Cross Readings

Caleb Whitefoord (1734-1810)

He was among those “most distinguished Wits of the Metropolis,” who, following Garrick’s lead in 1774, diverted themselves at the St. James’s Coffee-house by composing the epitaphs on Goldsmith which gave rise to the waspish Retaliation.

Whitefoord is credited with inventing Cross-readings, which were originally published in the Public Advertiser (1766) and re-printed in 1768 in The New Foundling Hospital for Wit.

Whitefoord’s initial proposal for “Cross Readings” of the newspapers was a relatively simple idea: there appeared in Woodfall’s Public Advertiser, a letter addressed “To the Printer,” and signed “PAPYRIUS CURSOR.” The writer of the letter lamented the barren fertility of the news sheets of his day. There was, he contended, some diversion and diversity in card-playing. But as for the papers, the unconnected occurrences and miscellaneous advertisements, the abrupt transitions from article to article, without the slightest connection between one paragraph and another–so overburdened and confused the memory that when one was questioned, it was impossible to give even a tolerable account of what one had read. The mind became a jumble of “politics, religion, picking of pockets, puffs, casualties, deaths, marriages, bankruptcies, preferments, resignations, executions, lottery-tickets, India bonds, Scotch pebbles, Canada bills, French chicken-gloves, auctioneers, and quack doctors,” of all of which, particularly as the pages contained three columns, the bewildered reader could retain little or nothing. [Incidentally, OED throws no light on the hyphenated form ‘chicken-gloves’.] Coming to the point, Papyrius Cursor explains that he has hit upon a method of making this heterogeneous mass afford, like cards, a “variety of entertainment.” He proposes to “read two columns together onwards in short, blind chance brought about the strangest connections, and frequently coupled persons and things the most heterogen[e]ous, things so opposite in their nature and qualities, that no man alive would ever have thought of joining them together.” As a matter of fact, he had been anticipated, as Mrs Piozzi noticed, commenting, ‘so there is nothing new under the sun, or the grandson, as George Selwyn said.’ A similar idea had been proposed over 50 years before in No. 49 of William Harrison’s 1711 spurious Tatler, vol. v., where the writer reads a newspaper “in a direct Line” … “without Regard to the Distinction of Columns,”–which is precisely the proposal of Papyrius.

Almost two centuries before Brion Gysin and Wm. Burroughs applied the collage method to literature (see The Third Mind and Naked Lunch), the actions of “blind chance” cited by “Papyrius Cursor” often display a notable degree of political cynicism:

This morning the Right Hon. the Speaker | was convicted of keeping a disorderly house.

The Spaniards have sunk one of our frigates in the Mediterranean | This day was published, The False Alarm

A certain Commoner will be created a Peer. | N.B.–No greater reward will be offered

John Wilkes, Esq., set out for France, | being charged with returning from transportation. To be sold to the best Bidder, | My Seat in Parliament being vacated Yesterday the new Lord Mayor was sworn in, | and afterwards toss’d and gored several Persons.

Some mock the members of the Royal Family:

Their R.H. the Dukes of York and Gloucester | were bound over to their good behaviour.

At noon her R.H. the Princess Dowager was | married to Mr. Jenkins, an eminent Taylor.

Dr Salamander will, by her Majesty’s command, undertake a voyage round | the head-dress of the present month

Several changes are talked of at Court | consisting of 9050 triple bob-majors

The clergy come in for some ribbing:

Yesterday Dr Pretymen preached at St James’s | and performed it with ease in less than sixteen minutes

Many are the result of serendipitous juxtaposition:

Wanted, to take care of an elderly gentlewoman | an active young man just come from the country

Last night a most terrible fire broke out, | and the evening concluded with the utmost Festivity.

Escaped from the New Gaol, Terence M’Dermot. | If he will return, he will be kindly received

Whitefoord was so pleased with his cross-readings that he liberally distributed among his friends specimens which he had printed on single sheets. Rainy-Day Smith had a specimen of these. In one of Whitefoord’s letters he professes to claim that his jeux d’esprit contained more than met the eye.

“I have always,” he wrote, “endeavour’d to make such changes [of Ministry] a matter of Laughter [rather] than of serious concern to the People, by turning them into horse Races, Ship News, &c, and these Pieces have generally succeeded beyond my most sanguine Expectations, altho’ they were not season’d with private Scandal or personal Abuse, of which our good neighbours of South Britain are really too fond.”

In Debrett’s New Foundling Hospital for Wit, new edition, 1784, there are several of his productions, including a letter to Woodfall “On the Errors of the Press,” of which the following may serve as a sample:

“I have known you turn a matter of hearsay, into a matter of heresy; Damon into a daemon; a delicious girl, into a delirious girl; the comic muse, into a comic mouse; a Jewish Rabbi, into a Jewish Rabbit; and when a correspondent, lamenting the corruption of the times, exclaimed ‘O Mores!’ you made him cry, ‘O Moses!'”

This apparent lack of modesty in distributing the single sheet reprints may well have been justified, for the cross-readings greatly amused the usually critical Horace Walpole and also found favour with Oliver Goldsmith and Samuel Johnson. Walpole writing to Montagu in December 1766 exclaimed:

‘Have you seen that delightful paper composed out of scraps in the newspapers? I laughed till I cried, and literally burst out so loud, that I thought Favre, who was waiting in the next room, would conclude I was in a fit – I mean the paper that says: ‘This day his Majesty will go in great state | To fifteen notorious common prostitutes.’ It is the newest piece of humour, except the Bath Guide, that I have seen of many years.”

Montagu’s response was, ‘I was as much pleased as you were at the cento of news articles.’ According to Northcote, ‘Dr Goldsmith declared in the heat of his admiration of them, it would have given him more pleasure to have been the author of them, than of all the works he had ever published of his own’ Johnson thought Whitefoord ‘singularly happy’ in hitting on the signature ‘Papyrius Cursor’, appended to his ‘ingenious and diverting cross-readings of the newspapers; it being a real name of an ancient Roman, and clearly expressive of the thing done in this lively conceit’ (June 1784) and Johnson also thought highly of Whitefoord’s essays in the periodical press even to the extent, according to the European Magazine, of rating them superior to those of Swift. It might be difficult to identify another contemporary literary production which was admired by Walpole, Goldsmith and Johnson.

Having fathered an illegitimate son, Charles, at the age of 63, at 66 Whitefoord married the child’s mother and fathered a further five children, including another Charles. The youngest was born when Whitefoord was 75, in the year before he died. A memoir in the European Magazine described Whitefoord as one of those men of ‘easy, good natured, social disposition, that … have always seemed necessary links of the great chain that binds Society together’ (European Magazine, 163).


W. G. Day

The Laurence Sterne Trust

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