Neal's Charcoal Sketches

In the long interval, however, he was "sophisticate;" and, like the mass of mankind, took things for true because everybody says so, when perhaps this species of universal concession is rather a suspicious circumstance, and should awaken scrutiny.
—"The Moral of Goslyne Greene."

Resolve upon it that you shall think so, and you will think so,—sooner or later. Only want to think so, and the object is more than half achieved. We are very docile to ourselves, and in an internal dispute, inclination is so fertile in argument that it becomes "useless to talk."
—"Highdays and Holidays."

Glory, in the main, is a delusion. It is too often rather a concession on our part, than a merit in him to whom it is accorded.
—"The Boys who Run with the Engine."

Joseph C. Neal was one of America's earliest, and foremost, urban humorists, renowned in his day, and since has been all but forgotten. Not even an entry in Wikipedia exists for him, although an all-too-brief one exists for his wife, Alice B. Neal.

While it contains some errors, the best biographical sketch I have found online is in The Illustrated American, Volume 19, March 7, 1896 (p. 310), of which I present an excerpt:

An Old-Time Humorist
by Will M. Clemens

A SERIES of humorous descriptive articles known as "Charcoal Sketches" appeared, in 1837, in a Philadelphia newspaper. They became famous, and for years the author was noted as a leading American humorist. Joseph C. Neal, who wrote the "Charcoal Sketches," was born on the third day of February, 1807, in the town of Greenland, New Hampshire. His father had for many years been the principal of a popular academy in Philadelphia, but his health failing him he was compelled to retire to a country residence at Greenland, where, along with his other duties, he officiated as pastor in the Congregational church of the village.

When Joseph was two years old his father died, and the family soon after removed to Philadelphia, and thence to Pottsville, in the same State. Mr. Neal resided there until 1831, when he settled in Philadelphia, assuming the duties of editor of the Pennsylvanian, a journal which became very popular and conspicuous for its influence on the political character of the State. It was in the office of this journal that the elder James Gordan Bennett passed a portion of his early years in journalism.

For nearly ten years Mr. Neal devoted his talents to the Pennsylvanian, but at length, his health failing him, he went abroad in 1841, traveling in Europe and Africa for nearly two years. In 1844 he retired from the editorial chair of the Pennsylvanian, and established in the autumn of the same year a weekly literary miscellany, under the title of Neal's Saturday Gazette. His reputation as a writer secured for the Gazette an immediate and continued success.

Joseph C. Neal's humorous sketches, of that character for which he afterward became distinguished, first appeared in the Pennsylvanian under the title of "City Worthies." The sketches were reprinted and praised in hundreds of American newspapers. In 1837 he published "Charcoal Sketches, or Scenes in a Metropolis." In these sketches he drew from life a class of characters peculiar to the lower classes and disreputable haunts in large cities.

The appearance of the articles in book form was hailed with delight, and several large editions were readily disposed of. The work was also republished in London under the auspices of Charles Dickens, who took a great interest in the American humorist and his works.

In 1844 Mr. Neal issued his second book, "Peter Ploddy and Other Oddities," and soon after another and newer series of "Charcoal Sketches."1 Both of the latter-named books commanded a large and ready sale.

Neal continued to edit the Saturday Gazette until July 18, 18472, when he died suddenly, at his home in Philadelphia, of a complication of diseases. His widow published a second and revised edition of his works some years after his death.


1Actually published after his death.

2Incorrectly given in the article as July 3, 1848.


R. W. Griswold devoted some space to him in his Prose Writers of America (1847). A more recent article on his contribution to American literature was written by David E. E. Sloane of the University of New Haven.

This transcription contains the complete text of the 1865 omnibus volume of his three books of sketches, minus page numbers and captions for illustrations, which are also omitted. This scan served as a backup, and I also had occasion to refer to previous editions of the individual works, particularly the 1839 (third) edition of the original Charcoal Sketches, the 1844 edition of Peter Ploddy and Other Oddities, and the 1848 edition of Charcoal Sketches, Second Series. Obvious typographical errors were corrected, although some head-scratchers were left intact: notably, "Celestina" vs. "Seraphina" in "The Fleshy One," as well as "Peter" in "Music Mad."

So here it is: the master HTML version, the home-brew Kindle version, and the actual Amazon publication.

While bringing his writings together into one volume brings notice to some repetition on the part of the author, each of the three books contains enough redeeming material to warrant its full inclusion. As is also inevitable given the time and location of publication, there is an abundance of racist and sexist language. Nonetheless, the body of writing as a whole is worthy of study, as an entertaining and educational window (or, perhaps, opera glass) into the cultural milieu of antebellum Philadelphia.

As Ripton Rumsey says: "Bring us one of the largest kind of smallers—a tumbler full of brandy and water, without no water in it."

August 22, 2020

ffred's nearly-forgotten treasures