Pitt panel extols virtues of author Brackenridge
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Satirist Hugh Henry Brackenridge could be described as the literary ancestor of TV comedians Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, a University of Pittsburgh professor said Friday.
Brackenridge's 18th-century novel, "Modern Chivalry," was the first literary work to be produced west of the Alleghenies.
"It is an unquestionably weird book," professor Courtney Weikle-Mills said, of the rambling, multi-volume tale of Captain John Farrago and his Irish servant, Teague O'Regan.
An assistant professor of English at Pitt, Ms. Weikle-Mills was one of three panelists who discussed the author's life, multiple careers and noteworthy, if rarely read, book. The occasion was part of Pitt's celebration of its 225th anniversary.
In addition to having an indirect link to "The Daily Show" and "The Colbert Report," Brackenridge was a founder of the Pittsburgh Academy, now the University of Pittsburgh, and a backer of The Pittsburgh Gazette. The Gazette, first published in 1786, is the direct ancestor of the modern Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
The noontime program, held in the university's Frick Fine Arts Building, drew about three dozen people. Pitt librarians and archivists also assembled a display of 18th-century books, maps and newspapers related to Brackenridge's life and era. Works on display included several early volumes of "Modern Chivalry," including one published here.
A Scottish immigrant born in 1748, Brackenridge came to Pittsburgh in 1781 when the community had a population of about 400. He already had tried multiple careers, working as a school teacher, minister, military chaplain and lawyer, Jean Ferguson Carr said. Ms. Ferguson Carr, an associate professor of English, is director of Pitt's Women's Studies Program.
Brackenridge's bachelor protagonist, Capt. Farrago, who "speaks in 20 paragraphs when one word would do," is a literary relative of Washington Irving's Ichabod Crane and Ishmael from Herman Melville's "Moby Dick," she said.
Pitt law professor Bernard Hibbitts talked about Brackenridge as a lawyer and "knight errant," seeking to right wrongs in the tradition of Miguel De Cervantes' "Don Quixote."
In their travels, Capt. Farrago and Teague meet with a variety of characters. They include both the greedy lawyer, Counsellor Grab, interested only in money, and a blind attorney who "cared more for managing a case well than for a fee," Mr. Hibbitts said, quoting from "Modern Chivalry."
Brackenridge saw a special role for the law and for attorneys in the newly created United States, writing that "a free government and the exclusion of lawyers cannot be reconciled."
Mr. Hibbitts said Brackenridge, who learned the legal trade not in law school but by clerking for another lawyer, understood the importance of mastering a subject before seeking to change it. "To reform with safety requires a perfect knowledge of the subject of reform," he wrote.
Modern ethics for lawyers center around adherence to strict codes of conduct.
Brackenridge worked at a variety of occupations, served in elective office, risked his life and reputation during the Whiskey Rebellion and ended his career as a state Supreme Court justice. He expected more from attorneys.
"For Brackenridge it was not enough to follow rules," Mr. Hibbitts said. "A good lawyer is one who fully engages in the society around him."
A painting of Hugh Henry Brackenridge by Gilbert Stuart, best known for his images of George Washington, is part of a free 225th anniversary exhibit in the Frick Fine Arts Building, 650 Schenley Drive, Oakland, called "Faces to Names." It features portraits of 19 university chancellors and two of their wives.
Art gallery hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday. Special weekend hours are 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Oct. 12, and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Oct. 13 and 14.
First Published September 29, 2012 12:00 am