Egypt, and in the same year was issued at Berlin his ‘Reise durch England,’ dealing with the arts, manufactures, and industry of his adopted country. He appears in the meantime to have been near starvation, when a remnant of his mineralogical reputation procured him the post of assay master and store-keeper of some mines at Dolcoath in Cornwall in 1782.
While still at Dolcoath Raspe put together a shilling chapbook of forty-nine pages, small 8vo, which appeared in London at the close of 1785, under the title ‘Baron Munchausen's Narrative of his marvellous Travels and Campaigns in Russia.’ The ‘Critical Review’ for December 1785 described the work as a satirical production calculated to throw ridicule on the bold assertions of some parliamentary declaimers. In reality it was a jeu d'esprit thrown off with a minimum of satirical purpose. Raspe seems to have compiled his humorous narrative from two sources. First, and most important, his personal reminiscences of Hieronymus von Munchausen (1720–1797), an eccentric old soldier who, for the double purpose of diverting his guests at Bodenwerder, and restraining the boastful garrulity of his huntsman Rosemeyer, had formed a habit of narrating alleged sporting adventures of farcical extravagance, with the dry precision of a man who is speaking the exact truth. Raspe's second source was his commonplace book, which harvested gleanings from collections of facetiæ such as Lange's ‘Deliciæ Academicæ’ (Heilbronn, 1665), a section of which was expressly devoted to mendacia ridicula; Von Lauterbach's ‘Travels of the Finken Ritter;’ and Heinrich Bebel's ‘Facetiæ Bebelianæ’ (Strassburg, 1508). Raspe probably saw no objection to affixing the baron's own name to an ephemeral production, written in a language that can have been known to few, if any, of the Baron's friends.
The first edition was probably small, and sold badly (no copy is known to be extant); a second edition, with a longer title, but otherwise unaltered, appeared at Oxford in 1786, and met with no better success. Thereupon the bookseller, Smith, to whom Raspe had sold his manuscript, disposed of the copyright to another bookseller, named Kearsley. Kearsley had a chapter prefixed and fourteen chapters added to the original five (ii.–vi. inclusive, of the current modern version). The new chapters, which were not written by Raspe, but by one of Kearsley's own journeymen, contained topical allusions to English institutions and recent books of travel and adventure, such as Drinkwater's ‘Siege of Gibraltar’ (1783), Mulgrave's ‘Voyage towards the North Pole’ (1774), Brydone's ‘Sicily and Malta’ (1773), Baron de Tott's ‘Memoirs’ (1785), and the narratives of recent balloon ascents by Montgolfier and Blanchard in France, and by Vincenzo Lunardi [q. v.] in England. Some of the new stories were borrowed from Lucian's ‘Vera Historia.’ The fresh matter, together with the addition by Kearsley of some quaint woodcuts, gave the book a new lease of life, at the enhanced price of two shillings. Four editions followed rapidly. A free translation into German was made by the poet Gottfried August Bürger, from the fifth edition, in the course of 1786. Hence it has been confidently asserted that Bürger was the creator of Munchausen, though the fact was expressly denied by his intimate friend and biographer, Karl von Reinhard (Berliner Gesellschafter, November 1824). A seventh edition, with a long supplementary chapter, appeared in 1793. Meanwhile, in 1793, there had been issued a voluminous sequel (now generally printed as a second part or second volume of the book), written as a parody of James Bruce's ‘Travels to discover the Source of the Nile’ (1790).
So composite was the structure of a work which soon acquired a world-wide popularity, and has probably been translated into more languages than any English book, with the exception of ‘The Pilgrim's Progress,’ ‘Robinson Crusoe,’ and ‘Gulliver's Travels.’ The bantering comment on passing events, with which the booksellers' hacks animated their continuations, seems largely responsible for the volume's immediate success. These accretions possess no literary merit. The book's permanent literary interest attaches exclusively to Raspe's original chapters, the spontaneity and dry humour of which can hardly be surpassed. Raspe worked in the spirit of Lucian and Rabelais, and he may almost be said to have recreated the literary type of fantastic mendacity which has been developed with great effect by the authors of ‘Colonel Crockett’ and ‘Sam Slick,’ and other modern humorists, especially in America.
Raspe's name was not associated during his lifetime with the work that constitutes his chief title to remembrance. In 1785 he was employed in Edinburgh by James Tassie [q. v.] in cataloguing his unique collection of pastes and impressions from ancient and modern gems. Early in 1786 Raspe produced a brief conspectus of the arrangement and classification of the collection, and this was followed in 1791 by ‘A Descriptive Catalogue,’ in which over fifteen thousand casts of ancient and modern engraved gems,