Documenting the American South Logo
Loading
Collections >> Library of Southern Literature >> Document Menu >> Summary

Henry Clay Lewis, 1825-1850 and Felix Octavius Carr Darley, 1822-1888
Odd Leaves from the Life of a Louisiana "Swamp Doctor." In "The Swamp Doctor's Adventures in the South-West. Containing the Whole of the Louisiana Swamp Doctor; Streaks of Squatter Life; and Far-Western Scenes; in a Series of Forty-Two Humorous Southern and Western Sketches, Descriptive of Incidents and Character. By "Madison Tensas," M.D., and "Solitaire," (John S. Robb, of St. Louis, Mo.) Author of "Swallowing Oysters Alive," etc."
Philadelphia: T. B. Peterson, [1858].

Summary

Henry Clay Lewis, a descendant of French and Italian Jews, was born June 26, 1835 in Charleston, South Carolina as the seventh child of David and Rachel Salomon Lewis. Henry lived in Charleston only four years before his father left his furniture store there and moved the family to Cincinnati, Ohio. Rachel Lewis died shortly thereafter, which marked the beginning of Henry's tumultuous childhood. Sent to live with his older married brother, Alexander, Henry found life with him unpleasant and escaped to the Ohio River at age ten. He worked odd jobs on several ships before landing in Yazoo City, Mississippi, where he was reunited with another brother named Joseph. Henry gave up the river in hopes of finally gaining an education with funds promised by Joseph; however, his brother's financial holdings were wiped out in 1837, and Henry began working in the cotton fields instead. When he turned sixteen he apprenticed with a doctor named Washington Dorey, and in 1844 he moved to Louisville, Kentucky to enter Louisville Medical College.

Upon his graduation from medical school in 1846, twenty-one-year-old Lewis relocated to Louisiana where he began practicing in the backwoods community of Madison Parish on the Tensas River. There he observed and participated in the very frontier life that he later incorporated into popular literary sketches featuring a young swamp doctor named Madison Tensas. Beginning in 1847, several of these were published under the pseudonym "Madison Tensas" in New York's Spirit of the Times. Three years later and still a bachelor, Lewis moved to the more affluent Richmond, Louisiana, where he expanded his practice and awaited the publication of his only book, Odd Leaves from the Life of a Louisiana Swamp Doctor. Reminiscent of the text's fearless physician who often braves the frontier's elements to serve his community, Henry Clay Lewis drowned on August 5, 1850 at age twenty-five, while crossing a flooded river on his way home from treating cholera patients.

There is some discrepancy over when Odd Leaves from the Life of a Louisiana Swamp Doctor was first published. The 1858 edition, published by T. B. Peterson, lists an original issue date of 1843 with the publishing firm Carey & Hart of Philadelphia. According to Lyle Wright there is also a copyrighted, unpublished edition dating to 1846. However, most sources agree that the first viable date of publication for Odd Leaves was 1850 with A. Hart of Philadelphia. Odd Leaves is a collection of twenty-two frontier sketches capturing the humor of the Old Southwest. This literary style, inaugurated by Augustus Baldwin Longstreet in Georgia Scenes (1835), is often characterized by regional dialect, coarse humor, and an unchecked violence associated with early American rural life. Autobiographical in many respects, Odd Leaves relays the story of a swamp doctor named Madison Tensas, whose nomadic childhood, medical school years, and rural Louisiana practice parallel Lewis's own upbringing and professional experience.

Each of Lewis's sketches contains its own variety of humor, ranging from farce and tall-tale hoaxes to more grotesque characterizations. In one of the collection's earlier stories, "Getting Acquainted with the Medicines," the narrator, Madison Tensas, ridicules his own ignorance by describing how his apprenticeship with a local doctor goes awry. Believing that the doctor has told him to "digest" the contents of a medicine shelf in order to experience their effects, he duly hesitates upon realizing that the first specimen is a four-gallon jug labeled "Arsenic: deadly poison." To Madison's surprise, an Indian named Old Tubba sitting on the office steps gladly volunteers to drink the solution for him. Madison turns him down, but realizes later that Old Tubba already has consumed a large quantity of the jug's contents and lies unconscious nearby. The young doctor frantically calls on several medical students to help him diagnose the case, but their flurry of illogical speculations are put to rest when the doctor returns. He pronounces Old Tubba drunk rather than dying. As Madison learns, the doctor had cleverly hidden his stash of whiskey from all save one.

The collection also includes elements of slapstick and the tall tale. Both are evident in "A Tight Race Considerin'," in which a friend's mother challenges the local preacher to a horse race. The two gallop straight into the bushes outside the meetinghouse, where they are discovered in a most compromising position. In this same humorous vein, Lewis includes a sketch titled "The Indefatigable Bear-Hunter" about a man named Mik-hoo-tah, whose hunting obsession leads him first to lose one leg and later to slay a bear by clubbing it with his new wooden replacement.

The humor of Odd Leaves turns toward the grotesque in later sketches, including "The Day of Judgment" and "Stealing a Baby." In the former, Madison and his boardinghouse roommates play a gruesome trick on their landlady in order to scare her out of her snooping habits. One evening the medical students leave wrapped in their room the face of a cadaver, and watch through the window as she once again rummages through their belongings. When she discovers the package, she hurriedly unwraps it; however, her response is to laugh and comment that little could offend or surprise her after so many years of married life. "Stealing a Baby" incorporates similarly grisly humor as Madison describes smuggling an infant cadaver from the medical school's premises so that he can study it further in his room. Unluckily, he meets a sweetheart and her father in the street, and the awkwardness of his circumstance causes him to drop the baby in front of them.

Odd Leaves contains illustrations by the renowned artist, Felix Octavius Carr Darley (1822-1888), whose drawings also appeared in the works of Washington Irving, James Fenimore Cooper, and Charles Dickens. Born in Philadelphia, Darley's career escalated when he moved to New York City in 1848. He established successful relationships with numerous publishers there, and by 1850 had been received as one of the city's artistic elite. Though he relocated to Delaware in 1859, he continued to illustrate several classic literary works of the nineteenth century.

Works Consulted: Gale, Steven H., ed., Encyclopedia of American Humorists, New York: Garland, 1988; Ljundquist, Kent, ed., Dictionary of Literary Biography: Antebellum Writers in the South, volume 248, Detroit: Gale Research, 2001; Myerson, Joel, ed., Dictionary of Literary Biography: Antebellum Writers in New York and the South, volume 3, Detroit: Gale Research, 1979; Smith, Steven E. Catherine A. Hastedt, and Donald H. Dyal, eds., Dictionary of Literary Biography: American Book and Magazine Illustrators to 1920, volume 188, Detroit: Gale Research, 1998; Wright, Lyle H. American Fiction, 1774-1850, 2nd rev. ed, Los Angeles: Anderson, Ritchie, and Simon, 1969: 219.

Armistead Lemon

Document menu