Saturday, August 20, 2011

“I saw a many ‘gruesome’ sights”

“The stout little old gentleman who ate four fish-balls for breakfast on Sunday”

How better to charm a woman than by drawing an old man about to vomit? That was Howard Pyle’s tactic, at least, in a letter he wrote to Miss Alice Hannum Cresson on August 19, 1875:


Aug 19th 1875

Dear Miss Alice:

Now ma am the question is am I or am I not to be forgiven for my appearant neglect of your kind permission to write to you. Before the court decides let me be heard in a little excuse “iv it be plazen to yus mum [?]”. Now the fact is that immediately upon my return home I received orders to prepare myself ‘instanter’ for a business trip to the north so you can easily imagen that I must have been much hurried to get off in reasonable time.

I arrived home on Monday or rather Tuesday last at half past one o’clock at night, rather fagged out to tell the truth; having travelled about thirteen hundred miles (and all at night at that) the foregoing week. However I am now as you perceive in my normal state of vavicious brilliancy - “Richard’s himself again!” in fact.

Boston was the last city I visited before I returned home and from there I came to Philadelphia by ocean. Ah Miss Alice in two days of ocean travel I saw a many “gruesome” sights - old gentleman that would ever and anon dash frantically to the edge of the boat where they would stand with bodies that heaved and swayed with the force of some internal conflict between breakfast and stomach. The wail of little children and cries of suffering women whilst the stewardess ran hither and thither with a baisin in one hand and a glass of whiskey in the other - no ma am I was not sea-sick.

This little sketch represents the stout little old gentleman who ate four fish-balls for breakfast on Sunday.

[drawing of man, 7/8 x 3/4" - see above]

But enough of this “fal-lal.”

I saw Spencer this evening. He tells me that he has received a letter from Miss Sallie inviting us both up to Consho. next Saturday. Most unfortunately I have sundry little engagements for that day; while Saturday week Spencer is engaged; however on Saturday two weeks weather permitting and provided it suits you we shall do ourselves the pleasure of visiting you.

I suppose Spencer has told you all about our departure from Maryland. How I scarcely had time to buy my segars and ticket and to dash off a few agonized lines of parting to Miss Smith and at the last moment to post your letters almost forgetting my valise in my hurry. We were both upon the platform of course to catch a last lingering look at our lady friends at Mansion Farm and were duly gratified.

I enclose an illustration of Shakspeare - “a poor thing but mine own” - applicable to this peach and watermelon season [enclosure missing]. Please give my respects to your father and mother and the rest of my Consho. friends and believe me as ever -

Very Respectfully Yours

Howard Pyle

May I hope to hear from you soon in answer to this my first letter since my return from Maryland?

I should note that although Pyle dated the letter “Aug 19th” sometimes he got his dates wrong, plus the envelope (see below) was postmarked 10 p.m. August 20th, so it’s possible he wrote it on that day.

I’ve posted a couple of things regarding “Miss Alice” already, but here’s a quick review:

When the 22-year-old Pyle wrote to Alice Hannum Cresson, 26, she was living with her parents, Walter and Alice (Hannum) Cresson, and sisters, Anna and Sarah (or Sallie), in Conshohocken, Pennsylvania. She and Pyle were cousins by marriage - Alice’s maternal aunt, Hannah Hannum (1817-1896), was the widow of Pyle’s maternal uncle, John Painter (1824-1865) - so they may have known each other since childhood.

First, regarding “iv it be plazen to yus mum”: I’ve been squinting at that phrase for the last fifteen years. “It be” and “to” were clear, but the other parts I thought, at various times, were “played to your music” or “muse” and “plague to your name” and so on. All nonsense. But I think I’m on the right track now. It really can’t be anything but “plazen” - that’s Pyle’s “p” and “z,” etc. - and if we say it with an “Irish” accent, it translates to “it be pleasing to.” Since Pyle was familiar with Irish character songs and plays, this seems likely. I might be misreading the first word “iv” (or “if”), but Pyle also was apt to add extra bits to his letterforms and not dot his “i”s consistently. “To yus mum” - i.e. “to you, ma’am” - is iffy (or ivvy), but I don’t know what else it could be. Any takers?

But what else does this letter show us, apart from Pyle’s earthy sense of humor - and that he sometimes smoked “segars”?

Well, we see that Pyle was a mediocre speller, but he knew that: “I was never a good hand at spelling,” he admitted years later. He also knew his “Shakspeare” - sort of: “a poor thing but mine own” is a common misquotation of “an ill-favoured thing, sir, but mine own” from As You Like It (Act 5, Scene 4). Incidentally, Pyle also used the phrase to “modestly” describe his fairy-tales in an 1889 letter: “But you know what Touchstone says - ‘A poor thing, a poor thing, but mine own!’” Meanwhile, “Richard’s himself again!” comes from Act 5, Scene 3 of Colley Cibber’s Richard III.

“Spencer,” it turns out, was Willard Spenser, born July 7, 1852 (or later), in Cooperstown, New York. He moved to Wilmington in 1873 and in 1875 was living at 1229 Tatnall Street with his mother, Mary, and brother, Claude. All three taught music. Spenser had early musical talent and composed his first waltz at age 7. In 1886, “The Little Tycoon” - for which he wrote both the music and the libretto - premiered in Philadelphia and became the first successful light opera by an American composer. By then it seems that he and Pyle had drifted apart, though later they were fellow members of the Franklin Inn Club.

“Mansion Farm,” as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, was the Owings Mills, Maryland home of Pyle’s (and Alice’s) aunt and uncle, Sarah and Milton Painter. I recently learned, though, that the place - also known as ULM and built by Samuel Owings himself - was the focus of controversy some 15 years ago, when a developer sneakily demolished it. A more full, interesting, and illustrated history of it can be found here.

But perhaps the most intriguing thing about this letter is what it reveals about Pyle’s otherwise murky involvement in his father’s leather business. The 1875-76 Wilmington city directory (published in June 1875) lists William Pyle as a “leather dealer” and Howard Pyle as an “artist.” The latter description may have been wishful thinking at that point, but it’s plain that Howard’s duties went beyond clerking in an office and that he acted - well, once - as a sort of traveling salesman, going by train - and boat - to visit scattered customers. This is, at least, exactly what his father did, especially in the 1880s, after his younger sons, Clifford and Walter, had taken the reins of the family enterprise.

One more thing: chief among the Pyles’ products (eventually, but quite possibly in the 1870s, too) was leather for bookbinding. Their clients, naturally, would have included publishers. In fact, according to Alpheus Sherwin Cody - who interviewed Pyle in 1894 - Roswell Smith, President of Scribner & Company, “was a friend of [Pyle’s] father.” Why would a Delawarean leather dealer become friendly with a New York publisher?

I wonder, therefore, if this as-yet hypothetical connection to the publishing world was an “in” - or the “in” - that Pyle successfully exploited in 1876, after writing up his Chincoteague experiences...

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