Scene: A British warship, H.M.S. Oddfish, en route from New York to Rhode Island. Time: the late fall of 1777. Characters: Captain Furnace of the Oddfish; a passenger, Captain O'Sneak of the British Army; a nameless junior officer. The three are discussing the progress of the war against the Americans. Captain Furnace laments General Burgoyne's recent surrender at Saratoga.
The Lieutenant: General Howe's taking Philadelphia is of some advantage, however.
O'Sneak: He had no business to take it.
The Lieutenant: I think, Captain O'Sneak, it is rather severe to condemn so hastily, before you know the general's reasons, intentions, or indeed any one circumstance of the campaign.
Furnace: Captain O'Sneak, Captain O'Sneak, I never will allow any degree of censure, while I have the honour very naturally to sit at the head of, or preside at, this table.
O'Sneak: Sir, I most humbly ask your pardon. I never will take that liberty again.
Furnace: Never will, Sir, you never shall. G-d strike me dead, if I allow it, by G-d.
O'Sneak: Sir, I am very sorry --
Furnace: By G-d, Sir, if you ever ape or presume to talk in that way again, I'll turn you neck and heels out of my cabin; and if you do not go quietly, I shall order my sentry to stick his bayonet in your a--; if he refuses, I shall very naturally stick my sword in his.
O'Sneak: I hope, Sir, you will never have occasion to do that. WHAT YOU HAVE just read is a fairly typical scene in a very unusual novel. Considering when it was written, one might even say an extraordinary novel. The Adventures of Jonathan Corncob was published in London in 1787, and -- let me declare my interest at once -- it finally reached this country in 1976, complete with a preface by me. It is one of fewer than a hundred 18th-century novels that even refer to the American Revolution. It is one of five written from an American point of view. It is the only comic one. It is, in fact, the Catch-22 of our Revolution -- shorter than Heller's masterpiece, much less sophisticated in terms of technique, but just as full of black humor, and really just as funny.
Jonathan Corncob, the main character and narrator -- you could hardly call him the hero -- is a Massachusetts farm boy from a Loyalist family. Soon after the book opens, he gets into a bit of trouble. He's visiting a girl he knows, Miss Desire Slawbunk, "one evening when her father and mother were gone out." In 1984, the two kids might put on a few records and dance, maybe watch some TV. In 1776 they were more apt to bundle. Bundling, a recognized courtship practice in colonial America, consisted of keeping your clothes on, but getting under a quilt together so as to stay warm, and having a nice chat and maybe a furtive hug or two. Normally the parents would be right there in the room. In many rural houses there only was one room.
Jonathan, however, takes full advantage of the fact that Desire's parents are absent. When she becomes pregnant, the town fathers give him the choice of marrying her or paying a fine of 50 pounds. Instead he runs off to New York and joins a Loyalist regiment. (This particular regiment is not at all prone to pitched battles with Washington's army. Its specialty is stealing cattle from Revolutionary sympathizers in New Jersey and Connecticut.)
Later Jonathan serves in the Royal Navy, and briefly on an American privateer. He spends several months in an American jail in Boston, and several weeks in a British naval hospital in Brooklyn, having contracted venereal disease from a Presbyterian minister's daughter in Manhattan. THIS WIDE RANGE of scenes gives the anonymous author a chance to satirize just about everybody connected with our Revolution on either side. The British naval surgeon in Brooklyn is about as skilled as Captain O'- Sneak is brave. Jonathan himself is an even bigger coward than O'Sneak. There's a scene in Boston in which the high-minded patriots decide to find a more or less innocent tea salesman guilty of disloyalty to the rebel cause, "as it was six weeks since the Bostonians had tarred and feathered anybody." The Hessian mercenaries that King George sent over spend most of their time robbing civilians, preying quite impartially on Tories and rebels. As Lieutenant Hastendudenrot says with impeccable logic to a rich American he is about to rob, "If you vas one frynd to the Koning, you vas gif me your vatch; if you vas one repel, by Got I take it." And Hastendudenrot is small potatoes compared to the army and navy suppliers on both sides. Jonathan learns that a weapons contractor who doesn't make at least 100,000 pounds for himself on the side is downright incompetent. Some things have not altogether changed.
Along with its obscenity, absurdity, high spirits and wit, the book does have a few flaws. The author was clearly an amateur. (From internal evidence, I feel pretty sure his actual occupation was that of a British naval officer, one who had done shore duty as well as sea duty in the colonies, but no one has ever identified him.) Many promising scenes remain undeveloped. The characters are nearly all one-dimensional -- which, indeed, tends to be true of absurdist comedy in general. The caricature of colonial American speech patterns is sometimes too broad. Worst of all, the book has no real ending; it simply stops.
That last flaw can be explained if not excused. The author intended to continue Jonathan's adventures in a second volume -- he says this on the last page. Had he done so, he presumably would have reached some kind of closure. One may safely assume the reason he didn't is that the first volume was almost a complete failure. Readers 200 years ago weren't ready for comedy as black as this. And certainly Americans then weren't ready to see their Revolution treated so lightly. Reviewers complained that the book was excessively bawdy.
The book suits our own time a good deal better. Bawdiness is no barrier now. Absurdism is our native tongue. If you want to match the reverent hindsight of the Revolution you encountered in school with an impudent and wildly funny contemporary view, try going on an adventure or two with Jonathan Corncob. You won't be bored. You will see 18th-century America through new eyes.
Note on availability: "The Adventures of Jonathan Corncob" is published by Godine in Boston -- in paperback for $7.95, and in hardcover for $12.95.