His courtship and its consequences


In late 1851, Henry Wikoff was an American, a bastard, a spent-out heir, a former would-be newspaper mogul, a former theatrical impresario, and an about-to-be-fired secret agent for the British government. He was also a fortune-hunter, trying desperately to convince a woman named Jane Catherine Gamble to marry him—so desperately that when she lost interest, he kidnapped her. Although he went to jail for the crime, he managed, once free, to spin the experience into a surprise best-seller. Deceit, pistols, chloroform, sexual scandal, sexual ambiguity, manipulation of the mass media, women's rights, a racy trial transcript, inadvertently revealing quotations of Shakespeare, one of the first-ever American comic books, and an attestation of the phrase "confidence man" at least one year prior to any previous scholarly attestation of the phrase. The Wikoff-Gamble story has it all, and so I've made a short YouTube video about it, starring Kevin Spacey and Helen Mirren.

Oh, wait. No, actually, it seems that what I did was that I wrote a scholarly article about it, instead. Well, that's nearly as exciting, no? I mean, you aren't the sort of people who would click on a link to a YouTube video but avoid a scholarly article?

For the record, by the way, you're getting this at an incredible price point. A subscription to American Literary History costs $55, and a single issue of the journal $17. And you're getting it free, by virtue of the secret link to the article that the journal editors sent me. In other words, if you go direct to the ALH website and search for the article, well, first of all you won't find it, because it's not officially published yet, but even if you were to find it, you'd have to pay actual money to read it. Honestly, how often do you get to read a 36-page academic article for free? Plus, there are pictures.

Caleb Crain, "The Courtship of Henry Wikoff; or, a Spinster's Apprehensions," American Literary History Winter 2006 (not yet paginated).

Image (above): Frontispiece of The Reminiscences of an Idler by Henry Wikoff (New York: Fords, Howard & Hulbert, 1880). (my photo of my own copy of the book; feel free to reproduce)

3 thoughts on “His courtship and its consequences”

  1. This is a fascinating article, congratulations on its publication. And thanks for providing for free!

  2. Well, I was tempted to say, upon beginning, that I read your essay with a thrill of pleasure. For several pages, after all, I did. The writing was just that vigorous and clever (clever in the good sense). I thought the high point came early on, with the brilliant comparison of the New York editors to Roman gods. It would be hard for any of us to maintain the literary stride of your prelims, while still charting all the intricacies of this extended scandal. The complexities require that clarity trumps style.

    We're in your debt, however, for charting them. The story may seem a pretty silly one. But I appreciated your attention to the continuing problem of the Victorian culture of humbug. Your references to Barnum and Melville are of course spot-on, but as I read, I thought of other humbugs even more central to antebellum existence, notably spiritualism.

    And that's not all. The problem of fabrications, tall tales, and downright lies has confounded Whitman scholarship for more than a century, and we still haven't sorted everything out yet. You will already know about this from your reading of Horace Traubel's interviews; but I invite you to one day wrap your head around Whitman's dizzying poetic proposition, "All Is Truth."

    In a similar vein, I like to call Walt's friend, the Marxist journalist John Swinton, a "lyin' Commie." I relish the anarchronism of the epithet, but the truth is, wrote a fellow reporter at the Sun, Edward Page Mitchell [1852-1927], "This honorable gentleman and sincere friend of labor had what may be described as a symbolic imagination. He did not really mean to misrepresent the statistics of infant mortality occasioned by the cigar-makers' strike. He merely conceived the seven dead babies and became personally responsible for their presence in the gutters because he deemed them necessary to an understanding of the suffering he believed to exist in the East Side."

    As you suggest, part of the answer is that the humbug was a source of abiding, almost obsessive amusement for them. I guess the nearest modern-day equivalent is The National Enquirer?

  3. Thanks for this comment, Mitchell, and for the other one below. You're right, the article's only a small chapter in the history of humbug. With the spiritualists, the catch is that some of the people seem to be honestly taken with it, and others dishonestly. Howells's novel "The Undiscovered Country," for instance, plays with that ambiguity, by dropping an earnest spiritualist into a Shaker community. As for your last question, I think the Bennett spirit survives more broadly in the media, though I don't feel like naming names this morning.

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