Ethan Spike of the imaginary town of Hornby, Maine, was the literary creation of Matthew Franklin Whittier (1828-1883), a seldom remembered brother of the nationally celebrated poet, John Greenleaf Whittier (1807-1892). Long lost in various newspapers printed between 1846 and 1879, Spike’s articles have been carefully retrieved by the ever-resourceful Maine historian Larry Glatz in a book published by the Museums of the Bethel Historical Society.

At first I believed that my ignorance of Spike/Whittier was a substantial gap in my knowledge of Down East literature, but when State Historian Earle G. Shettleworth, Jr., professed the same and when Peter M. Robinson’s wonderful omnium gatherum of American humorists, “The Dance of the Comedians” (2010) failed to even footnote our man, it became clear that even in his lifetime “Spike” was hardly a household name. Still, despite his mutilation of the English language, he did have a following, spoke for or about a segment of society, and deserved to be remembered with the likes of Maine’s Seba Smith, Charles Farrar Brown and Billy Nye, though admittedly, the latter all published books in their lifetimes.

Still, I am not sure how to phrase it: Reading “Diggio, Haybis Korpus & E Plewrisy Unicorn!” is a bit like biting into a fully quilled porcupine sandwich or finding a thorny but meaningful portal into the politics of our region before the 1880s. A fair sample of Spike speak can be found in a skit on the California gold fever as printed in the Weekly Chronotype on February 8, 1849:

“We is all bit here! The Kallyforny fever is broke out all over, an rages paowerfully-hydrofoby, fluinzy, or chin-cough is nothin to it. Kernel Peabody is gone crazy as a coot, and elder Jinkins preaches every Sabberday about the gold of Ofer, and the pavements of the new Jerewsalum-Father’s offered the steers, two shotes, the old hoss and half a dozen hens at less than half-price, and he swears if he can raise the money, he’ll strike aout for the goold diggings, short meter. Mother’s eenjest worried to deth about it and has had father bled three times, and has a mustard poltis on his feet every night, hopin to draw the notion out of him. But he keeps getting no better very fast, and raves about Sacrymenters, Fransiskers, Sangewans, Boony visters, like all possest.”

Forced spelling, sometimes “doing” sometimes “doin,” and broken rules assail the poor reader from every vantage. Additionally historian Glatz offers several warnings, such as: “The stories in this book were written from the perspective of a character who is a reprehensible bigot. As such, they contain many instances of highly inflammatory racist language which have not been altered. The intended audience of this book is adult readers with an interest in nineteenth-century politics, events, and social attitudes.”

It should be noted that Editor Glatz has provided copious and well-considered footnotes that explain the context of even the most obscure statements about people, events and language. This reviewer had no idea for example that “bulldozing” in Reconstruction times meant “the use of force applied by white southerners to potential voters being equivalent to the force applied from a bullwhip to oxen when clearing fields.”

Glatz suggest that: “If Whittier had a skill, it was as a portrayer, not a persuader. As a result, his works can not be plumbed for sophisticated insights into the philosophies or motivations of his contemporaries. They may, however, allow modern readers an opportunity to see Spike as the political bogeyman that the Northeastern Whigs (and later Republicans) most feared….at the same time, since Whittier embellished his sketches with images specific to Maine that he knew so well, the works provide fascinating details of contemporary life which are difficult to find in general histories.”

Therefore, readers who are interested in specific subjects including the Gold Rush, Abolition, Reconstruction and the opinions of Know-Nothings or in individuals such as James G. Blaine, Zachary Taylor, Louisa May Alcott, Israel Washburn, Jr. and politician Shep Cary, will be rewarded by a handsome set of footnotes, a first-rate index, illustrations, a list of published works by Whittier and much more. Though not everyone’s cup of tea, if you are willing to go slow, pull out a few quills and think about it, you’ll find fascinating material here. “Diggio, Haybis Korpus & E Plewrisy Unicorn!” is a very scholarly yet overall fun book.

William David Barry is a local historian who has authored/co-authored seven books, including “Maine: The Wilder Side of New England” and “Deering: A Social and Architectural History.” Now writing a history of the Maine Historical Society, he lives in Portland with his wife, Debra, and their cat, Nadine.

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