Monday, April 23, 2012

The Story Of Nobody, By Somebody, Illustrated By Someone

By Stephen J. Gertz

The Original Story Of O.

Ex Nihilo Nihil Fit
(From Nothing Comes Nothing).

Since Nothing is with Nothing fraught
Then Nobody must spring from naught.

"Nobody knows the trouble I've seen..."

But Nobody's not talking so we have to depend upon Something Concerning Nobody (1814), a curious satire edited by Somebody, and delightfully illustrated by Someone, for answers. Nobody has nothing to worry about in this testament to his non-existence; Nobody, it turns out, lives. It's Being and Nothingness without the annoying phenomenological ontology, cut-to-the-chase existentialism. Nobody, it turns out, is somebody and nothing to sneeze at.

Nobody's afraid of him.

Somebody, Nobody's biographer,  begins with a Dedication to the object of his essay: "I...content myself with courting Nobody's applause, whose patronage I can at all times command, heedless of public approbation," signing it, "With all due deference, Sir, Your most obsequious And very humble servant, Somebody."

Nobody at the door.

It is Nobody's curse that he has no body,
simply head, arms and legs.

Somebody did his homework.  It's a difficult task to trace the lifetime of "the renowned Mr. Nobody, whose existence was not only anterior to Adam's wearing green incomprehensibles, but even before the sun, moon, or stars  moved in the realms of endless space." With this statement, Somebody moves from existential philosophy into modern theoretical physics and the mind-bending consideration of something out of nothing, somebody out of Nobody, and chaos theory.

Somebody consulted "The Chronicles of Chaos, a volume so vast and intricate that few heads can even think upon the subject without becoming moon-struck; or, to speak more comprehensively, bereft of their wits." The work of Doctor Dennis O'Dunderum, Doctor Brady O'Blunder'em, and the compendium of Doctor Wiggins Wig-all ("published in folio, Basel edition, vol. 192, page 1379, beginning at line 106") was also studied. 

A domestic scene: Nobody at home.

"Ever since we were urchins at school we recollect the mischief that Nobody did. We find, however, by Somebody, that Nobody is more amusing than we suspected; though we fear, if we inquire for Somebody, as the author of Something about Nobody - nobody will own it. This piece, 'a trifle light as air,' will amuse in spite of criticism - not as a literary bagatelle, but as a 'Picture Book.' Nobody perhaps will know so much of the letter-press part as ourselves; nor will any body believe that Nobody goes to Paternoster Row, nor that Nobody travels.

"'On his way from the city towards the west end of the metropolis, our Nobody, instead of passing along St. Paul's Curchyard, though for to be godly, and therefore proceeded by the way of Paternoster Row, the renowned mart of literature, in order to take a peep at the liberal GENTLEMEN booksellers of the present era.'

"Winners will be laughers whether booksellers or authors, for which Nobody will blame them; and if Somebody's book 'goes off' well, buyers will laugh at Nobody" (The Critical Review, or, Annals of Literature, 1814, Article 20, p. 218).

Somebody & Nobody

Who's responsible for this work of mind-warping whimsy? Who is the Somebody behind Nobody?

William Henry Ireland (1775 - 1835)  is the pseudonymous Somebody. He is known as a poet, writer of gothic novels, and histories. But his primary claim to fame is as the Thomas J. Wise of his time.

"Perhaps the most brazen literary forgeries of all were those of William Henry Ireland. William Henry Ireland was born in London in 1777, the son of Samuel Ireland, a self-taught artist who had achieved considerable commercial success with a series of illustrated travel books. Samuel Ireland also fancied himself an antiquarian. He collected books and artwork and had an enthusiasm for William Shakespeare which bordered on idolatry. His devotion was such that he read nightly to his family from the works of Shakespeare and sought memorabilia and artifacts relating to the Bard. During a research trip to Stratford, for what was later published as Picturesque Views on the Upper, or Warwickshire Avon (1795), Samuel Ireland is alleged to have been duped into purchasing such fraudulent artifacts as a purse and chair formerly belonging to Shakespeare. His son William accompanied him on this trip and was able to witness firsthand his father's passion and, perhaps gullibility, towards any and all things relating to Shakespeare.

"William Henry Ireland, like his father, was an avid reader and a collector of books and antiquities. His biographers suggest he was also familiar with James Macpherson's Ossian poems and with the life and work of Thomas Chatterton. At some point, the younger Ireland apparently decided to emulate these two figures in an effort to satisfy his father's desire to obtain a document in Shakespeare's handwriting...

"In December 1794, William Henry Ireland informed his father that he had discovered a cache of old documents in the possession of a wealthy acquaintance. Among them was a deed bearing the signature of William Shakespeare which he accepted as a gift from his friend on the condition that it remain anonymous. William in turn gave it to his father who was beside himself with joy at his son's discovery. William had satisfied his father's lifelong dream to possess an actual specimen of William Shakespeare's signature" (William Henry Ireland and the Shakespeare Fabrications, University of Delaware Special Collections).

Nobody scents it.

And what of the anonymous artist who has so keenly captured the essence of Nobody with nothing to go on? 

George Moutard Woodward (1760?-1809), “caricaturist, son of William Woodward of Stanton Hall, Derbyshire, was born in that county about 1760. He received no artistic training, but, having much original talent, came to London, with an allowance from his father, and became a prolific and popular designer of social caricatures, much in the style of Bunbury, which were etched chiefly by Rowlandson and Isaac Cruikshank. Although their humour was generally of a very coarse and extravagant kind, they display a singular wealth of imagination and insight into character, and some are extremely entertaining. Among the best are ‘Effects of Flattery,’ ‘Effects of Hope,’ ‘Club of Quidnuncs,’ ‘Everybody in Town,’ ‘Everybody out of Town,’ and ‘Specimens of Domestic Phrensy.’ Woodward…was of dissipated and intemperate habits, spending much of his time in taverns, and died in a state of penury at the Brown Bear public-house in Bow Street, Covent Garden, in November 1809” (Oxford DNB).

Nobody arrested in his Minority.A case of arrested development.

It is ironic that the man who forged Shakespeare would make much ado about Nobody. 

In the modern world, the subject of something about Nobody was revisited by one of America's  lesser known philosophers, from the Steubenville, Ohio, school of thought.


[IRELAND, William Henry]. [WOODWARD, George Moutard, illustrator].  Something Concerning Nobody. Edited by Somebody. Embellished with Fourteen Characteristic Etchings. London: Printed for Robert Scholey, 1814.

First edition. Octavo (7 3/8 x 4 7/8 in; 188 x 125mm) . xv, 191 pp. Fourteen hand-colored engraved plates.

Regarding authorship, see British Museum N&Q, 4th ser., VII, 474.

Images courtesy of David Brass Rare Books, with our thanks.


  1. Beyond belief by anybody.

  2. 1) The book clearly draws some inspiration from Woodward's Nobody character, but it might be a stretch to attribute the etchings to him given that the portrayal of the figure in the book differs significantly from the originals and given that Woodward died five years before the book was published.
    2) The imaginative Nobody conceit had an earlier expression in the1606 Elizabethan play "No-body, and some-body."


Subscribe to BOOKTRYST by Email