The Tale of the Clam   2 comments

Comoedia mollusca.
by Two Providence Boys
annotated by David Norton Stone

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To rescue from obscurity a one hundred and thirty year old illustrated poem about a talking clam by two anonymous juvenile authors is not without its perils and difficulties. Today’s reader probably knows, but it bears repeating, that attitudes about Native Americans were not what they should have been in the 1880s. Yes, the authors of the The Tale of the Clam were, by their own account, just boys (respectively seventeen and nineteen or twenty when the book was published), but that is not much of a mitigating factor to today’s reader. So hold your nose when you get to some of the more disturbing stereotypes in this story and enjoy the rest. There are only about a dozen known copies of this book still in existence, all in libraries, but the esprit de clam that animates this book merits its reintroduction to the reading public in 2013.

There are a few curious things about the cover of The Tale of the Clam. For one thing, the story is called Ye Tale of Ye Clam here, but not on the title page following, where it is indentified as The Tale of the Clam. Perhaps the publisher was trying to lend more of an old-timey charm to the book. Additionally, The Tale of the Clam appears to have been a Christmas release for its Providence publisher Tibbitts, Shaw and Company. The Christmas couplet on the cover (“E’en Christmas joys are not complete, Devoid of bivalve’s tender meat”), which is not drawn from the poem itself, suggests that the publisher was hinting the book would make a good Christmas present. There is also something suggestive of the December holiday about the use of the color red on the cover, even if the image of a clam on bended knee pleading for its life to a knife-wielding chef does not scream “peace on earth, good will to men.” The Tale of the Clam is listed in the weekly record of new publications in the January 13, 1883, issue of The Publisher’s Weekly, which described the book as “[a] comic history of clambakes, humorously illustrated.” The price was listed as “25 c.”

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The young authors of The Tale of the Clam were John Henshaw (November 4, 1865 to June 26, 1938), who perpetrated the verse, and Henry B. Dearth (1863 to February 3, 1922), who committed the illustrations. We can only speculate why they published their work anonymously as “Two Providence Boys.” Henshaw was seventeen when The Tale of the Clam was published in 1883, and his obituary in the Brown Alumni Monthly (he was a graduate of the class of 1887) offers this clue: “His grandfather, the late Rt. Rev. John P.K. Henshaw, D.D., was the first Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Rhode Island.” John’s father Daniel was also a clergyman. Perhaps this dignified clerical family did not want its name associated with an irreverent (c)lampoon of Rhode Island history. His obituary does not list The Tale of the Clam as one of Henshaw’s accomplishments, instead focusing on his accomplishments as a lawyer, businessman and “clubman.” However, the obituary states that Henshaw was a “familiar and friendly personality” in Providence. John Henshaw is buried in Swan Point Cemetery in Providence.

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Who was Henry B. Dearth and how did he know John Henshaw? Henshaw’s obituary tantalizingly quotes Henshaw as saying that he prepared for college “at a great many different places”. Maybe the boys met at one of these schools. Dearth, in any case, was less reticent about his authorship. He added his initials “HBD” to many of the drawings in The Tale of the Clam.

A sub-par scan of the Ryder and Dearth advertisement in Industries of Providence (1889), captured from the Google Books version of the text.

A sub-par scan of the Ryder and Dearth advertisement in The Industrial Advantages of Providence, R.I. (1889), captured from the Google Books version of the text.

While Henshaw remained in Rhode Island and developed into a man of substance in the local community, Henry Bradford Dearth’s life (at least as much of it as can be discovered in the historical record) had a much more dramatic and peripatetic arc, like something out of a Jack London tale. He was the son of William G. Dearth, an officer of the Rhode Island Institution for Savings, and is listed in both the 1870 and 1880 federal census as living in the home of his father in Providence. He followed up his success as an author with a roaring entry into the Providence business community as a partner in his own engraving firm, Ryder and Dearth. A description of the firm in a book called The Industrial Advantages of Providence, R.I., published in 1889, paints a glowing portrait of Dearth and his partner Ryder: “They are both young men, thoroughly masters of their business, courteous and capable, eager to satisfy, progressive, enterprising, yet wisely conservative, with whom it is a pleasure to do business.” The article further boasts that Ryder and Dearth’s photo gallery “is the only and the first one in the State that uses the electric light in the business.” All that conservative progressiveness and electric lights too! A magnificent sample of the firm’s work, an engraving of Ryder and Dearth’s various departments (Designers Room, Wood Engraving Department, the state of the art Photo Gallery), shows an enterprise teeming with activity. This advertisement may also be the only surviving example of Dearth’s artwork other than The Tale of the Clam.

Continued and well-merited success was predicted for the firm, but that does not seem to be how things turned out. Ryder and Dearth appears in Providence business directories up to 1891 (eventually expanding to two locations: 91 Westminster Street and 31 Exchange Place), but then disappears, as does Henry Dearth. From information I have located in genealogical websites, Dearth, who called himself “Harry,” became a world traveler, accumulating many books and souvenirs. He eventually settled in Havana, Cuba, where he worked as an engraver for the Bank of Havana. He married around 1907 and had four children, but appears to have often been in financial distress. He and his family eventually returned to Florida around 1920, with the help of the Red Cross, and Dearth died on February 3, 1922, of apoplexy. His death certificate incorrectly lists his birth year as 1874. His occupation was listed as “painter.” According to the records of the Woodlawn Cemetery in Tampa, Florida, Henry B. Dearth was buried in an unmarked grave in the Potter’s Field there. This is a far cry from the fine gravestone for his co-author Henshaw in Swan Point Cemetery.

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This invocation is rather grand considering what follows. The illustrations on this page do not bear Dearth’s distinctive style and may not be his.

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By this Greeting, The Two Providence Boys were clearly positioning their book to the widest possible audience and were eerily prescient in their confidence that the word “quahog” would become known worldwide. I wonder if the “rocky shoals” referred to here is a veiled reference to Rocky Point.

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Clambakes certainly were Rhode Island’s pride in the nineteenth century. At a clambake, clams are placed on hot rocks and covered with seaweed and then cotton bags to keep the steam in. Dragons were not traditionally used to cook the clams, but I’m still happy Dearth included an illustration of clams battling a dragon.

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This is my favorite page in the book, thanks to Dearth’s cartoons illustrating the “Digging of the Clam” and Henshaw’s comical exposition of the difficulty of digging up the clam. I love the timeless portrait of the Rhode Island shore, sailboats, gulls, a little piping plover, as well as the glimpse of beach fashions of 120 years ago, which were somewhat more formal than today.

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Dearth’s engraving of the scholar surrounded by clam books, including “Plato on the Clam” is good, silly fun.

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And here lies the crux of the tale. The clam learns he is about to be fried in a clamcake, and decides to “speaketh” to avoid such a fate.

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It must be pointed out that the Two Providence Boys were not stellar students of history. The historical personages mentioned in The Tale of the Clam do not align with the date 1684, which seems to have been randomly chosen. King Philip died in 1676 and peacefully “snoozled” in 1684 only in the sense that he was dead. It is best to read the poem as amusing nonsense rather than as the true story of anything, including the origin of clambakes.

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Canonicus was the peaceable sachem or chief of the Narragansett tribe, who welcomed Roger Williams to Rhode Island.

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The only thing I like about Dearth’s illustration here are the clams. I do, however, approve of Henshaw’s rhyming “sedate” with “masticate.”

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The portrait of the little clam in school here is precious.

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Dearth outdid himself with a drawing here of Canonicus being spanked by his mother, surrounded by the implements she used in doling out punishment: her hand, a shoe, a paddle, a cat o’ nine tails, a whip, and a branch! Ouch.

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The comedy on this page is the contrast between text and image. Roger Williams is described as “pious,” but he’s sitting in a tavern door smoking and drinking impiously. Even his cat is drinking.

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Accusing the Indians of swindling Roger Williams is so over the top wrong, given their generosity to him and the many general bad deals Native Americans received to induce them to sell their land.

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“Clammy handed” is an adjective that could be applied to many Rhode Islanders.

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The game of painting stones green to look like watermelons is not one to which I can find any other reference. Henshaw’s text says it was quite old, though it never had a name. We’ll have to take his word for it.

Note that Dearth’s illustration here references the Kickapoo Medicine Agency. The Kickapoo Indian Medicine Company, which marketed its patent medicines by claiming they were composed of roots and herbs from tribal recipes, opened a storeroom in a Providence hotel in the early 1880s, featuring actual Indians and a simmering pot in a teepee. It is tempting to think that John and Harry visited The Kickapoo Medicine Agency, providing a spark to their imaginations and, perhaps, Native American models for Dearth’s engravings.

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This far-fetched talk of heating the painted stones is needed to explain the origin of baking clams over hot rocks in a clambake. Roger Williams has exchanged his pilgrim hat for a soldier’s cap in Dearth’s illustration.

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This for me is the toughest page to tolerate in the book. The violence done to the Narragansetts here cannot help but summon thoughts of the Great Swamp Massacre in Rhode Island. Roger Williams is done a disservice here as well. He had great respect for the Narragansetts and his first published book was a guide to their language.

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I can’t help it. The baked clam in this illustration makes me hungry. My conscience is assuaged by the image of the sacrificed clam flying away on angel’s wings.

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Run, little clam, run.

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The clam narrating this tale thinks having his body fried in a clamcake is an ignoble way to die. I say that depends on the clamcake. Like a lyric poet of old, the clam holds a lyre in Dearth’s illustration.

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Our hero who discovered the talking clam looks much thinner and younger here at the end of the book than he did at the beginning digging the clam. He’s even a little dashing. I wonder if this is a self-portrait of Harry Dearth. Notice that the talking clam is reunited in death with his brother who was eaten by Roger Williams. Henshaw’s bishop grandfather would likely have been pleased with this ending.

“Our epic ends, the tale is done, /The clam is gobbled up.” My hope with this republication of The Tale of the Clam is that the story of The Tale of the Clam is not done and that it will find a new audience.

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Scans of an original (rebound) copy of Ye Tale of Ye Clam by Two Providence Boys are courtesy of the Rhode Island Collection of the Providence Public Library, Providence, R.I.


coversDavid Norton Stone is the author of Clamcake Summer (2012), Stuffie Summer (2013), and the forthcoming Chowder Summer. A graduate of Bishop Hendricken High School, Yale and the University of Connecticut School of Law, Stone lives in New York City and Warwick, Rhode Island, and once worked at the former Rocky Point amusement park, which made some world famous, and sorely missed, clamcakes.

2 responses to “The Tale of the Clam

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  1. Pingback: Nineteenth Century Clamcake Humor | Quahog Annex

  2. David-
    Thanks for reviving this forgotten book! Nicely done and your comments are on point. Best wishes with your forthcoming Chowder Summer and the completion of your clam-obsessed trilogy. Please let me know when it is released. -Ken Proudfoot

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