Thursday, April 14, 2016

Melville's "Old Zack" Anecdotes, in Yankee Doodle and some newspapers

In the summer of 1847, Herman Melville wrote anonymously for Yankee Doodle, the New York humor magazine then edited by his friend Cornelius Mathews. Melville's best and best-known contribution to Yankee Doodle was the mock-journalistic series on Zachary Taylor at war called "Authentic Anecdotes of 'Old Zack.'" As documented in textual notes to "Authentic Anecdotes" in the Northwestern-Newberry edition of Piazza Tales and Other Prose Pieces, the New York Evening Post reprinted Anecdotes I and II on Friday, July 23, 1847; and part of Anecdote IV on Tuesday, August 17, 1847. Some of Melville's "Anecdotes" appeared also in other newspapers.

Melville's first "Old Zack" anecdote was reprinted from Yankee Doodle in the Lowell Daily Courier, Saturday, July 24, 1847.

Lowell Daily Courier  - July 24, 1847
Found at Fulton History
The Natchez Mississippi Free Trader, August 18, 1847 gave Anecdotes I and II from Yankee Doodle (via the New York Evening Post, as evidenced by the editorial preface copied verbatim from the New York paper).

Found on

And on Wednesday, September 1, 1847 the Edgefield [South Carolina] Advertiser reprinted Anecdote II, crediting Yankee Doodle.

Found on

Below, the first two of Melville's "Authentic Anecdotes," transcribed from the digitized volume of Yankee Doodle at Google Books.


It is well known that upon the battle field the hero of Palo Alto is as cool as a Roman Punch. His surprising self-collectedness and imperturbability in times of the greatest peril, was never more forcibly shown than in a little circumstance at Buena Vista. A Mexican mortar being in full play upon the front of the American columns, a large shell with the burning fusee fizzing at the aperture weighing hard on 200 cwt., fell directly at the feet of old Zack, who, with his characteristic contempt of danger, was sitting on his horse upon a conspicuous knoll and was surrounded by several of his staff. Thinking it altogether fool-hardy and superogatory to stand still and be blown to pieces, the officers betrayed no delicacy in instantly galloping out of harm's way. But old ZACK moved not a peg. “ Don’t be alarmed, gentlemen," he observed quietly, shifting his attitude by throwing the other leg on the neck of his horse—“don’t be alarmed—them 'are chaps don‘t bust always. What will you wager now, Major BLISS, that the fusee doesn’t go out afore harm’s done?"* While the Major at a good distance leveled his long spy glass at the globular apparition, the old hero calmly took out his spectacles, polished their glasses by rubbing them gently against his thigh—clapped them on his nose—descended, and approaching the shell, bent over and closely scrutinized the fusee. It had just burnt to within a hair's breadth of the inflammable bowels of the shell—and old ZACK taking it between his fore finger and thumb, drew forth the fusee and waving it towards his aghast officers, quietly observed that if any of them had a cigar to smoke he could supply them with a light.
P. S. to Anecdote, No. I.—Mr. BARNUM happening to drop in when we opened our communications from our correspondent, we read him the above. He immediately seized pen and ink and wrote to a military acquaintance of his in the army, to institute a diligent search after the above mentioned shell—pack up carefully in cotton and send it on for his Museum with all possible despatch. Thinking, however, that the search might not prove effectual, Mr. BARNUM has given orders for a shell of the proper dimensions to be cast at one of the foundries up town. We feel confident, however, in stating that the latter will not be exhibited for the genuine article, unless the genuine article fails to come to hand.
* In all cases we give the old man‘s very words. If they show a want of early attendance at the Grammar School, it must be borne in mind that old ZACK never took a college diploma—was cradled in the backwood camp—and rather glories in the simplicity and unostentation of his speech. “Describe me. Sir," said he to our correspondent,—“describe me, Sir, as I am—no polsyllables—no stuff—it's time they should know me in my true light."


The Cincinnatus-like simplicity and unaffectedness of old ZACK's habits have frequently been celebrated. But it is not commonly known, perhaps, that he generally does his own washing. Of a pleasant evening, after the war-like toils of the day are closed, the old hero may be seen at the opening of his tent, sitting plump on the ground with a camp-kettle between his legs—and with shirt sleeves rolled up, creating a loud splashing of his garments in the suds. The old General by the way, wholly excludes hard soap as an unsoldier-like luxury, and uses nothing but the soft; a barrel of which furnishes part of his tent furniture.
The old hero, however, on account of his eye sight, is not very nimble with the needle. Nevertheless, he insists upon doing his own mending, and particularly prides himself upon the neatness and expedition with which he puts a new seat in his ample pants. These nether garments, of course, require frequent repairs, owing to the constant practice, and the habit the old hero has of violently slapping his person when
excited. At Buena Vista his being a long time in the saddle, united to the ire-provoking and dastardly conduct of the Illinois regiments, came near entirely rending them in pieces and it was late that night before the General retired, as he always makes it a principle not to permit his basket of new clothes to accumulate.
At Monterey, when the deputies from Gen. Ampudia first ushered the old hero at his quarters, they found him sitting cross-legged upon a gun carriage and earnestly engaged in letting out the seams of his coat—a proceeding necessitated by his increasing bulkiness.
--Yankee Doodle via Google Books - Authentic Anecdotes of "Old Zack"
This 1847 volume of Yankee Doodle with Melville's Authentic Anecdotes of Old Zack is also available courtesy of HathiTrust Digital Libary.
The great Walter Blair checked it out at the University of Chicago.

Dates for Melville's unsigned Yankee Doodle sketches in the "Old Zack" series are listed below, with links to digitized pages or online texts where I can find them:

"Authentic Anecdotes of 'Old Zack'" in Yankee Doodle vol. 2 (1847)

The pioneering study is by Luther Stearns Mansfield, Melville's Comic Articles on Zachary Taylor.

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