Harlan W. Hamilton, Author, 1902–1990


Harlan Hamilton was fond of quoting the great Samuel Johnson: “No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.” Hamilton, who had devoted his life to 18th and early 19th century writing, admired men like Johnson, who had turned out their most memorable work, stomachs growling and weariness tugging at their temples, to meet a deadline.

When Hamilton looked out over his night school class in downtown Cleveland after World War II, he saw these same kind of men, men looking to better themselves, men looking for answers. Many of them had only recently mustered out of the army and were back in school on the G.I. Bill. They were starting families or building a home in Parma—or, like young Carl Stokes, eager to take on the problems of their own society.

The summer Japan surrendered, the 45-year-old professor had been lured away from the University of Akron, where his scholarship and classroom skills had resulted in his being named Pierce Professor of English Literature and chair of the English department, to head up the department at Western Reserve University's new downtown division, Cleveland College. In July 1947, he took on additional responsibilities as dean of the college’s new school of arts and sciences.

The following summer, Hamilton, the author of a widely used textbook, Preface to Writing, and an authority on the emerging field of adult education, was sent to England and Scandinavia to study new developments in that field for WRU and the Plain Dealer. He saw in the gathering of older, highly-motivated students in an urban setting at this time in history an exciting opportunity for educators. “The knowledge which mankind has accumulated in the past has a new relevance in this environment,” he said in the press release announcing his appointment. “The very clamor of downtown Cleveland gives immediate point to the work of the classroom and makes the whole liberal program alive and meaningful. I am indeed glad to have a part in this kind of education.”

Perhaps it was his empathy that drew Hamilton to an obscure and long-maligned 18th century writer. Academia had dismissed William Combe (1742-1823) as a “hackwriter”—one who “accepted literary assignments much as drivers of hackney coaches accepted fares.” Hamilton decided to write a biography of Combe, in part to challengewhat he regarded as unfair disparagement. Even in the late 1700s, it seems, the word “hack” had carried “strong overtones of contempt for the working literary man, [as] to some extent, it still does.” Today, Hamilton pointed out, such a person would be known as a free-lance writer, journalist, columnist, editor, publicist or ghostwriter. “Combe was all of these things before the words were invented.” In fact, for nearly half a century, he had been “the most productive and best-paid hackwriter in the trade.”

What made Combe an even more fascinating character was the fact that he took elaborate measures to obscure the facts of his own biography. The son of an ironmonger, he had even managed, for a short time, to affect the life of a lord, dashing about in carriages with a retinue of servants and buying expensive clothes on credit. Even after a stint in debtor’s prison (having a harpsichord delivered to his apartments had been the last straw), he never let it be known that he wrote for money; he claimed his political pamphlets and satirical narratives, which he rarely signed, had been penned for his own entertainment, their publication the furthest thing from his mind.

“When he died in 1823,” wrote Hamilton, “all the leading journals published memorials, several of them by writers who had known him for fifteen or twenty years.” His association with The Times of London had been even longer, over 37 years—from 1803 to 1808 as its editor! Yet no one, looking back, could write his biography. “Combe had successfully covered his tracks.” Now, almost 150 years later, Harlan Hamilton was on the case.

Born in 1902 in Rantoul, Illinois, and educated at Morgan Park Academy of the University of Chicago, he had earned his bachelor’s degree from Oberlin College (1824), master’s from Columbia University (1927) and Ph.D. from Cornell (1934). one of his teachers at Columbia, Professor Ernest Hunter Wright, suggested he look into Combe. After doing his doctoral dissertation on this mysterious figure and writing a book about the more famous Samuel Johnson and the Profession of Letters, Hamilton had become interested in the crafts of writing and teaching and adult education.

Then, in 1960, with the encouragement of his friend W.  P. Jones, who led WRU’s English department for many years, Hamlton spent his sabbatical in England sniffing around the faded tracks of William Combe, detective work to which he brought all his skill and passion. (Letters passed between Combe’s friends would prove a treasure trove of information.) The result was Doctor Syntax: A Silhouette of William Combe, Esq. (1742–1823), the book that would win him the Cleveland Arts Prize in Literature in 1970.

The title was a reference to Combe’s most popular creation, a naive parson schoolmaster: “a skin-and-bone hero, a pedantic old prig, in a shovel-hat, with a pony, sketching tools and rattletraps,” who would encounter “such scrapes as travellers frequently meet with,” in a biting satire of the new aesthetic, The Tour of Doctor Syntax in Search of the Picturesque (1812). The book, which featured droll illustrations by the gifted caricaturist Thomas Rowlandson, recounted the schoolmaster’s misadventures in verse. Doctor Syntax is attacked by highwaymen, rescued by two passing damsels and charged by a bull, then mistakes a gentleman’s house for an inn, where he shares a bed with a bandit. The book was a household favorite in many countries for over a century, though the author’s name was unknown. The list of subscribers to The Tour and its two sequels included the queen.

Drawing on an array of obscure documents, Hamilton pieced together “one of the oddest [stories] in the annals of literary history”: how this beloved character, modeled on an acquaintance, had been created while Combe was doing a four-year stretch in the King’s Bench Prison. The awarding of the Arts Prize to Hamilton in 1970, the year he retired, capped a distinguished scholarly career. Never having been in it for the money, he gave a series of lecture-performances that year on the characters of Laurence Sterne, with proceeds going toward the rehabilitation of Shandy Hall, where Sterne’s masterpiece Tristram Shandy was written.

Harlan Hamilton died in 1990.

—Dennis Dooley



How a "Gentleman" Handled Prison

Although prison, like death, was said to be a great leveler, the class system was respected at the King's Bench. . . . Here as elsewhere [Combe] would insist on being treated as a gentleman, and there is evidence that he succeeded; one document explicitly names him as a Gentleman, while a prison record listing the names of eighty-nine debtors adds Esq. only to Combe's. And even at this moment of embarrassment his financial position would set him apart from the others. He had his business connections with the booksellers and probably entered prison with the understanding that he was to do hackwork there for both John Debrett and John Wright. Certainly he turned out a massive amount of translating during his imprisonment, and he may well have requested some advance payment in order to procure suitable quarters when he entered. If he found himself “chummed” with another prisoner, he would only need to pay him three shillings and a sixpence a week to vacate the room in order to have it to himself. However the matter was arranged, Combe managed to establish himself in reasonably satisfactory quarters and straightway went to work.

Several of the [local] amenities were famous in their day and are often mentioned in contemporary accounts. A public house stood just inside the entrance, one of the best outlets controlled by the Barclay Perkins Brewery. It sold porter at threepence halfpenny a pot. . . .

Other features of the Bench included a coffee-room which served meals, a wine-room catering only to the best element, and a nondescript “place where porter is allowed to be drunk”. None of these establishments sold whisky, gin, or brandy, for by a rule of court the use of spirits within the walls was prohibited, “unless medicinally”. There were, however, places in the yard well known to the prisoners where one could obtain a stronger drink merely by whistling—thus avoiding the necessity of requesting anything illegal. These were called Whistling Shops.


Combe's “escape from his cell", whenever it occurred, was no more than permission to live outside the walls but within “the Rules”, a carefully defined area surrounding the prison. He rented quarters from a Mrs Ryves at 12 Lambeth Road, which remained his address, though not always his residence, for the rest of his life. Neither he nor the other sixty or seventy prisoners living in the Rules felt compelled to abide strictly by the restriction, but they usually made their forays into London by night.

Combe's nightly violation of the Rules of the King's Bench could not but finally come to the attention of the authorities, and in June 1808 they took action. . . .

             My dear Sir, [he wrote to John Walter, the
             publisher of The Times]

It will astonish you for I am sure it has astonished myself that I am at this moment an Inhabitant of this place and that instead of the pleasure of attending you last night, I had the very great displeasure of being conducted here. I was liable to it, but having escaped for five years I thought myself safe from any inconvenience. Nor can I well devise the malice wh. has operated on the occasion for malice it must have been. . . . It was a most fortunate circumstance however that I had obtained some knowledge of Colonel Dennis or I should not have had a place to lay my head upon; and at his Apartment in the State House of this building I am at present to be found—God bless us all I say—that it should happen at the present moment is abominably vexatious. But who can controul his fate—

Your most obliged and humble Servt


—Doctor Syntax: A Silhouette of William Combe, Esq. (1742-1823) (Kent State University Press, Kent, Ohio, and Chatto & Windus, London, 1969)

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