somehow reconciled with him later in life and became the staunchest defender of his father’s reputation against the slurs of “the Neville connection”—the descendants of the rich tax collectors whose property the rebels had burned.

  1. […] Here are your clues, then: the novelist is an American; his work is difficult to find in bookstores; and Swift and Rabelais are apt comparisons. And his picture is at the head of this article, which may give you a rough idea of his era. Can you guess the man behind the mask? […]

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