Spoor of Desire: Selected Poems
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Friday, November 1, 2013

Big Bill Otter's Sprees and Frolics

The reader of Huckleberry Finn who thinks that the author has perhaps exaggerated the violent, semi-lawless towns with their drunks, duels, feuds, and frauds, all enacted against the violent background of chattel slavery, finds in William Otter’s autobiography History of My Own Times a putatively nonfiction depiction of much the same scene.

Little is known about why or how Otter, a plasterer by trade, happened to publish this volume in 1835. The curious thing about Otter’s narration is not his working-class perspective, but his self-concept. The subtitle promises “A Series of Events, and Musical Incidents Altogether Original.” In fact, the word “musical” here apparently means something like entertaining, and to Otter nothing was more amusing than causing pain to people and animals. He was a tavern habituĂ© and progressed from youthful adventures in which he and his crew would simply overrun a drinking spot in order to steal liquor and break things to elaborate conspiracies with fellow drinkers to play pranks which sometimes resulted in real physical harm as well as destruction of property. The entire book consists of his boastful narration of his endless “sprees” and “frolics,” mostly directed against blacks, Irish Catholics, or trusting acquaintances, though occasionally with an affluent butt such as the “dandy,” Dr. Vanpike, in whose face he contrives to piss. Otter is the sort of joker who purchases itch powder and laxatives; he tricks a man into drinking turpentine and tosses lime into a monkey’s face. He is a large man who was quite willing to have a physical confrontation. He relates a contest on which two men grab each other by the ears and then head-butt. Otter by his telling had far the hardest head.

He was particularly fond of attacking minorities. He describes ushering in Christmas by lurking outside the midnight mass to harass the Catholics when they emerged and participated in rioting against the Irish in New York City. He sent a goat up the aisle of a black church and then beat the worshippers to the ground when they emerged, noting that he spared neither sex or age. He liked to pick up extra cash by capturing escaped slaves. By his own account he caused livestock and pets to be badly injured and tortured, and killed a dog in front of its owner (whose tears inspire his laughter). He had no hesitation about stealing in small ways, though he was a hard-working tradesman as well.
Disreputable, nasty, and wicked as these activities sound, he seems to have had little trouble recruiting comrades to assist his plots. Though often the initiator, he elicited applause from his cronies what they regarded as his enterprise and wit. In middle age he was popular enough to be elected burgess (or mayor) of his town.

The story is organized by his “frolics,” with most every paragraph running until the episode has ended, some paragraphs going on for pages with great strings of paratactic, coordinated clauses. Otter’s use of slang and colloquial syntax and grammar is entertaining and his stories rapidly moving. In spite of the repetitive accumulation of similar anecdotes, the book reads smoothly; one hears the waggish tone of the raconteur. Apart from hanging out in barrooms, the author later owned one, and there can be little doubt that many of these tales found oral expression a great many times before they were written.

Literary parallels pointed out by Otter’s editor, Richard B. Scott, include George Washington Harris’ Sut Lovingood and Davy Crockett’s popular autobiography, and Scott also speculates on the political and historic implications of the book. Otter was a Jacksonian Democrat. The gentility of the rising American middle class would never tolerate his high jinks, and the Great Awakening of his day would see him simply as a lost sinner. Yet perhaps the most significant reading of the data encoded in Otter’s autobiography would focus on the unselfconscious, unrestrained ego assertion so often associated with masculinity, so high-spirited, so at home with alcohol and violence. He managed to set down upon the page sufficient information that we can almost understand Jackass films, the schoolyard bully, and the dreadful grins often evident in photos of the perpetrators of lynchings.

William Otter, Richard B. Scott ed. History of My Own Times or, the Life and Adventures of William Otter, Sen. Comprising A Series of Events, and Musical Incidents Altogether Original. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1995.

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