Artemus Ward, often called the first standup comic, played a pivotal role in the history of American literature during an 1863 Christmas visit to the Nevada territory when he influenced the career of Mark Twain. Born Charles Farrar Brown in 1834 in Maine, the future Artemus Ward lost his father when young and became an apprentice printer at age thirteen. Eventually, Brown graduated to reporter and comic columnist during a career that took him to Ohio.
In 1858, Brown created the persona of Artemus Ward, a poorly educated traveling showman with a wealth of puns and misspellings. Ward's instinct for folk humor presented with malapropisms made him nationally popular. He was the favorite comic of President Abraham Lincoln, who often read Ward to begin cabinet meetings.
Nineteenth-century convention allowed other newspapers to reprint Ward's columns without compensation. Brown subsequently took his show on the road, lecturing and selling books of his reprinted articles. Initially, Brown's appearance—tall, thin, and young—astounded audiences who expected the short, rotund, middle-aged Ward depicted in lithographs. Nevertheless, Brown's wit and onstage charisma created diehard fans as he presented his farcical speech, "The Babes in the Wood."
In 1863, Brown toured the West, receiving wide acclaim in San Francisco and other California venues. He crossed the Sierra in December and performed in Carson City. Nevada territorial Governor James Nye declared Ward an official emissary of Nevada for life. His most importent encounter in the state lay ahead, however.
By December 22, Brown had arrived in Virginia City where he sought out fellow journalists and enchanted hundreds in the newly-opened Maguire's Opera House. He became instant friends with Dan De Quille and Mark Twain as they spent the week eating, drinking, and cavorting.
Brown recognized a kindred spirit in Twain who was nearly his own age. He, too, had lost his father, became a printer, and then a columnist and humorist. Brown inspired Twain to recognize the virtue of writing books and performing on stage. In addition, he promised to help Twain publish in a national venue. Brown then left as suddenly as he arrived, having stayed a mere week, but with enormous effect.
Brown went on to perform in Austin, Nevada. Against better advice, he traveled east in a mid-winter blizzard. Brown caught pneumonia but was nursed back to health in Salt Lake City by Mormons, whom he subsequently held in high regard.
Twain submitted a story for a collection of material Brown was publishing on his western adventure. Twain's "Jim Smiley and his Jumping Frog" arrived too late, but was eventually published with Ward's recommendation in 1865 by New York's Saturday Press. The story was a dramatic success, and Twain was instantly famous.
After the Civil War, Brown went on a popular tour of the South. He then traveled to London, where the English embraced him as an American original. A grueling schedule weakened the comic who suffered from tuberculosis. Brown died in 1867 at the age of thirty-three. Had he lived, one can only imagine the acclaim he might have gained from a long, productive life.
Brown's death cleared the way for Twain. Although Twain's style was different, for years critics compared him with Brown, maintaining the new comic was a lesser imitation. Twain resented Ward's shadow. He later underplayed Brown's influence on his career, but the Christmas visit in 1863 clearly shaped the career of Twain as he took the first steps towards becoming America's premier humorist for generations.
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