March 6, 2014

My Kind of Town: "The Autobiography of Joseph Jefferson" by Joseph Jefferson

My Kind of Town: A CCLaP essay series

Part of living in Chicago, or any major city, is escaping the hustle and bustle as often as you can. Which is the reason that CCLaP's founder Jason Pettus and I--as Jason has written about before--have made a hobby of traveling into the suburbs for library book sales. Ostensibly, Jason is building a fledgling business selling rare and collectible books, and I am trying to build my collection, but the joy of these trips is the small breaks they afford from the cramped swarm of city life. Those little breaks--and the thrill of the hunt--is what keeps me heading out to places like Des Moines, Green Bay, Oak Park, Normal, and St. Louis almost every weekend. And it's why I was in Glencoe, Illinois last weekend, where I picked up a book called The Autobiography of Joseph Jefferson, which was published in the year 1890, by the DeVinne Press, an imprint of the New York City's Century Company.

Jason is more of a Victoriana enthusiast than myself, but occasionally I'll see a very old book that I just can't pass up. The Autobiography of Joseph Jefferson proved to be one of them. I bought the book without knowing who Joseph Jefferson was, but it's true that the book's presentation could best be described as theatrical. It's printed on thick paper that's held it's ink very well for 125 years with little to no foxing, and it's bound in white leather with gold inlays. It features a pronounced deckle edge, and a top edge gold gilt. It's quite a handsome volume. In the front of the book, there's a gift inscription from Christmas 1898. I always enjoy seeing a gift inscription in a book that's more than 100 years old.

Only after bringing the book home and doing little research did I realize that The Autobiography of Joseph Jefferson is the autobiography of the stage actor, namesake of the Joseph Jefferson Awards, or Jeff Awards, which are given annually for excellence in Chicago Theater.

Jefferson has quite the biography. He arrived in Chicago in 1838, at the age of nine years old. Both of Jefferson's parents were actors, and they were part of Chicago's first professional theater company. Chicago had been incorporated only a year earlier. At this time, Native American tribes still freely roamed the Great Plains. In the South, slaves were still almost a quarter century away from freedom. Chicago was experiencing its first period of wild growth. An anecdote that speaks to the region's tininess in 1838 is that when Joseph Jefferson's parents' needed legal representation to help them acquire licenses for their theater company, the attorney they found to represent them was none other than a young Abraham Lincoln. Jefferson writes that Lincoln was "very popular in Springfield, and was honored and beloved by all who knew him." Lincoln was also a skilled litigator, at least based on the anecdote Jefferson shares, in which Lincoln keeps the council "in a roar of laughter" and ultimately prevails in saving the day, and Jefferson's parents' theater, by getting an exorbitant tax lifted and allowing their licenses to take effect.

Jefferson is also thought to be the earliest born American to appear on film. He starred in several short silent films in the 1890's, all of which featured the character Rip Van Winkle. By then, Jefferson was an old man and had been playing Rip Van Winkle on stage for decades all over the United States and Europe. The part made made him famous, and The Autobiography is mostly a memoir of that fame and all the places it took him. It's a fascinating read, both as a portrait of fame in the nineteenth century, and as window into an actor's life before the advent of cinema. Such a life involved a lot of time-consuming traveling. Audiences were as far-flung as they are today, and seemingly as desirous of entertainment, but there were no highways or automobiles. In 1830, there were 75 miles of railroad track in the United States.

The life of an actor in the 1830's is such that when Jefferson's father senses that there's a willing audience in Chicago, he uproots his family and begins an uncertain journey that takes weeks to complete. Jefferson narrates: "In the year 1838, the new town of Chicago had just turned from an Indian village to a thriving little place, and my uncle had written to my father, urging him to join in the management of a new theater which was then being built there." His father "had scarcely finished the letter when he declared our fortunes were made." The family sets off for Chicago from Albany, New York. They stop in Schenectady, they act for a few nights with a local theater company. Many members of the Schenectady players decide to join the westward expedition to Chicago, since they hadn't received a salary for their acting in Schenectady for quite some time.

The company travels part of the way "in a fast-sailing packet-boat on the Erie Cana,l" with an understanding between the captain and Jefferson's father that they will stop along the way in Utica and Syracuse, where they will give "a theatrical entertainment in each place" and "turn over the receipts in payment." All goes according to plan in Utica, but in Syracuse the theater patrons aren't dedicated enough to brave the torrential rain, so they end up ten dollars or so in arrears. Jefferson's mother negotiates an agreement that young Joseph himself, then a boy of eight years old, "should sing some comic songs for the captain, and so ransom the rest of the actors." In this way, we see the young performer come into his own.

When the company reaches Buffalo, they board a steamer to cross the Great Lakes. On the boat, Jefferson writes, "Indians would paddle up to us in their canoes offering their beadwork and moccasins." As the boat crosses lake Huron, Jefferson reflects: "I stood there as a boy, skimming flat stones over the surface of the water, and now as I write in the autumn of my life these once quiet shores are covered with busy cities; the furnaces glow with melted iron, the locomotive screams and whistles along the road where once the ox-teams used to carry the mail."

Crossing Lake Michigan, one night "a light is espied in the distance, then another, then another, and then many more dance and reflect themselves in the water." They've arrived. It's too late to go ashore, so they drop anchor. "At sunrise," Jefferson narrates, "we are all on deck looking at the haven of our destination, and there in the morning light, on the shores of Lake Michigan, stands the little town of Chicago, containing two-thousand inhabitants." Even in 1838, Chicago is a busy town, with "people hurrying to and fro, frame buildings going up, board sidewalks going down, new hotels, new churches, new theaters, everything new."

Alas, the life of an actor in the nineteenth century isn't about staying in one place, and almost as soon as the Jeffersons have arrived in Chicago, they've moved on, first to Springfield, then to Memphis, Baton Rouge, and New Orleans. Within two-hundred pages, Joseph Jefferson has found his part of a lifetime and embarked on his second whirlwind European tour.

If you're lucky enough to get your hands on a copy, The Autobiography of Joseph Jefferson is well worth the read, both as an acting memoir, an early look at life in Chicago, and a breezy, engaging Victorian entertainment.

Filed by Travis Fortney at 12:54 PM, March 6, 2014. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Nonfiction | Reviews | Travis Fortney |