Thursday, February 7, 2008

M. Quad

This past week, we have been featuring short fables from M. Quad's 1884 book Sawed Off Sketches. M. Quad's real name was Charles Bertrand Lewis, and long-time listeners of the Basement will be familiar with his Mr. Bowser stories that we have been reading every Saturday for the last year and a half.

Lewis was a newspaper correspondent during the first months of the US Civil War, but later on became an infantryman, and served in almost every major battle until the war's end without receiving a scratch. Afterward, he found work as a typesetter in Detroit, until he accepted an editor's position in Kentucky in 1868. On his journey to that job, the steamboat Magnolia exploded, leaving many passengers dead or wounded. Bloodied, and with a big hole in his head, he was first thought to be another dead body, until his rescuers found him to be hanging on for dear life. After a long recuperation in the hospital, he returned to his typesetter's job in Detroit, having lost the editor job. While there, he wrote up a wildly hilarious account of his adventure called How It Feels to be Blown Up. This story was read in the Basement episode #328 and can be listened to here. It was picked up by newspapers from coast to coast. Lewis chose the pen name of M. Quad, which is a typographer's term for a double-wide letter (an N Quad is a single width letter).

Almost immediately, Lewis's humorous writing went into weekly syndication, and he used his lawsuit award from the steamboat company to buy a substantial interest in the Detroit Free Press. Often, his work was run in other papers with the byline of The Detroit Free Press Man. 

His weekly short stories covered every subject under the sun, and many of them stand up well today. Over the years, he created regular characters for his column. Mr. Bowser came into being in the mid-1880s, and was probably inspired by Stanley Huntley's Spoopendyke. A clever series of stories about a fictional newspaper called The Arizona Kicker lasted many years, and also may have been inspired by Huntley's work at the Bismarck Tribune in Dakota Territory. Huntley had run some M. Quad stories in the Tribune during his run there, and Lewis was undoubtedly aware of Huntley's work at the Tribune and the Brooklyn Eagle.

Another popular series in the M. Quad weekly package was Brother Gardner's Lime Kiln Club, which, at first glance seems to be crude stories making fun of negro dialect. But on closer examination, Brother Gardner (or Brudder Gardner in the stories) was of exemplary character, and extremely moral, and most of the humor came from his dealing with the odd characters who were members of the club. The Gardner stories were undoubtedly the inspiration for the old Amos and Andy radio and television programs.

So far I have totally avoided these kinds of stories on the Basement. I really do not find stories that rely on dialect for humor to be very funny. But I suppose if enough listeners demanded it I might read one or two of the better ones someday. 

After his brush with near-death in 1868, Lewis continued his career as a humorist until he passed on in 1924! His son continued the column for a short while under the pen name of M. Quad Jr., but the public had grown tired of his style of writing in the age of flappers, speakeasies, and hot jazz. 

What do you think? Please post your comments!

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