The Simple Jographer

Geographer or Globe-maker drawing by Oliver HerfordPeter Simple, author of The Simple Jography; or, How to Know the Earth and Why It Spins, was a character created by Oliver Herford, a British-born American humorist whose popularity peaked around the turn of the 20th century, and of whose works the Chapin Library has a substantial collection. Herford was well-known for his satirical poems, prose pieces, and drawings which appeared in such publications as Life and Ladies’ Home Journal; he was sometimes referred to (hyperbolically, no doubt) as the American Oscar Wilde. In The Simple Jography, published in 1908, Herford wrote from the perspective of the titular geographer, a well-meaning but somewhat witless devotee of the Earth’s complex and manifold mechanisms who sought to write a “jography” for the comparably simple masses.

In the book’s three depictions of Simple, the scientist is shown to be characteristically dazed and quite oblivious. A frontispiece has him seated and striking a scholarly pose, right hand on a globe, left hand stroking one cheek, his elbow placed gingerly on a book; his puffed cheeks and raised eyebrows, however, make his too-wide eyes seem bewildered, rather than deep and searching. A few pages on, in a small illustration before the brief introduction, Simple gestures scientifically over his large globe and some beakers; from page right, a vaudeville hook looms in behind him. Turn the page and Simple’s being yanked away, interrupted mid-sentence — Herford stops his introduction dead with a dash — by a comical gang of skeptics.

Herford’s cheeky disdain for his character colors a drawing of his from a decade later, held by the Chapin Library, all the more curious: a figure much like Simple, jacketed and bespectacled with dramatic hair, toils over a large globe similar to the jographer’s. In this drawing, however (whose subject’s likeness to Simple is undeniable), the geographer has no comic element. Rather, his pursed lips and subtle handling of the globe before him, which he strikes deliberately with a hammer, mark a commitment to his craft, which is apparently globe-building. Simple, in a rare and not-unpleasant show of earnestness from Herford, appears to have morphed into Serious.

Troy Sherman, Grad Art ’21