“Peter Rugg, the Missing Man” first appeared in The New England Galaxy on September 10, 1824. This “cursed traveller” tale, about a man doomed to ride forever in search of his home in Boston, evidently caused quite an impression on readers. Like the Angels of Mons or the so-called Legend of the Three Crowns of East Anglia, Peter Rugg crossed over from fiction into the status of “authentic” regional legend.
…as I stood recently on the door-step of Bennett’s hotel in Hartford, [I] heard a man say, “There goes Peter Rugg and his child! He looks wet and weary, and farther from Boston than ever.”
The author of “Peter Rugg,” William Austin, is considered a precursor to, and influence on, Nathaniel Hawthorne. Like Hawthorne, he tended to set stories in New England, often with references back to the pre-colonial period. He also shared with Hawthorne an affinity for supernaturalish tales with moralistic or didactic themes. Hawthorne even included Peter Rugg as a character in his allegorical meta-fiction “A Virtuoso’s Collection” (1842).
The story included in Evening Tales for the Winter is only half the Peter Rugg saga. Austin wrote a sequel the following year, under the name Jonathan Dunwell (who is the narrator of the first part). I consider “Further Account of Peter Rugg” an inferior story, but you can judge for yourself.
- Read both parts of the Peter Rugg saga in The Literary Papers of William Austin (1890), at the Internet Archive.
- And here’s a lovely illustrated version of the entire saga, from 1910.
And as long as you are reading Austin’s literary papers, check out a few more noteworthy Austin tales:
“The Man With the Cloaks: A Vermont Legend” is a fairy tale/fable about the comeuppance and redemption of a wealthy but miserly Vermont man. The story has nice touches of humor to it.
“The Late Joseph Natterstrom” is an interesting tale about an Anatolian merchant, Ebn Beg, who returns from his Hajj to find his village destroyed by Wahabi raiders. He leaves for Smyrna, then goes to Europe, and eventually to New York. While in New York, Beg hears of the legendarily honest businessman Joseph Natterstrom. Beg searches for, finds–and tests–Natterstrom, to determine if Natterstrom is really as honest as everyone claims.
I was a little afraid while starting this story that it would be anti-Islamic; but it’s not. Austin uses the characters of Ebn Beg and his companion Ibraham Hamet as “outside eyes” on American society, and not necessarily to our benefit.
…a people not really civilized, yet far from savage; not very good, nor altogether bad; not generally intelligent, nor altogether ignorant; … a very young country, but a very old people.
And finally, “Martha Gardner”, which is not a fun read (too polemic and preachy), but worth noting for its pronounced anti-Corporation, pro-ordinary citizen stance (and it’s also supernatural).
None of these stories have proved as memorable as “Peter Rugg,” but “The Man With the Cloaks” and “The Late Joseph Natterstrom” are still worth reading, and they, along with “Peter Rugg,” are all fine examples of early American supernatural fiction.