January 30, 2014

Birth of Burgess: I'll Kill you

With a name like Gelett Burgess, it shouldn't be surprising that he became a humor writer. Well, technically his first name was Frank but he dropped that name before he became an author. Born in Boston on January 30, 1866, he found life in that city a bit stifling and, after graduating from M.I.T. in 1887, moved west to San Francisco to take a job as a draftsman for a railroad company. On the west coast, Burgess became associated with a couple local newspapers before contributing to national (and international) publications. He lived overseas for a time and, eventually, he moved back to Boston.

In addition to coining the writing term "blurb," Burgess was known for a series of comical works, sometimes aimed at children, which also ranged into the territory of nonsense. His most famous work, in his lifetime and after, is a two-line bit of doggerel which came to be known as "The Purple Cow: Reflections on a Mythic Beast Who's Quite Remarkable, At Least":

I never saw a purple cow, I never hope to see one;
But I can tell you, anyhow, I'd rather see than be one!

In later publications it was broken into four lines. First published in May 1895 in a new magazine Burgess started called The Lark, the poem was surprisingly popular — especially to its author, who later resented its success. Among its avowed admirers was Theodore Roosevelt and soon Burgess became known as "the author of the Purple Cow," no matter what else he wrote. One story claims that, some 45 years later, a man in New York brought a cow dyed purple to Burgess and declared, "There, now you've seen one." Well before then, he already had it with the poem and published "Confession: and a Portrait Too, Upon a Background that I Rue" in The Lark:

Ah, yes, I wrote the "Purple Cow"—
I'm Sorry, now, I wrote it;
But I can tell you Anyhow
I'll Kill you if you Quote it!

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