Once upon a time it was de rigueur to place silver coins upon the eyes of the dead. While this was a practical solution to keeping the corpse’s eyes from popping open, the traditional reason was so that the soul could pay Charon, the ferryman of the River Styx in Hades. Our idea of death as a skeleton in a hooded robe may come from early depictions of Charon, dressed in such a fashion.
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Charon has been described in different ways regarding his profession: some believe he must enjoy it, others believe he must resent it. Some see him as more a force of nature, not possessing human emotions at all, simply BEING The Ferryman – a physical embodiment of a purpose. He moves the souls from the land of the living to the land of the dead, is responsible for delivering them to the ultimate fate.
Then there’s the group of artists and authors who believe he is Just A Guy. He has a job to do, but he also has a life. He might make chit-chat with his passengers; he may hold strong opinions about what they did in in their time on Earth; he might tire of answering the same questions over and over and over again. He’s prone to mood swings and cynicism, but overall he’s kind. But it’s HIS river, he’s The Ferryman, it’s his pride to tend the souls on both sides and the Styx itself.
This is the style of Charon we meet in John Kendrick Bangs’ book A House-Boat on the Styx. Charon discovers a large floating clubhouse on his river, and upon investigation, learns it is the hangout of a motley crew of historically significant individuals. Being published in 1895 as a fantastic comedy, it is full of the kind of wit one would expect of writers like Wilde and Twain. Charon is asked to be the janitor (more matching our modern conception of the club caretaker/property manager than a cleaner) because of his familiarity with the locale.
In each chapter, Bangs uses Charon as his observer while he throws together a group of individuals who may or may not have met in life, but in death would surely have the most interesting conversations. In one such grouping, he gathers Shakespeare, Johnson, and Emerson, producing the following snippets:
“You can’t kill me,” said Shakespeare, shrugging his shoulders. “I know seven dozen actors in the United States who are trying to do it, but they can’t. I wish they’d try to kill a critic once in a while….I went over to Boston one night last week, and, unknown to anybody, I waylaid a fellow who was to play Hamlet that night. I drugged him, and went to the theatre and played the part myself….
“They all dismissed me with a line,” said the dramatist. “Said my conception of the part was not Shakespearian. And that’s criticism!”
“No,” said the shade of Emerson, which had strolled in while Shakespeare was talking,”that isn’t criticism; that’s Boston.”
“I wish Darwin could see you now,” the Doctor [Johnson] growled. “A Kodak picture of you would prove his arguments conclusively.”
“Rail on, O philosopher!” retorted Hamlet. “Rail on! I mind your railings not, for I the germ of an idea have got.”
“Well, go quarantine yourself,” said the Doctor. “I’d hate to have one of your idea microbes get hold of me.”
These witty exchanges are typical of the popular literature of the day. Most of you are familiar with Mark Twain, one of the most well-known humorists and satarists of that era. Snarky commentary, plays on words, and wry observations were popular fodder for publications like Harper’s and Puck (both of which can claim Bangs as an editor).
Incidentally, Bangs was an interesting guy. His father was a lawyer, and though he began his own schooling at Columbia, he dropped law after only one year of post-Bachelor work to become editor at Life magazine. Seems all the time he spent writing and editing at Columbia’s literary magazine turned him into a word junkie. After serving at several magazines, he began the lecture circuit in the early 1900s. He was a frequent guest at a small retreat in New Hampshire, where he had a reputation for pranking other guests.
If you prefer to listen, the book has been recorded in a collaborative manner over on Librivox.
There’s plenty more audible Bangs on Librivox – check out the collection here.
We’ve covered other wits here on the blog:
Cheryl covered The War Prayer by Twain (and has links to a number of others).