Subjective Ramblings and Peripheral Thoughts from the Edges of a Comics Studies Project
Journey to the Gold Diggins by Jeremiah Saddlebags is an oblong, 63-page album first published in 1849. It tells the story of the eponymous Jeremiah Saddlebags, an urban Northern dandy and “man of fashion,” who, looking for a way to invest an inheritance, sets out toward California “by way of the Horn” (as in, by ship past Cape Horn at the southern tip of South America). Informed by the news and overheard snippets, he readies himself by packing and shaving his head (to avoid scalping) and boards a ship.
After landing at Chagres, then an important port on the Caribbean face of the isthmus of Panama (thus seemingly abandoning the plan to journey “by way of the Horn”), he travels for a spell by a “novel mode of conveyance” – on the back of a grotesquely caricatured “native.” On the next page, we find him fighting an alligator, which decamps between pages into a river with poor Jeremiah on its back. Straddling the alligator, Jeremiah is about to be captured by a new group of grotesque “natives,” but he avoids scalping by throwing his wig into the river and escapes capture by stealing the “natives'” boat as they jump in the water after the hair piece. Jeremiah’s journey continues by mule, over mountains, and into the village of still more “natives,” who take him in for the night. Taking his leave, he arrives at Panama where he boards another ship, bound for California.
En route, the ship is taken over by pirates and Jeremiah is sentenced to walk the plank, but he convinces them instead to let him join their ranks. The pirates, however, are soon overtaken by a navy ship and Jeremiah is captured again. Arriving in San Francisco, he is about to be hanged when a friend recognizes and rescues him. Finally, safe and free, he takes in the then-rapidly growing but still rugged San Francisco, and finds it wanting:
Despite his disappointment with the city, Jeremiah introduces himself to the other gold diggers, shares a drink, demands satisfaction when he is insulted (much to his compatriots’ dismay), and sets out to work the land in search of gold. As luck would have it, he finds a lump sizably larger than a full-grown man. Less luckily, his friends discover his find and attack him. Jeremiah flees and leaves the others to fight it out amongst themselves. When he returns, they are all dead, and he reclaims his giant lump, only to soon gamble it away. Catching another break, he manages to win some gold in a game and sets out for home.
The trip is arduous, however, and Jeremiah succumbs to fatigue. After a few more small misadventures, he again falls into “native” hands, but his life is spared on the condition that he become one of them. He does so, but flees at the first opportunity. Looking by this time like a “native” himself, however, he is pursued upon his return by the inhabitants of his own hometown, being spared only when his beloved recognizes him. His trip, it turns out, has been largely in vain, as a banker informs him that his gold is of no value; Jeremiah was one of the masses who did not get any “gold other than that of experience,” as art historian William Murrell put it in 1933 (A History of American Graphic Humor, 174). Thus the story ends, with Jeremiah recounting his adventures to his “lady-love.”
In their passing mentions of Jeremiah Saddlebags, both David Kunzle (Father of the Comic Strip, 175) and Jean-Paul Gabilliet (Of Comics and Men, 4) are careful to note the similarities between the album and Rodolphe Töpffer’s work, which has been touched upon in several earlier posts. The principal similarity is that, like the American-published Obadiah Oldbuck, Jeremiah Saddlebags is choppily told, but no doubt a sequential art narrative in which panel follows panel and page follows page. It is, then, another early “comic book” (or, again, anachronistically, “graphic novel”). Indeed, illustrated as it was by brothers J. A. and D. F. Read, and published by Cincinnati publishing house U. P. James and in New York by Stringer & Townsend, Jeremiah Saddlebags is the first known American-made, original comics publication.
The album’s format, oblong (14 x 23 cm or ca. 5 1/2′ x 9′) with the strips printed horizontally, is also the same as the Wilson edition of Obadiah available at the Dartmouth College Library, which in turn harks back to Töpffer in Europe. If this last detail was not enough to suggest that Jeremiah Saddlebags was inspired by the American plagiarism of Töpffer’s work, other similarities inescapably present themselves. The graphic style of the latter album is similar to that of Obadiah, albeit somewhat “dirtier.” And both stories share the same semi-picaresque generic properties, introducing a roguish character involved in an increasingly absurd series of misadventures. As Kunzle remarks, many details in Jeremiah are also familiar from Obadiah, Töpffer’s French-language original Vieux Bois, and other Töpffer works: “violent emotions culminating in a tapage diurne [roughly, daytime disturbance], a pars pro toto scene of kicking out from Albert, a comic dog perched on a mast, a ship taken by pirates, whom the hero is forced to join, before being retaken.” (Father of the Comic Strip, 175.)
Some of these examples might be Kunzle reading into the text, since it is impossible to say whether or not the Reads had ever read any of Töpffer’s French-language-only works, but his “tapage diurne” example, referencing the fact that both Obadiah and Jeremiah find themselves in trouble with neighbors because they loudly express joy in the confines of their own rooms, is difficult to dismiss. As is the similar visual and gestural language of emotion in both more generally. And Jeremiah’s escape from prison undoubtedly resembles Obadiah’s. It would be surprising indeed if Jeremiah Saddlebags in these instances was not directly inspired by the Töpffer plagiarism. At the very least, it appears certain that the album as a whole was inspired by it.
But Jeremiah Saddlebags is very much a product of its time and place. The year before it was published, 1848, marked the beginning of the big California “gold rush” that led to depopulation of other areas and, to borrow Murrell’s formulation, “a journey as ill-considered as was the Children’s Crusade” (174), undertaken by some 90,000 Americans. The urban dandy trying, and failing, to make it in the gold-strewn hills and valleys of California was a much-returned to figure in those days. Like so much of this type of popular culture, the album’s humor largely stems from misunderstandings and the stereotyped ill-fittedness of Eastern urbanites in the rugged West. Thus, when Jeremiah is convinced that there is gold to be found in California and begins to collect the necessary tools and materials for the frontier expedition, the first thing he buys is a baby cradle, because he hears that cradles are used for washing gold. After having readied himself, he sets out with a full load, in a picture reminiscent of other humorous drawings and caricatures of well-dressed and clearly ill-prepared middle class Eastern men heading out West to strike rich (see images above).
The album’s satire of the would-be gold digger, in which the comfortable world of the Easterner is turned upside down, is echoed narratively by Jermiah’s itinerary; his journey is itself a reversal of that undertaken by most, who instead wound up going West over land and East via Panama. That this route is dreamed up by Jeremiah after his own map study, and decided to be the best option, underscores his own incompetence in these matters. Jeremiah’s characterization makes him different from Obadiah who, in the nostalgic 1898 piece cited in the Oldbuck post, was acknowledged as an erstwhile resident of the Alps: “Translated into ‘Mr. Obadiah Oldbuck,’ the central figure in the Swiss idyl was as much at home with the boys of the Maine seacoast as he was among the lakes and mountain of his native land.” He was, in a sense, universal. Conversely, Jeremiah, who was not at home in the lakes and rivers of his own country or its neighboring lands, was a pretty typical, if not trendsetting [see below], late-1840s American creation.
Jeremiah Saddlebags did acquire some fame in his native land and, like Obadiah Oldbuck, if perhaps less so, the album did remain for a long time in living memory to some degree. To be sure, mentions of Jeremiah’s exploits are far fewer than of Obadiah’s, but he nonetheless appears as a figure of interest long before contemporary comics scholars “found” him. A Google Books search suggests that U. P. James issued a new edition in 1865. The album was added to the Library of Congress in 1869, which of course is no guarantee of immortality. But, Murrell wrote in 1933, Jeremiah Saddlebags was counted amongst the most amusing and influential American representations of the gold rush (175). The 1947 California Library Bulletin mentions it among other “cartoon and comic-book histories of the gold rush experience.” The Antiquarian Bookman noted, in 1948, that readers were looking for copies. In 1950, a full-color facsimile edition was printed (a few scanned pages can be seen here), with an introduction by literary critic and San Francisco Chronicle literary editor Joseph Henry Jackson, that is worth quoting at length:
Of the American comic books on the subject of the gold rush, the best known, although it is relatively scarce, is this Journey to the Gold Diggins […] [T]he energetic little Jeremiah Saddlebags*, the prototype–at least in the mind of the comic illustrator of the time in America–of the Argonaut who risked the hard journey to the gold fields, found that it was all a good deal more difficult than he had thought, avoided death by a hair’s-breadth time and again, and came home poorer than he went. It is the best of the American comic books on this theme. […] Jeremiah and his adventures reflect so precisely the rough-and-tumble humor of their time, and interpret so beautifully the attitude toward the gold rush which was to crystallize and become a firm part of the Great American Saga, that the Reads and their creation well deserve to be rescued–as they are here for the first time–from the shadowy realm of collectors’ and libraries’ shelves.
And, as a final example, in his 1975 book The California Gold Rush, historian John Walton Caughey mentions Jeremiah in a long list of pop culture attempts to cash in on the gold rush.
So, Jeremiah Saddlebags was, like Obadiah Oldbuck, recognized long before it was ever pulled from the shelves of recently obscure history, had the small amount of dust accumulated shaken off, and was presented as an example of American pre-Outcault comics history. If one should choose to argue that, because of this album’s American origin, it, rather than Obadiah Oldbuck, marks the starting point of American comics history proper (no more proto-comics), can one say that American comics were “born” in New York? No, I wouldn’t say so, even if the Read brothers worked out of the city. It is difficult to determine which edition came first, the New York one or the Cincinnati one. Most references to Jeremiah Saddlebags I have found only mention the one from Ohio, but comics collector and historian Robert Beerbohm dates the New York edition to June 1849, with the Cincinnati one appearing “soon after” (in the The Official Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide #38, 338). At best, it can be said from the example of Jeremiah Saddlebags and its protagonist’s dual residency that New York was part of the equation from the start, a conclusion that should surprise nobody.
Finally, in connection with what will be the main part of the project as it evolves, a word on setting: this, the first American-made comic book, was concerned not with New York, but with the trip to San Francisco and the then-widely represented experience in California of the day. Just as Jeremiah Saddlebags reminds us that comic books were not unequivocally “born” in New York, so does it remind us that neither are they concerned, then or now, only or primarily with New York, despite attempts by some to argue thus (something we will have occasion to return to many, many times over the coming weeks and months). To me, as will also be a recurring interest in the course of this project, the occurrence of New York, Ohio, and San Francisco in the history and contents of this album are an interesting foreshadowing of the century-and-a-half that would follow. As such, Jeremiah Saddlebags is a powerful testament to the mythic nature of the claimed New York–comics relationship.
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Although we have come the end of our treatment of his misadventures, we are not quite done with good ol’ Jeremiah just yet, dear reader. He will make one more appearance in our post next week, where he has the misfortune of occasioning an attempt at revisionist comics historiography, rooted in a tendentious and problematic definition of the comic book.
* An interesting, if entirely peripheral, observation: Jackson’s description of the “energetic little Jeremiah Saddlebags” echoes that of Murrell, seventeen years earlier: “The best of the lot [of graphic Gold Rush comedies] were by Englishmen,–A. H. Forrester (Alfred Crowquill), and W. R. Ryan. The Good Natured Hint about California and the Personal Adventures are much more amusing than the American efforts; but J. A. and D. F. Read in their Journey to the Gold Digging Region [sic], Cincinnati, 1849, are not far behind with their energetic little hero ‘Jeremiah Saddlebags’“. (Emphasis added.)