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Amusing Prose Chap Books   By:

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Chiefly of Last Century




Of late years there has been a largely increasing interest on the subject of folklore in its various departments. In such respects there has been a very considerable change in the feelings and tastes of the educated middle class population of this country, from what there was several generations ago. Formerly the educated classes appeared to think that anything relating to the tastes or ideas of the common people was of very little interest. And in the course of some two hundred years back, leaving out the present time, the number of writers who thought it worth their while to deal with such topics were not much more than a dozen in number, including such men as Aubrey, Bourne, Brand, Hone, Strut, Halliwell, etc. Now, all that is changed, and it has been discovered that much of extreme interest can be learned from the superstitions, habits, beliefs, tastes, customs, ideas, amusements, and general social life of the uneducated or lower classes of previous times.

Not the least interesting or least important of the many sources from which information on these and similar matters, can be obtained, is that of the people's earliest popular literature namely, the chap book. Beginning at little after the commencement of the eighteenth century, and continuing for over a hundred years afterwards, right up to the general introduction and use of cheap magazines and cheap newspapers, the chap book was almost the only kind of reading within the reach of the poorer portion of the nation.

What adds greatly both to the interest attaching to the chap book literature and to its importance, is the fact, that these literary productions, if they may be so termed, were almost entirely written by the people themselves; that is, they were written by the people for the people. This fact intensifies the conviction that they give a true and unvarnished description of the lower orders and their ways. Then, as now, every district had its proportion of local geniuses, who had a gift above their fellows in the matter of storytelling, or some other such way. And in many instances these narratives became chap books, and were printed and reprinted times without number at the various printing establishments over the country devoted to business of that description.

With regard to this feature in chap book literature already referred to namely, that it was composed by the people for the people, and thus gives a true portraiture of many features in their social life still more may be said. It being the case that not a few of those who hawked these cheap volumes over the country were themselves the authors of some of them, and in the composition of the chaps, to a considerable extent, just reproduced circumstances, incidents, and narratives that they had met with in their wanderings over the country.

To a very marked degree was this the case in the most prominent of all the Scottish chap book writers namely, Dougal Graham. See his works, two volumes octavo, collected and edited by George MacGregor in 1883. It would appear that at an early period of Graham's peregrinations he accompanied Prince Charlie's army in 1745 46 throughout its various fortunes, pursuing his trade as a hawker of sundry articles that might be in demand by the prince's retainers. After that event was over, Graham continued the calling of hawker and chapman, at the same time becoming the author of a number of chap books. But after a while he got a step or two further on; for, finding such an immense demand for his extremely amusing, though coarse, volumes, he ultimately set up a printing press of his own, for the purpose of producing his chaps and supplying the chapmen with them, by whom they were spread broadcast over the country... Continue reading book >>

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