Saturday, March 25, 2023



Edited in Boston by Benjamin Penhallow Shillaber and Silas W. Wilder, The Carpet-Bag might be considered America's first humor magazine if you don't count Yankee Doodle. But you really should count Yankee Doodle if only because Herman Melville wrote for it in 1847--anonymously, of course. 

B. P. Shillaber
NYPL Digital Collections

Unlike SLC aka Mark Twain, Melville presumably did not contribute anything to Shillaber's comic literary journal, keeping pretty busy in Pittsfield with farming and what-not. Speaking of which, the first volume of The Carpet-Bag ventured one fun and friendly and very early mention of Moby-Dick, referenced there by its original title The Whale. 

Printed with other items of "LITERARY INTELLIGENCE," the last of three, in the Boston Carpet-Bag for October 18, 1851:

The Carpet-Bag:A Literary Journal - October 18, 1851
 "The Whale" is the name of Mr. Melville's new work, and it is likely that the critics will harpoon, lance, and cut up the said fish."

All three items of humorous "Literary Intelligence" were reprinted in the Rochester NY Daily Democrat on Friday, October 24, 1851.

Google-digitized, the rare first volume of the Carpet-Bag is held by the University of Minnesota; images accessible online via Google Books 

and courtesy of HathiTrust Digital Library


New York Evening Post - April 24, 1851

THE CARPET BAG is the title of a new weekly journal published in Boston, and which for the short period of its existence has given evidence of more than ordinary merit. One of its editors is Mr. Shillaber, whose Mrs. Partingtonisms have won for him an enviable fame as a humorist. His associate, Mr. S. W. Wilder, is a clever writer, and possesses a fine literary taste. The Carpet Bag is an amusing, cheering, and not uninstructive miscellany, and merits the patronage which will be sure to seek it out, as soon as its character becomes known. It is now five weeks old. "May it live forever."  --New York Evening Post, April 24, 1851

For more info about Benjamin Shillaber and His Carpet Bag see

Clemens, Cyril. “Benjamin Shillaber and His ‘Carpet Bag.’” The New England Quarterly, vol. 14, no. 3, 1941, pp. 519–37. JSTOR,

and the delightfully detailed treatment by Wayne C. Temple in Lincoln's Confidant: The Life of Noah Brooks, ed. Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney G. Davis (University of Illinois Press, 2019).

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  1. See chapter two in my book, Piercing the Perceptual Threshold of Herman Melville for Melville's carpet bag.

    1. Ishmael don't mind telling us he's broke, close to busted. In chapter 2 we learn a coupla old shirts and a carpet-bag to stuff them in are all he's got. With only one old carpet-bag to weigh him down, he or any world-wanderer feels more free in soul and spirit. With just one little carpet-bag under your arm you tend to feel "unencumbered" in body and mind, as Melville famously put it to Hawthorne. Ready, as Leslie Fiedler read the carpet-bag metaphor, "to dispense with all the luggage of cliches, platitudes, partial allegiances, sentimental pieties, and so forth...."

      As observed in the second chapter of "Piercing the Perceptual Threshold," Melville's ideal of the "unencumbered" tourist in Europe recalls his real-life experience of traveling light in Germany. However, the critic there appears to mistake Melville's trunk for a smaller, lighter carpet-bag. As recorded by Melville in his 1849 journal, he left his larger "portmanteau" in Brussels. Yes Melville initially wrote that he left his "carpet-bag" behind, but then corrected himself: "Having determined to travel into Germany entirely unincumbered, I left my carpet bag--or rather portmanteau at the hotel."

      That "rather" signals precision. Portmanteau, not carpet-bag. Having left his heavy portmanteau or trunk behind, Melville would need a tote bag of sorts, something to hold a nightshirt and toothbrush--and guidebook, surely, along with his journal. In Melville's time one carpet-bag under your arm still counted as enviably unencumbered, since

      "a man with a little carpet-bag is one in ten thousand. He is perhaps the most perfect type of independence extant."

      "The Philosophy of a Little Carpet-Bag." Glasgow Citizen, reprinted in Chambers's Edinburgh Journal for Saturday July 18, 1846 page 48.

    2. OK I was wrong to deny Melville's ultra-light style of travel in Europe. As confirmed elsewhere in his 1849 journal, Melville had bought a "little portmanteau" in London, specifically "for travelling on the Continent" (page 30 in the Northwestern-Newberry Edition of Melville's JOURNALS). Looks like Melville had no real carpet-bag to check, only that one little portmanteau. So Melville then traveled even lighter than Ishmael, as John M. J. Gretchko rightly points out in Chapter 2 of his comprehensive and beautifully illustrated study of MOBY-DICK as "a tale told in the stars," PIERCING THE PERCEPTUAL THRESHOLD (Falk and Bright Publishers, 2022).

    3. Nathaniel Hawthorne was duly impressed by Melville's mode of traveling light with just a carpet-bag. From Hawthorne's English Notebooks, entry for November 30, 1856:

      "He [Melville] sailed on Tuesday, leaving a trunk behind him, and taking only a carpet-bag to hold all his travelling-gear. This is the next best thing to going naked; and as he wears his beard and moustache, and so needs no dressing-case,—nothing but a toothbrush,—I do not know a more independent personage. He learned his travelling habits by drifting about, all over the South Seas, with no other clothes or equipage than a red flannel shirt and a pair of duck trousers. Yet we seldom see men of less criticisable manners than he." -- as quoted by Raymond M. Weaver in Herman Melville, Mariner and Mystic, page 337.