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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21). rn VOLUME XVII. Later National Literature, Part II.

IX. Minor Humorists

§ 4. Charles Godfrey Leland

One of the most decided believers in recreative humour was a man of many interests whose humorous writing was originally done merely for his own amusement. Charles Godfrey Leland (1824–1903), a native of Philadelphia and a graduate of Princeton, after three years of student life at Heidelberg and Munich and three days as captain of a barricade in the Paris revolution of 1848, found the practice of law in the city of his birth a listless occupation. Turning journalist, he worked successively as managing editor under P. T. Barnum and R. W. Griswold. He gave early and able support to Lincoln’s administration, besides seeing service in an emergency regiment during the Gettysburg campaign. The later years of his long life were spent in cultivating a wide circle of friends in America and Europe, in a disinterested and successful effort to establish industrial art as a branch of public education, and in the study of gipsy lore, tinkers’ language, Indian legends, Italian witches, and all things exotic, mysterious, and occult. During this time he wrote with extreme fluency more than fifty books on the most varied subjects, not to mention uncounted contributions to periodicals. He would doubtless have wished to be remembered chiefly for his services to education.

His generation, however, persisted in thinking of him exclusively as the author of Hans Breitmann’s Ballads, often to his annoyance identifying him with the hero of his lays. Indistinguishable Leland and Breitmann are only in certain ballads describing European cities with quiet sentimental charm. But the huge, bearded Hans Breitmann who gorges, guzzles, and scuffles at the famous “barty,” drinks lager from his boots among the rebel dead, and cynically takes advantage of the “circumswindles” of American politics, is of course not a projection of the author’s personality but “a German gentleman who drinks, fights, and plunders.” In this conception Leland discovered a vein of genuine humour, the converse of that in Innocents Abroad. Mark Twain’s double-edged satire disclosed the imperviousness of the native American to the finer subtleties and superfluities of European culture. Leland revealed the demoralization of an over-complex European in the rarefied social atmosphere of the New World. Released from accustomed exterior control and given nothing for his native idealisms to work on, “der Breitmann solfe de infinide ash von eternal shpree.”

As a cavalry commander and “bummer” in the Civil War this compound of geist and thirst finds his real vocation. Breitmann in Maryland, describing, with a ringing “gling, glang, gloria!” refrain, the wild ride of German troopers to capture a rebel tavern, catches the fire and swiftness of an echtdeutsch ballad. A more unusual blend of moods—satire, sentiment, excitement, pathos—may be found in Breitmann’s Going to Church. In later ballads Breitmann enters the Franco-Prussian War, but in proportion as he becomes an Uhlan “mad with durst for bier and blut” he loses significance as an American figure. The fun tends to be kept up by mechanical expedients, as in the ballad of Breitmann in a Balloon.

Decidedly more amusing are the burlesques of Teutonic legends, such as the celebrated De Maiden mid Nodings on. These have nothing of the real Breitmann about them but the German-American dialect. Some clever macaronics in many tongues further indicate that German-English was not the only jargon at Leland’s command. Part of his reputation as being “at the very head of Pidgin English learning and literature” was earned by his publication of songs and stories in the China-English dialect, by his discovery of the last refinement in vagabond lore, a tinkers’ language called Shelta, and by his vast collection of curious mixtures of speech from all parts of the world. Much of his folklore study brought into play his keen sense of drollery. But in spite of his Egyptian Sketch-Book, his Brand-New Ballads, and the sly meditations of his Flaxius, Leland may fairly be considered a humorist of only one character. Hans Breitmann, created by accident to fill a space in Graham’s Magazine in 1856 and revived for the last time in a prose and verse sketch-book of the Tyrol in 1895, remains the outstanding representative of his genius.

Opportunities for humorous studies of more varied kinds existed in plenty in Leland’s career, had he cared to make use of them. One can hardly open his entertaining Memoirs without stumbling upon hints that would have provided twenty lesser men with sufficient stock in trade. A single incident from the Gettysburg campaign must suffice for illustration:

  • There came shambling to me an odd figure. There had been some slight attempt by him to look like a soldier—he had a feather in his hat—but he carried his rifle as if after deer or racoons, and as if he were used to it. “Say, Cap!” he exclaimed, “kin you tell me where a chap could get some ammynition?” “Go to your quartermaster,” I replied. “Ain’t got no quartermaster.” “Well then to your commanding officer—to your regiment.” “Ain’t got no commanding officer nowher this side o’God, nor no regiment.… I’ll jest tell you, Cap, how it is. I live in the south line of New York State, and when I heard that the rebs had got inter Pennsylvany, forty of us held a meetin’ and ’pinted me Cap’n. So we came down here cross country, and ’rived this a’ternoon, and findin’ fightin’ goin’ on, went straight for the bush. And gettin’ cover, we shot the darndest sight of rebels you ever did see. And now all our ammynition is expended, I’ve come to town for more, for there’s some of ’em still left—who want killin’ badly.”
  • Had this unique bushwhacker but grown in Leland’s imagination as did Jost of the Pennsylvania cavalry, the original of Hans Breitmann in his military phase, we might have possessed a character more truly American and not less rich in humorous significance. But Leland was not merely a humorist, and to deplore the loss of what he left undone is at once to be ungrateful for his many services in other fields and to express the highest appreciation of what he contributed to international comedy.