If, like me, you’ve always associated the title of The Idiot with Dostoevsky and Iggy Pop* then you’ll no doubt be surprised to learn that it was first used on an illustrated satirical magazine which was published in America during the early nineteenth-century
The Idiot, or Invisible Rambler was published in Boston, Massachusetts, in 52 weekly editions between 10th January 1818 and 2nd January 1819. Although each edition was published anonymously by someone writing under the pseudonym ‘Samuel Simpleton’, a notice that appeared in the 28th August 1818 edition, stating that “Subscriptions for this paper [are] received by N. Coverly, Milk Street”, provides some indication of the likely identity of the author and / or publisher of the magazine. Nathaniel Coverly Junior was a second generation printer and publisher who operated from premises located at No. 16 Milk Street in Boston. His father had begun publishing religious tracts and political pamphlets in the late 1760s and by the 1810s the family business had broadened to include a diverse range of popular literature on subjects ranging from children’s stories to lurid accounts of notorious murders.
The Idiot has been described as the first American comic, on the grounds that it was the first illustrated publication to feature a recurring character and make use of speech bubbles. Personally, that’s not a definition that I would agree with. The term ‘comic’ implies a primarily visual medium and, apart from the woodcut caricature which appeared in the masthead of each edition, The Idiot was still entirely text-based. Nevertheless that it is true that the magazine represents an evolution in the market for graphic satire in America during this period, as caricature began to spread beyond the large single-sheet prints of the War of 1812 era.
Inspiration for the magazine undoubtedly came from William Combe and Thomas Rowlandson’s extraordinarily successful Dr Syntax series, a trilogy of illustrated poems published in London between 1809 and 1821. The poems tell the story of an accident-prone priest who gets into all manner of scrapes whilst touring England on a series of extended vacations. Coverly (or his author) copied the idea wholesale, transforming Rowlandson’s Dr Syntax into a bumbling fish-out-of-water settler named ‘Brother Jerry’ who is supposedly recounting his misadventures on the Ohio frontier. Each edition was therefore written in rhyming couplets and accompanied by an illustration (see above) of Jerry on his travels.
Unlike Combe and Rowlandson’s work, The Idiot combined the frivolous humour of its central character with the role of a local newspaper, including genuine notices of births, marriage, deaths and advertisements in each issue. This was presumably because the American market for ephemeral literature was still in its infancy in this period, and therefore incapable of supporting a weekly publication which served no practical purpose whatsoever.
The Idiot ceased publication on 2nd January 1819. A notice which appeared in the final edition stated that its proprietors had been bought out by the publisher of The Kaleidoscope, a similar weekly pamphlet which mixed light-hearted content with local news. Following the merger, The Kaleidoscope changed its title to the Boston Kaleidoscope and Literary Rambler and would remain in print for a further ten months before being brought to a halt in October 1819.
* Surely there must be some sort of a prize for shoehorning an Iggy Pop reference into an article about early nineteenth-century satirical prints?