Vagabond Adventures, by Ralph Keeler

July 4th, 2006

I stumbled across the following references to Vagabond Adventures, Ralph Keeler’s memoir of life as a minstrel player, card shark, low-life, and hobo along the Mississippi and throughout the U.S. in the 1840s and 1850s:

from Cambridge Neighbors, by William Dean Howells:

There could be no stronger contrast to him in origin, education, and character than a man who lived at the same time in Cambridge, and who produced a book which in its final fidelity to life is not unworthy to be named with Two Years Before the Mast. Ralph Keeler wrote the Vagabond Adventures which he had lived. I have it on my heart to name him in the presence of our great literary men not only because I had an affection for him, tenderer than I then knew, but because I believe his book is worthier of more remembrance than it seems to enjoy. I was reading it only the other day, and I found it delightful, and much better than I imagined when I accepted for the Atlantic the several papers which it is made up of. I am not sure but it belongs to the great literature in that fidelity to life which I have spoken of, and which the author brought himself to practise with such difficulty, and under so much stress from his editor. He really wanted to fake it at times, but he was docile at last and did it so honestly that it tells the history of his strange career in much better terms than it can be given again.

He had been, as he claimed, “a cruel uncle’s ward” in his early orphan-hood, and while yet almost a child he had run away from home, to fulfil his heart’s desire of becoming a clog-dancer in a troupe of negro minstrels. But it was first his fate to be cabin-boy and bootblack on a lake steamboat, and meet with many squalid adventures, scarcely to be matched outside of a Spanish picaresque novel. When he did become a dancer (and even a danseuse) of the sort he aspired to be, the fruition of his hopes was so little what he imagined that he was very willing to leave the Floating Palace on the Mississippi in which his troupe voyaged and exhibited, and enter the college of the Jesuit Fathers at Cape Girardeau in Missouri.

… during the Cuban insurrection of the early seventies, he accepted the invitation of a New York paper to go to Cuba as its correspondent.

“Don’t go, Keeler,” I entreated him, when he came to tell me of his intention. “They’ll garrote you down there.”

“Well,” he said, with the air of being pleasantly interested by the coincidence, as he stood on my study hearth with his feet wide apart in a fashion he had, and gayly flirted his hand in the air, “that’s what Aldrich says, and he’s agreed to write my biography, on condition that I make a last dying speech when they bring me out on the plaza to do it, ‘If I had taken the advice of my friend T. B. Aldrich, author of Marjorie Daw and Other People, I should not now be in this place.'”

He went, and he did not come back. He was not indeed garroted as his friends had promised, but he was probably assassinated on the steamer by which he sailed from Santiago, for he never arrived in Havana, and was never heard of again.

I now realize that I loved him, though I did as little to show it as men commonly do. If I am to meet somewhere else the friends who are no longer here, I should like to meet Ralph Keeler, and I would take some chances of meeting in a happy place a soul which had by no means kept itself unspotted, but which in all its consciousness of error, cheerfully trusted that “the Almighty was not going to scoop any of us.” …

He had a philosophy which he liked to impress with a vivid touch on his listener’s shoulder: “Put your finger on the present moment and enjoy it. It’s the only one you’ve got, or ever will have.”

and from My Mark Twain, also by Howells:

There is a gap in my recollections of Clemens, which I think is of a year or two, for the next thing I remember of him is meeting him at a lunch in Boston, given us by that genius of hospitality, the tragically destined Ralph Keeler, author of one of the most unjustly forgotten books, Vagabond Adventures, a true bit of picaresque autobiography.

You can read a sample of Keeler’s prose, “Three Years as a Negro Minstrel,” at the Circus Historical Society’s website.

I searched all over the Internet for Vagabond Adventures and can’t find a copy for anything less than $150, so I’ll have to wait until I have access to a well-stocked university library.

7 Responses to “Vagabond Adventures, by Ralph Keeler”

  1. Thomas Ruys Smith Says:

    I’m sure you’ve discovered this for yourself by now, but since your post on Ralph Keeler is one of the most significant pieces on this sadly neglected figure, I thought I’d let you (and others) know that his Vagabond Adventures are available through the Internet Archive: http://www.archive.org/details/vagabondadventur00keelrich. I also have a quick question: in your post, you mention that he was a card shark – do you have a reference for that suggestion? If so, I’d be very interested to know what it was. Many thanks.

  2. Bill Nelson Says:

    Laurence Hutton has a favorable and extensive review of Vagabond Adventures in his book “Curiosities of the American Stage”. Keeler was also the author of an article (for Harper’s, I think) on Owen Brown’s escape from Harper’s Ferry, which is quite interesting.
    Copies of Vagabond Adventures can be had for much less than $150 on eBay if one is patient and persistent enough. I’ve purchased four that way. Ralph Keeler was certainly a character, even a rascal, but I don’t think I’ve heard him described as a card shark.

  3. Tammy Dewese Says:

    I did a study on Ralph Keeler Sr and found Ralph Keeler Jr through that study. He was born in Keeler’s Prairie that is now called Weston Ohio. His parents sisters and brothers graves are also there. His name is on the stone even though his body is not under it. I have an original 1870 Vagabond Adventures that I just put on Ebay. In his book it talks about riding through the town and his parents buried on the hil. The hill is now the town Cemetery and they were the first to be buried there.
    Nowhere could I find anything about where he came from elsewhere, just thought you all would be interested to know my findings.

  4. Tammy Dewese Says:

    Page 227 The cattleman asked Ralph Keeler Jr.;

    “but can you play cards?”
    “No,” was my ingenuous reply.

  5. editor Says:

    Thanks for passing this along. I’m saddened to find that years after this post, Vagabond Adventures is still not available on the Internet Archive or other free repository. PDF versions of various editions can be downloaded at a price from http://www.general-books.net, though.

  6. Robert Gilyeat Says:

    Mark Twain wrote about Ralph Keeler in his Autobiography. Keeler traveled with Twain as a companion about 1867 when Twain was lecturing in small towns around Boston. Apparently Keeler also wrote a novel titled “Gloverson and His Silent Partners”, which sold at least one copy.

  7. editor Says:

    Yes, he did, and I see that it’s available now in the Internet Archive: Gloverson and His Silent Partners.

    As is Vagabond Adventures–hurray!

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