Sunday, April 05, 2020

Fortnightly Book, April 5

Robert Seymour was perhaps the greatest illustrator of his day. He was skillful in almost every form of book illustration and his sporting caricatures were immensely popular. This led him to make the fateful decision to suggest to his publisher a series of comic sporting illustrations with some sort of descriptive text to unify them as a series -- little anecdotes to add a little extra fun to the humorous depictions. Since the illustrations would be of things going wrong, he suggested that it could be packaged as the misfortunes of a 'Nimrod Club'. Seymour had recently done very well publishing a work, Sketches by Seymour, that had these kinds of illustrations, so the publisher was definitely interested. The kind of writing work that this required was what was known as 'hack' work. ('Hack' was a shortened form of 'hackney', i.e., a riding horse.) It was a routine kind of gig but required a certain kind of short-writing skill, like writing ad copy in our day. The publisher, apparently busy with other projects, decided to hire an outside hack, and eventually hired (according, later, to Seymour's wife, due to her own recommendation) a young writer who had made a modest name for himself in short-writing through a series called Sketches by Boz. Boz (long o), of course, was his pen-name. Boz, while in need of the money, noted that as he was not a sporting person, he was probably not the best person to do anecdotes for sporting illustrations. He proposed instead that he should write humorous literary sketches that Seymour could then illustrate; they would be about a club, but one Boz could write about. The publisher liked the idea, and Seymour found himself second fiddle on his own creative project, and not on very good terms, either, because he was never paid for the idea and was only commissioned for a limited number of illustrations per magazine edition. And when it was being published, it came out under the title, The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club – containing a faithful record of the perambulations, perils, travels, adventures and Sporting Transactions of the corresponding members. Edited by 'Boz'. With Illustrations. 'With Illustrations'! That's it. Seymour was not even given a byline.

The first edition came out and was immensely popular. In April of 1836, as part of work on the second edition, Seymour met up with Boz for drinks to discuss artwork for one of the stories. They argued vehemently over something (we do not know what), then Seymour went home and at some point afterward took his sporting rifle out into his garden and shot himself.

An emergency illustrator was commissioned to finish the second installment, Robert William Buss, a highly talented artist; but Buss was not familiar with the particular process, and didn't yet have a knack for knowing what would look good or bad with etched steel printing. His illustrations were lackluster and rushed by his own admission, and he was fired -- Buss took it in good humor and held no grudges. The unlucky commission passed to Hablot Knight Browne who did his illustrations first under the name 'Nemo' and then, to go better with 'Boz', under the name 'Phiz'. Boz and Phiz happened to get along quite well with each other, and Phiz became the go-to illustrator for Boz's works. Although, of course, by then Boz was no longer writing under the pen name 'Boz' but under his real name, Charles Dickens.

The Pickwick Papers was published in book form in 1837, becoming one of the bestselling books of the nineteenth century and making Dickens's name as one of the greatest authors of the day. And, of course, it is the next fortnightly book.

Looking around, it looks like an adaptation was made by Orson Welles for Mercury Theater on the Air, so I will try to find time to listen to that, as well. In addition, a while back I picked up at the Dollar Store a book called Death and Mr. Pickwick: A Novel by Stephen Jarvis. It's a highly fictionalized account of the issues between Dickens and Seymour in the publication of the work. It's a big book to put on top of a big book, so I don't know if I'll be able to fit it in, but I will be reading it as well.

Dickens dream
Robert William Buss, Dickens' Dream. A painting that Buss started working on after Dickens's death; he died before he could finish it, but somehow the unfinished character works well for it.

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