The Emperor's Bridge Campaign

to honor the life + advance the legacy of Emperor Norton

An Emperor Norton Essay with Legs

If you consider yourself a friend of Emperor Norton but have yet to read and absorb Joel GAzis-SAx's masterful 1997 essay, "The Madness of Joshua Norton," please do yourself and everybody else a favor. Set aside 30 or 45 minutes; find a quiet space; and read — really read — GAzis-SAx's essay. (The essay is in three parts, on three pages; the link to the page for "the Second Part" is at the bottom of the page for "the First Part," and so on.)  

You're not likely to encounter a more thoughtful or potent meditation on Emperor Norton and what he means than this.

Joel GAzis-SAx, author of the 1997 essay, "The Madness of Joshua Norton."

Joel GAzis-SAx, author of the 1997 essay, "The Madness of Joshua Norton."

Here's one of several great passages from the essay — a caveat that won't be losing its punch any time soon:

The stories people still tell about him emphasize his unpredictableness. While his proclamations betray a complex, analytical man (though still mad), Norton’s biographers (who often merely string together anecdotes — William Drury is the notable exception) make pointed efforts to make us smile at him. For some, like David Warren Ryder, he is at once the model of far-sighted tolerance and comic intolerance, a predecessor of the USENET “anti-politically correct” hero who nevertheless loves all humanity. These stories confound the search for truth about the Emperor, creating a life story for the man based mostly on jokes and other bits of folk lore. When we look at Norton, we must recall the role that journalists had in creating the myth. His proclamations were published in newspapers. Newspapermen made up some of the stories and rumors about him. A caricaturist gave him a pair of dogs which he depised in real life. Sometimes, they made him say things he had never intended. Looking back at his literary achievements — the proclamations — we sometimes suspect that a hand other than that of Joshua Norton of using the mad King for his own purposes. To this day, his champions are the puppetmasters and Norton the marionette.

Mark Twain hated those — especially “Colonel Mustard” (Arthur Evans) — who belittled Norton. Twain worked next door to Norton’s pathetic flophouse and saw the man nearly every day. Later in life, Twain hinted to others something of the torment that Joshua Norton suffered and the cruelty others showed him. Upon hearing of the Emperor’s death, Twain wrote to his editor, William Howells, suggesting that the Emperor would make a fine subject for a book. And a fit of writer’s block removed itself and Twain was able to complete two novels: Huckleberry Finn which featured a lost Dauphin and The Prince and the Pauper, a story of confused identities. Through these, he paid homage to the man he’d known.

But most who remember and love the Emperor post-mortemly, love a myth.

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