Gelett Burgess self-portrait. Tiled image in background is his famous Purple Cow.


Born: 1866 : : : Died: 1951
Job Description: Poet and cartoonist
Worked in: Magazines and books
Noted for: Purple Cow, Goops and other works
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The usual blurb accompanying Gelett Burgess's name is "American humorist". But he provided his own illustrations for his prolific comic verse and occasional essays, in a fluid, dynamic and highly …

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… distinctive style. That makes him a cartoonist in our book, and therefore fit fodder for Don Markstein's Toonopedia™.

The word "blurb", by the way, was invented by Burgess in 1907, when he attributed the effusively complimentary jacket copy of one of his books to a Miss Belinda Blurb. Ever since then, descriptive phrases or paragraphs about literary works, intended to make people want to read them, have been called "blurbs". Nor is that his only permanent contribution to American language and culture. He also penned the immortal lines, "I never saw a purple cow, I never hope to see one; But I can tell you, anyhow, I'd rather see than be one."

Frank Gelett Burgess was born Jan. 30, 1866, in Boston, MA. He made an early mark on the world by carving his initials, in the form of a monogram based on the Phoenician alphabet, near the top of every church steeple in the city. At 15, he took advantage of a practice of The Boston Transcript, of printing hard-to-find poems for readers who ask for them, by having a friend write and ask them to locate one of Burgess's own writings. When the paper couldn't find the work (or, for that matter, anyone who'd ever heard of it), Burgess graciously supplied a copy — and that's how he first got into print.

Like Rube Goldberg a generation later, Burgess culminated his formal education with a degree in engineering. He then served as instructor in topographical drawing at the University of California at Berkeley until an unfortunate incident in 1894, involving the deliberate toppling of a statue that he considered an eyesore. Tho the landscape's rearrangement was alleged (by Burgess) to have been cheered by students, the school's administration took a dimmer view, and he abruptly found himself unemployed. That's when he veered onto the career path that led to lasting fame. He later referred to his Berkeley period as one of "unseemly dignity".

In 1895, he became founding editor of The Lark, a San Francisco-based magazine devoted to humorous poetry — which, in the 1890s, meant a healthy dollop of nonsense. He contributed a steady stream of quatrains in that genre, all accompanied by his uniquely-styled cartoons, and most of which had rhyming titles. The title of his "Purple Cow" quatrain, for example, was "The Purple Cow's Projected Feast: Reflections on a Mythic Beast, Who's Quite Remarkable, at Least." (In later years, by the way, growing tired of hearing a recital of that quatrain practically every time he met someone for the first time, he composed a sequel: "Ah, yes! I wrote 'The Purple Cow' — I'm sorry, now, I wrote it! But I can tell you anyhow, I'll kill you if you quote it!")

Another lasting creation to come out of that series was "The Goop: Constructed on a Plan Beyond the Intellect of Man." Goops were boneless creatures with three eyes and no mouth, that appeared in many of his later cartoons. His gig at The Lark ended in 1897, whereupon he began concentrating mainly on book publication. 1900 was the date of one of his more famous volumes, The Goops and How to Be Them. By that time, Goops had come to be associated with less-than-perfect children.

Burgess continued writing and illustrating books, as well as numerous magazine pieces (appearing in such respected venues as Life, Truth and St. Nicholas magazine), for the rest of his long life. His written work has been anthologized many times over the years, and can still be found in collections of American humor. Sadly, however, the accompanying cartoons, which often provide counterpoint or useful illumination to the words (besides being very, very good in their own right), are rarely printed with them. He also wrote short stories in the mystery genre, but these are less well remembered. And not that it has anything to do with toons or other published material, but he also founded the San Francisco Boys Club, first of its kind in America.

Burgess died on September 18, 1951, in Carmel, CA. Today, the University of California at Berkeley is proud to claim him as one of its former instructors — but seldom if ever mentions the circumstances under which he left.


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Text ©2001-07 Donald D. Markstein. Art is in the public domain. This image has been modified. Modified version © Donald D. Markstein.