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Cobb, Sylvanus, Jr.

SYLVANUS COBB, JR. (1823-1887)

† Them novelists who write today, why they hain't got the trade,
There hain't a one that knows jest how a story should be made;
Not one who understands the thing, no one who does the job,
An' not a one who slings himself like ol' Sylvanus Cobb.

Ah, ol' Sylvanus Cobb, my boy, w'en he was on the deck,
We had a story teller then of giant intellect.
The hero of a story now he don't git in no row;
No Injuns, an' no piruts, an' no villains, anyhow.

The hero of today is tame; hain't got no whiz an' whirl;
Sets still an' lets some other chap go in an' court the girl!
The novelists who write today have all mistook their job;
Not one has got the glor'us gift of ol' Sylvanus Cobb. . . .

Give me them good ol' days of guns, of snakes, an' gapin' jaws
Of wolves an' ragin' catamounts, with blood upon their paws;
Wen six-foot heroes courted girls that they had snatched away
From out a bloody bandit's clasp, an' tramped him into clay.

I wish we had some writers now who understand the job,
Some writers who can sling themselves like ol' Sylvanus Cobb!

—Sam Walter Foss, Dreams in Homespun, Boston, 1894

Sylvanus Cobb, Jr., son of Sylvanus Cobb and his wife Eunice Hale Waite, was born June 5, 1823, at Waterville, Maine, the first of nine children. Sylvanus, Sr., was a Universalist preacher and in April, 1828, he removed with his family to Maiden, Massachusetts, where he remained for ten years. Sylvanus, Jr., went to school in Maiden and in his leisure time helped with the farm work, for there were twenty acres attached to the parsonage (which, incidentally, was the birthplace of Adoniram Judson). In 1838 the family removed to Waltham, and Sylvanus, Jr., entered high school. Later, when his father became interested in the publication of The Christian Freeman, the boy entered the printing office and learned the printer's trade. In February, 1841, he enlisted in the U. S. Navy as a "ship's guard" (marine?) not as a sailor, and served for three years, mostly on Mediterranean service. He left the navy early in 1844 and resumed his position in his father's printing office, which, during his absence, had been removed to Boston.

On the 29th of June, 1845, Sylvanus, Jr., was married to Mary Jane Mead, of Waltham, a high school classmate. In May of the next year, with his brother Samuel, he left the Freeman office and started, in Boston, a paper entitled The Rechabite, devoted to "temperance, moral elevation, literature and general intelligence." For it he wrote his first story, "The Deserter." The paper lasted from May 6, 1846 until December 2, 1847, when it was disposed of to the New England Washingtonian. Cobb remained as editor of that journal for a time, then joined the staff of the Waverley Magazine.

Early in the summer of 1850 he became a regular contributor to Gleason's Flag of Our Union. When Gleason began, about a year later, the publication of his Pictorial Drawing-Room Companion, Cobb wrote for that also, and in order to avoid the too frequent appearance of the name Cobb, some of his stories appeared under the pseudonym "Austin C. Burdick." He remained with Gleason for six years and during that time contributed over two hundred short stories and thirty-six serials to his periodicals, and at the same time was writing for other publishers, such as Carpet Bag, of which Benjamin P. Shillaber was editor, Northern Light, and Know Nothing. When Ballou took over Gleason's business, Cobb continued for a time to write for the new firm. In 1852 he removed to a farm in the vicinity of Norway, Maine. As a farmer he was not a success, so he sold out in 1855 and removed to the village.

In 1856 he began to write for Robert Bonner's New York Ledger—exclusively after April 24, 1856—and received fifty dollars per week. He wrote both under his own name and as "Col. Walter B. Dunlap," and continued to write for him until his death, thirty-one years later.†(2) His first story here was "The Gun Maker of Moscow; or, Valdimir, the Monk." It was often reprinted†, for example in The Family Herald (London), July 12, 1856, and was dramatized by George Aiken and played by John Brougham in New York in 1856. In all, Cobb wrote for the Ledger 130 serials, 204 Forest Sketches, etc., 573 short stories, and 2,362 short "scraps." After making his contract with Bonner, he removed to New York, May 5, 1856, and boarded for four months, but in September went to live in Newark, N. J. On the thirteenth of June, 1857, however, he went back to Norway, Maine, and remained there for ten years. He then went to live in East Boston for about a year, while a house was being built for him in Hyde Park. He moved into his own house on February 5, 1869, and there he spent the rest of his life. His last short story for Bonner was "Jack's Romance," which was finished May 19, 1887. His last novelette, "The Smuggler of King's Cove," was written two months before his death, which took place at his home in Hyde Park, July 20, 1887. He had had several attacks of pneumonia, and a severe cold brought on the end. He was buried in Woodlawn Cemetery, Chelsea. His wife and two daughters survived him.

Besides writing, Cobb found time for temperance—and, in earlier years, anti-slavery work. He was a very active Mason, was Master of his Lodge five times, and was also a Royal Arch Mason, a Knight Templar, and a 32° Mason. A number of short sketches and three novels, "Alaric," "The Mystic Tie of the Temple," and "The Keystone" were Masonic tales. Besides his fiction, he also wrote a memoir of his father, published in 1867.

The pseudonyms(2) under which his stories were published were "Austin C. Burdick," "Amos Winslow, Jr.", "Charles Castleton" (in Flag of Our Union), "Enoch Fitzwhistler, C.C.B." (in Carpet Bag), "Symus, the Pilgrim" (in Know Nothing), and "Col. Walter B. Dunlap" (in the New York Ledger).

The only novel by Cobb reprinted by Beadle was "The Hunted Life," which appeared as No. I of the Six-penny Tales, published by the London branch, under the name "Walter B. Dunlap." The story having originally appeared in Bonner's New York Ledger as a serial, beginning September 21, 1861, it was probably unavailable for reprinting by an American publisher, consequently never appeared among Beadle's American publications.

While Sylvanus Cobb, Jr., was more particularly a novelist of the pre-Beadle type, his activities extended to the late eighteen-eighties. Like Joseph Holt Ingraham, his style was stilted and he generally used two words where one would have sufficed. Early readers, however, were staunch admirers.

REFERENCES: Ella Waite Cobb, A Memoir of Sylvanus Cobb, ]r., Boston, 1891, pp. 323 (portrait); George Waldo Browne, "Pioneers of 'Popular Literature'," Granite State Magazine, III, 1907, 54—55 (portrait). (Browne gives among Cobb's pseudonyms "Dr. J. H. Robinson" and "Dr. LeCompton Smith." He is certainly mistaken in the name Dr. Robinson, for Robinson was a real person. Smith is not given by Cobb's daughter in the Memoirs, and since the source of her information was Cobb's own diaries, kept during most of the years of his life, her information is likely to be correct.) Some data is given in Autobiography of the first forty-one Years of the Life of Sylvanus Cobb, D.D., to which is added a Memoir by his Eldest Son, Sylvanus Cobb, Jr., Boston, 1867.

American Library (London), No. 1

† Correction made as per Volume 3.


1 Ella W. Cobb, Memoir, 120-23.
2 †In a letter to me Ralph Adimari said, "Three other pseudonyms were used by Cobb according to an advertisement by Robert Bonner in the New York Sun, May 27, 1856, page I col. 2. T. Burlingame Ross, U.S.N., Arthur Remington, and William Melville.

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