In 1745 Godfrey Neagle, age 29, seeking distraction from the advanced stages of galloping leprosy, began writing a novel. On the first day of work—thanks to his journal, we know the exact day: Wednesday, May 12—his nose broke loose from his face, landing on the manuscript. Undeterred, he put the nose in his pocket and continued to write. Nine months later he would finish one of the most celebrated and enduring works of western literature, “The Life and Adventures of Jeremiah Cucumber, an Angler.” By general agreement, it remains one of the funniest novels ever written.
Even in an age of dormant brains and shallow thought—you are reading a newspaper and are excluded—when more people use libraries for warmth than intellectual inquiry, when more people know of a celebrity’s fungal infection than of enduring works of literature, it remains difficult to find someone unfamiliar with the bawdy story of Peg O’Plenty, the voluptuous, peg-legged “anglerette,” and Jeremiah Cucumber, a ne’er-do-well who pursues trout and Peg with equal fervor throughout the pages, finishing his quest on the last page of the novel, an ending that has amused readers for generations.
I consider the scene in chapter eight, when Peg’s wooden leg gets stuck in the mud on the banks of the Thames River, the single funniest episode ever written. Who can read of the “dansey-headed” Billy Fleshquake and his increasingly absurd ideas for extricating Peg from the mud, all while relating a tragic incident from his childhood and having an epileptic fit, without laughing? Even those with an undeveloped sense of humor—meaning those whose tastes differ from mine—cannot resist. I gave up the struggle years ago. That a penniless, starving author, suffering from leprosy, without a friend in the world save his beloved armadillo, Nacks, could write a novel of such enduring delight is one of the wonders of world literature and a testament to the human spirit.
In the library of the Crawdad Club, 201 Sanderling St., where I serve as librarian, a first edition of the book rests in a glass case. Signed by Neagle, it is one of three presentation copies known. An inferior copy sold for 1.2 million dollars in 2011. Every so often, under the pretense of caring for the book, I remove it, holding it in my hands, carefully turning the pages. For someone who loves humor, it is a nearly spiritual experience.
If you have never read the book—I am aghast, too, but such people exist—do so immediately. Turn off the television, put the phone away, scrape the moss from your brain, light your pipe, and read. If you have read it, read it again. Like all great works of human imagination, the book has grown with you and awaits rediscovery. Those who keep the book at hand, as I do, will understand. These words have become part of their being: “Oh, Peg, my Peg O’Plenty, how oft have I sought thee.”