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Humor And Satire Post by :crazycash Category :Essays Author :Bliss Perry Date :November 2011 Read :718

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Humor And Satire

A distinguished professor in the Harvard Divinity School once began a lecture on Comedy by saying that the study of the comic had made him realize for the first time that a joke was one of the most solemn things in the world. The analysis of humor is no easy matter. It is hard to say which is the more dreary: an essay on humor illustrated by a series of jokes, or an exposition of humor in the technical terms of philosophy. No subject has been more constantly discussed. But it remains difficult to decide what humor is. It is easier to declare what seemed humorous to our ancestors, or what seems humorous to us to-day. For humor is a shifting thing. The well-known collections of the writings of American humorists surprise us by their revelation of the changes in public taste. Humor--or the sense of humor--alters while we are watching. What seemed a good joke to us yesterday seems but a poor joke to-day. And yet it is the same joke! What is true of the individual is all the more true of the national sense of humor. This vast series of kaleidoscopic changes which we call America; has it produced a humor of its own?

Let us avoid for the moment the treacherous territory of definitions. Let us, rather, take one concrete example: a pair of men, a knight and his squire, who for three hundred years have ridden together down the broad highway of the world's imagination. Everybody sees that Don Quixote and Sancho Panza are humorous. Define them as you will--idealist and realist, knight and commoner, dreamer and proverb-maker--these figures represent to all the world two poles of human experience. A Frenchman once said that all of us are Don Quixotes on one day and Sancho Panzas on the next. Humor springs from this contrast. It is the electric flash between the two poles of experience.

Most philosophers who have meditated upon the nature of the comic point out that it is closely allied with the tragic. Flaubert once compared our human idealism to the flight of a swallow; at one moment it is soaring toward the sunset, at the next moment some one shoots it and it tumbles into the mud with blood upon its glistening wings. The sudden poignant contrast between light, space, freedom, and the wounded bleeding bird in the mud, is of the very essence of tragedy. But something like that is always happening in comedy. There is the same element of incongruity, without the tragic consequence. It is only the humorist who sees things truly because he sees both the greatness and the littleness of mortals; but even he may not know whether to laugh or to cry at what he sees. Those collisions and contrasts out of which the stuff of tragedy is woven, such as the clash between the higher and lower nature of a man, between his past and his present, between one's duties to himself and to his family or the state, between, in a word, his character and his situation, are all illustrated in comedy as completely as in tragedy. The countryman in the city, the city man in the country, is in a comic situation. Here is a coward named Falstaff, and Shakespeare puts him into battle. Here is a vain person, and Malvolio is imprisoned and twitted by a clown. Here is an ignoramus, and Dogberry is placed on the judge's bench. These contrasts might, indeed, be tragic enough, but they are actually comic. Such characters are not ruled by fate but by a sportive chance. The gods connive at them. They are ruled, like tragic characters, by necessity and blindness; but the blindness, instead of leading to tragic ruin, leads only to being caught as in some harmless game of blind-man's-buff. There is retribution, but Falstaff is only pinched by the fairies. Comedy of intrigue and comedy of character lead to no real catastrophe. The end of it on the stage is not death but matrimony; and "home well pleased we go."

A thousand definitions of humor lay stress upon this element of incongruity. Hazlitt begins his illuminating lectures on the Comic Writers by declaring, "Man is the only animal that laughs or weeps; for he is the only animal that is struck with the difference between what things are and what they ought to be." James Russell Lowell took the same ground. "Humor," he said once, "lies in the contrast of two ideas. It is the universal disenchanter. It is the sense of comic contradiction which arises from the perpetual comment which the understanding makes upon the impressions received through the imagination." If that sentence seems too abstract, all we need do is to think of Sancho Panza, the man of understanding, talking about Don Quixote, the man of imagination.

We must not multiply quotations, but it is impossible not to remember the distinction made by Carlyle in writing about Richter. "True humor," says Carlyle, "springs not more from the head than from the heart. It is not contempt; its essence is love." In other words, not merely the great humorists of the world's literature--Cervantes, Rabelais, Fielding, Thackeray, Dickens--but the writers of comic paragraphs for to-morrow's newspaper, all regard our human incongruities with a sort of affection. The comic spirit is essentially a social spirit. The great figures of tragedy are solitary. The immortal figures of comedy belong to a social group.

No recent discussion of humor is more illuminating and more directly applicable to the conditions of American life than that of the contemporary French philosopher Bergson. Bergson insists throughout his brilliant little book on Laughter that laughter is a social function. Life demands elasticity. Hence whatever is stiff, automatic, machine-like, excites a smile. We laugh when a person gives us the impression of being a thing,--a sort of mechanical toy. Every inadaptation of the individual to society is potentially comic. Thus laughter becomes a social initiation. It is a kind of hazing which we visit upon one another. But we do not isolate the comic personage as we do the solitary, tragic figure. The comic personage is usually a type; he is one of an absurd group; he is a miser, a pedant, a pretentious person, a doctor or a lawyer in whom the professional traits have become automatic so that he thinks more of his professional behavior than he does of human health and human justice. Of all these separatist tendencies, laughter is the great corrective. When the individual becomes set in his ways, obstinate, preoccupied, automatic, the rest of us laugh him out of it if we can. Of course all that we are thinking about at the moment is his ridiculousness. But nevertheless, by laughing we become the saviors of society.

No one, I think, can help observing that this conception of humor as incongruity is particularly applicable to a new country. On the new soil and under the new sky, in new social groupings, all the fundamental contrasts and absurdities of our human society assume a new value. We see them under a fresh light. They are differently focussed. The broad humors of the camp, its swift and picturesque play of light and shade, its farce and caricature no less than its atmosphere of comradeship, of sentiment, and of daring, are all transferred to the humor of the newly settled country. The very word "humor" once meant singularity of character, "some extravagant habit, passion, or affection," says Dryden, "particular to some one person." Every newly opened country encourages, for a while, this oddness and incongruity of individual character. It fosters it, and at the same moment it laughs at it. It decides that such characters are "humorous." As the social conditions of such a country change, the old pioneer instinct for humor, and the pioneer forms of humor, may endure, though the actual frontier may have moved far westward.

There is another conception of humor scarcely less famous than the notion of incongruity. It is the conception associated with the name of the English philosopher Hobbes, who thought that humor turned upon a sense of superiority. "The passion of laughter," said Hobbes, "is nothing else but sudden glory arising from some sudden conception of some eminency in ourselves by comparison with the inferiority of others, or with our own formerly." Too cynical a view, declare many critics, but they usually end by admitting that there is a good deal in it after all. I am inclined to think that Hobbes's famous definition is more applicable to wit than it is to humor. Wit is more purely intellectual than humor. It rejoices in its little triumphs. It requires, as has been remarked, a good head, while humor takes a good heart, and fun good spirits. If you take Carlyle literally when he says that humor is love, you cannot wholly share Hobbes's conviction that laughter turns upon a sense of superiority, and yet surely we all experience a sense of kindly amusement which turns upon the fact that we, the initiated, are superior, for the moment, to the unlucky person who is just having his turn in being hazed. It may be the play of intellect or the coarser play of animal spirits. One might venture to make a distinction between the low comedy of the Latin races and the low comedy of the Germanic races by pointing out that the superiority in the Latin comedy usually turns upon quicker wits, whereas the superiority in the Germanic farce is likely to turn upon stouter muscles. But whether it be a play of wits or of actual cudgelling, the element of superiority and inferiority is almost always there.

I remember that some German, I dare say in a forgotten lecture-room, once illustrated the humor of superiority in this way. A company of strolling players sets up its tent in a country village. On the front seat is a peasant, laughing at the antics of the clown. The peasant flatters himself that he sees through those practical jokes on the stage; the clown ought to have seen that he was about to be tripped up, but he was too stupid. But the peasant saw that it was coming all the time. He laughs accordingly. Just behind the peasant sits the village shopkeeper. He has watched stage clowns many a time and he laughs, not at the humor of the farce, but at the naïve laughter of the peasant in front of him. He, the shopkeeper, is superior to such broad and obvious humor as that. Behind the shopkeeper sits the schoolmaster. The schoolmaster is a pedant; he has probably lectured to his boys on the theory of humor, and he smiles in turn at the smile of superiority on the face of the shopkeeper. Well, peeping in at the door of the tent is a man of the world, who glances at the clown, then at the peasant, then at the shopkeeper, then at the schoolmaster, each one of whom is laughing at the others, and the man of the world laughs at them all!

Let us take an even simpler illustration. We all know the comfortable sense of proprietorship which we experience after a few days' sojourn at a summer hotel. We know our place at the table; we call the head waiter by his first name; we are not even afraid of the clerk. Now into this hotel, where we sit throned in conscious superiority, comes a new arrival. He has not yet learned the exits and entrances. He starts for the kitchen door inadvertently when he should be headed for the drawing-room. We smile at him. Why? Precisely because that was what we did on the morning of our own arrival. We have been initiated, and it is now his turn.

If it is true that a newly settled country offers endless opportunities for the humor which turns upon incongruity, it is also true that the new country offers countless occasions for the humor which turns upon the sudden glory of superiority. The backwoodsman is amusing to the man of the settlements, and the backwoodsman, in turn, gets his full share of amusement out of watching the "tenderfoot" in the woods. It is simply the case of the old resident versus the newcomer. The superiority need be in no sense a cruel or taunting superiority, although it often happens to be so. The humor of the pioneers is not very delicately polished. The joke of the frontier tavern or grocery store is not always adapted to a drawing-room audience, but it turns in a surprisingly large number of instances upon exactly the same intellectual or social superiority which gives point to the bon mots of the most cultivated and artificial society in the world.

The humor arising from incongruity, then, and the humor arising from a sense of superiority, are both of them social in their nature. No less social, surely, is the function of satire. It is possible that satire may be decaying, that it is becoming, if it has not already become, a mere splendid or odious tradition. But let us call it a great tradition and, upon the whole, a splendid one. Even when debased to purely party or personal uses, the verse satire of a Dryden retains its magnificent resonance; "the ring," says Saintsbury, "as of a great bronze coin thrown down on marble." The malignant couplets of an Alexander Pope still gleam like malevolent jewels through the dust of two hundred years. The cynicism, the misanthropy, the mere adolescent badness of Byron are powerless to clip the wings of the wide-ranging, far-darting wit and humor and irony of Don Juan. The homely Yankee dialect, the provinciality, the "gnarly" flavor of the Biglow Papers do not prevent our finding in that pungent and resplendent satire the powers of Lowell at full play; and, what is more than that, the epitome of the American spirit in a moral crisis.

I take the names of those four satirists, Dryden, Pope, Byron, and Lowell, quite at random; but they serve to illustrate a significant principle; namely, that great satire becomes ennobled as it touches communal, not merely individual interests, as it voices social and not merely individual ideals. Those four modern satirists were steeped in the nationalistic political poetry of the Old Testament. They were familiar with its war anthems, dirges, and prophecies, its concern for the prosperity and adversity, the sin and the punishment, of a people. Here the writers of the Golden Age of English satire found their vocabulary and phrase-book, their grammar of politics and history, their models of good and evil kings; and in that Biblical school of political poetry, which has affected our literature from the Reformation down to Mr. Kipling, there has always been a class in satire! The satirical portraits, satirical lyrics, satirical parables of the Old Testament prophets are only less noteworthy than their audacity in striking high and hard. Their foes were the all-powerful: Babylon and Assyria and Egypt loom vast and terrible upon the canvases of Isaiah and Ezekiel; and poets of a later time have learned there the secrets of social and political idealism, and the signs of national doom.

There are two familiar types of satire associated with the names of Horace and Juvenal. Both types are abundantly illustrated in English and American literature. When you meet a bore or a hypocrite or a plain rascal, is it better to chastise him with laughter or to flay him with shining fury? I shall take both horns of the dilemma and assert that both methods are admirable and socially useful. The minor English and American poets of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were never weary of speaking of satire as a terrific weapon which they were forced to wield as saviors of society. But whether they belonged to the urbane school of Horace, or to the severely moralistic school of Juvenal, they soon found themselves falling into one or the other of two modes of writing. They addressed either the little audience or the big audience, and they modified their styles accordingly. The great satirists of the Renaissance, for example, like More, Erasmus, and Rabelais, wrote simply for the persons who were qualified to understand them. More and Erasmus wrote their immortal satires in Latin. By so doing they addressed themselves to cultivated Europe. They ran no risk of being misunderstood by persons for whom the joke was not intended. All readers of Latin were like members of one club. Of course membership was restricted to the learned, but had not Horace talked about being content with a few readers, and was not Voltaire coming by and by with the advice to try for the "little public"?

The typical wit of the eighteenth century, whether in London, Paris, or in Franklin's printing-shop in Philadelphia, had, of course, abandoned Latin. But it still addressed itself to the "little public," to the persons who were qualified to understand. The circulation of the Spectator, which represents so perfectly the wit, humor, and satire of the early eighteenth century in England, was only about ten thousand copies. This limited audience smiled at the urbane delicate touches of Mr. Steele and Mr. Addison. They understood the allusions. The fable concerned them and not the outsiders. It was something like Oliver Wendell Holmes reading his witty and satirical couplets to an audience of Harvard alumni. The jokes are in the vernacular, but in a vernacular as spoken in a certain social medium. It is all very delightful.

But there is a very different kind of audience gathering all this while outside the Harvard gates. These two publics for the humorist we may call the invited and the uninvited; the inner circle and the outer circle: first, those who have tickets for the garden party, and who stroll over the lawn, decorously gowned and properly coated, conversing with one another in the accepted social accents and employing the recognized social adjectives; and second, the crowd outside the gates,--curious, satirical, good-natured in the main, straightforward of speech and quick to applaud a ready wit or a humor-loving eye or a telling phrase spoken straight from the heart of the mob.

Will an author choose to address the selected guests or the casual crowd? Either way lies fame, if one does it well. Your uninvited men find themselves talking to the uninvited crowd. Before they know it they are famous too. They are fashioning another manner of speech. Defoe is there, with his saucy ballads selling triumphantly under his very pillory; with his True-Born Englishman puncturing forever the fiction of the honorable ancestry of the English aristocracy; with his Crusoe and Moll Flanders, written, as Lamb said long afterwards, for the servant-maid and the sailor. Swift is there, with his terrific Drapier's Letters, anonymous, aimed at the uneducated, with cold fury bludgeoning a government into obedience; with his Gulliver's Travels, so transparent upon the surface that a child reads the book with delight and remains happily ignorant that it is a satire upon humanity. And then, into the London of Defoe and Swift, and into the very centre of the middle-class mob, steps, in 1724, the bland Benjamin Franklin in search of a style "smooth, clear, and short," and for half a century, with consummate skill, shapes that style to his audience. His young friend Thomas Paine takes the style and touches it with passion, until he becomes the perfect pamphleteer, and his Crisis is worth as much to our Revolution--men said--as the sword of Washington. After another generation the gaunt Lincoln, speaking that same plain prose of Defoe, Swift, Franklin, and Paine,--Lincoln who began his first Douglas debate, not like his cultivated opponent with the conventional "Ladies and Gentlemen," but with the ominously intimate, "My Fellow Citizens,"--Lincoln is saying, "I am not master of language; I have not a fine education; I am not capable of entering into a disquisition upon dialectics, as I believe you call it; but I do not believe the language I employed bears any such construction as Judge Douglas puts upon it. But I don't care about a quibble in regard to words. I know what I meant, and I will not leave this crowd in doubt, if I can explain it to them, what I really meant in the use of that paragraph."

"I will not leave this crowd in doubt"; that is the final accent of our spoken prose, the prose addressed to one's fellow citizens, to the great public. This is the prose spoken in the humor and satire of Dickens. Dressed in a queer dialect, and put into satirical verse, it is the language of the Biglow Papers. Uttered with the accent of a Chicago Irishman, it is the prose admired by millions of the countrymen of "Mr. Dooley."

Satire written to the "little public" tends toward the social type; that written to the "great public" to the political type. It is obvious that just as a newly settled country offers constant opportunity for the humor of incongruity and the humor arising from a sense of superiority, it likewise affords a daily stimulus to the use of satire. That moralizing Puritan strain of censure which lost none of its harshness in crossing the Atlantic Ocean found full play in the colonial satire of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. As the topics for satire grew wider and more political in their scope, the audiences increased. To-day the very oldest issues of the common life of that queer "political animal" named man are discussed by our popular newspaper satirists in the presence of a democratic audience that stretches from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

Is there, then, a distinctly American type of humor and satire? I think it would be difficult to prove that our composite American nationality has developed a mode of humor and satire which is racially different from the humor and satire of the Old World. All racial lines in literature are extremely difficult to draw. If you attempt to analyze English humor, you find that it is mostly Scotch or Irish. If you put Scotch and Irish humor under the microscope, you discover that most of the best Scotch and Irish jokes are as old as the Greeks and the Egyptians. You pick up a copy of Fliegende Blätter and you get keen amusement from its revelation of German humor. But how much of this humor, after all, is either essentially universal in its scope or else a matter of mere stage-setting and machinery? Without the Prussian lieutenant the Fliegende Blätter would lose half its point; nor can one imagine a Punch without a picture of the English policeman. The lieutenant and the policeman, however, are a part of the accepted social furniture of the two countries. They belong to the decorative background of the social drama. They heighten the effectiveness of local humor, but it may be questioned whether they afford any evidence of genuine racial differentiation as to the sense of the comic.

What one can abundantly prove, however, is that the United States afford a new national field for certain types of humor and satire. Our English friends are never weary of writing magazine articles about Yankee humor, in which they explain the peculiarities of the American joke with a dogmatism which has sometimes been thought to prove that there is such a thing as national lack of humor, whether there be such a thing as national humor or not. One such article, I remember, endeavored to prove that the exaggeration often found in American humor was due to the vastness of the American continent. Our geography, that is to say, is too much for the Yankee brain. Mr. Birrell, an expert judge of humor, surely, thinks that the characteristic of American humor lies in its habit of speaking of something hideous in a tone of levity. Many Englishmen, in fact, have been as much impressed with this minimizing trick of American humor as with the converse trick of magnifying. Upon the Continent the characteristic trait of American humor has often been thought to be its exuberance of phrase. Many shrewd judges of our newspaper humor have pointed out that one of its most favorite methods is the suppression of one link in the chain of logical reasoning. Such generalizations as these are always interesting, although they may not take us very far.

Yet it is clear that certain types of humor and satire have proved to be specially adapted to the American soil and climate. Whether or not these types are truly indigenous one may hesitate to say, yet it remains true that the well-known conditions of American life have stimulated certain varieties of humor into such a richness of manifestation as the Old World can scarcely show.

Curiously enough, one of the most perfected types of American humor is that urbane Horatian variety which has often been held to be the exclusive possession of the cultivated and restricted societies of older civilization. Yet it is precisely this kind of humor which has been the delight of some of the most typical American minds. Benjamin Franklin, for example, modelled his style and his sense of the humorous on the papers of the Spectator. He produced humorous fables and apologues, choice little morsels of social and political persiflage, which were perfectly suited, not merely to the taste of London in the so-called golden age of English satire, but to the tone of the wittiest salons of Paris in the age when the old régime went tottering, talking, quoting, jesting to its fall. Read Franklin's charming and wise letter to Madame Brillon about giving too much for the whistle. It is the perfection of well-bred humor: a humor very American, very Franklinian, although its theme and tone and phrasing might well have been envied by Horace or Voltaire.

The gentle humor of Irving is marked by precisely those traits of urbanity and restraint which characterize the parables of Franklin. Does not the Autocrat of the Breakfast Table itself presuppose the existence of a truly cultivated society? Its tone--"As I was saying when I was interrupted"--is the tone of the intimate circle. There was so much genuine humanity in the gay little doctor that persons born outside the circle of Harvard College and the North Shore and Boston felt themselves at once initiated by the touch of his merry wand into a humanized, kindly theory of life. The humor of George William Curtis had a similarly mellow and ripened quality. It is a curious comment upon that theory of Americans which represents us primarily as a loud-voiced, assertive, headstrong people, to be thus made aware that many of the humorists whom we have loved best are precisely those whose writing has been marked by the most delicate restraint, whose theory of life has been the most highly urbane and civilized, whose work is indistinguishable in tone--though its materials are so different--from that of other humorous writers on the other side of the Atlantic. On its social side all this is a fresh proof of the extraordinary adaptability of the American mind. On the literary side it is one more evidence of the national fondness for neatness and perfection of workmanship.

But we are something other than a nation of mere lovers and would-be imitators of Charles Lamb. The moralistic type of humor, the crack of Juvenal's whip, as well as the delicate Horatian playing around the heart-strings, has characterized our humor and satire from the beginning. At bottom the American is serious. Beneath the surface of his jokes there is moral earnestness, there is ethical passion. Take, for example, some of the apothegms of "Josh Billings." He failed with the public until he took up the trick of misspelling his words. When he had once gained his public he sometimes delighted them with sheer whimsical incongruity, like this:--

"There iz 2 things in this life for which we are never fully prepared, and that iz twins."


But more often the tone is really grave. It is only the spelling that is queer. The moralizing might be by La Bruyère or La Rochefoucauld. Take this:--

"Life iz short, but it iz long enuff to ruin enny man who wants tew be ruined."


Or this:--

"When a feller gits a goin doun hill, it dus seem as tho evry thing had bin greased for the okashun." That is what writers of tragedy have been showing, ever since the Greeks!


Or finally, this, which has the perfect tone of the great French moralists:--

"It iz a verry delicate job to forgive a man without lowering him in his own estimashun, and yures too."


See how the moralistic note is struck in the field of political satire. It is 1866, and "Petroleum V. Nasby," writing from "Confedrit X Roads," Kentucky, gives Deekin Pogram's views on education. "He didn't bleeve in edjucashun, generally speekin. The common people was better off without it, ez edjucashun hed a tendency to unsettle their minds. He had seen the evil effex ov it in niggers and poor whites. So soon ez a nigger masters the spellin book and gits into noosepapers, he becomes dissatisfied with his condishin, and hankers after a better cabin and more wages. He towunst begins to insist onto ownin land hisself, and givin his children edjucashun, and, ez a nigger, for our purposes, aint worth a soo markee."

The single phrase, "ez a nigger," spells a whole chapter of American history.

That quotation from "Petroleum V. Nasby" serves also to illustrate a species of American humor which has been of immense historical importance and which has never been more active than it is to-day: the humor, namely, of local, provincial, and sectional types. Much of this falls under Bergson's conception of humor as social censure. It rebukes the extravagance, the rigidity, the unawareness of the individual who fails to adapt himself to his social environment. It takes the place, in our categories of humor, of those types of class humor and satire in which European literature is so rich. The mobility of our population, the constant shifting of professions and callings, has prevented our developing fixed class types of humor. We have not even the lieutenant or the policeman as permanent members of our humorous stock company. The policeman of to-day may be mayor or governor to-morrow. The lieutenant may go back to his grocery wagon or on to his department store. But whenever and wherever such an individual fails to adapt himself to his new companions, fails to take on, as it were, the colors of his new environment, to speak in the new social accents, to follow the recognized patterns of behavior, then the kindly whip of the humorist is already cracking round his ears. The humor and satire of college undergraduate journalism turns mainly upon the recognized ability or inability of different individuals to adapt themselves to their changing pigeon-holes in the college organism. A freshman must behave like a freshman, or he is laughed at. Yet he must not behave as if he were nothing but the automaton of a freshman, or he will be laughed at more merrily still.

One of the first discoveries of our earlier humorists was the Down-East Yankee. "I'm going to Portland whether or no," says Major Jack Downing, telling the story of his boyhood; "I'll see what this world is made of yet. So I tackled up the old horse and packed in a load of ax handles and a few notions, and mother fried me a few doughnuts ... for I told her I didn't know how long I should be gone,"--and off he goes to Portland, to see what the world is made of. It is a little like Defoe, and a good deal like the young Ulysses, bent upon knowing cities and men and upon getting the best of bargains.

Each generation of Americans has known something like that trip to Portland. Each generation has had to measure its wits, its resources, its manners, against new standards of comparison. At every stage of the journey there are mishaps and ridiculous adventures; but everywhere, likewise, there is zest, conquest, initiation; the heart of a boy who "wants to know"--as the Yankees used to say; or, in more modern phrase,--


"to admire and for to see,
For to behold this world so wide."


There is the same romance of adventure in the humor concerning the Irishman, the Negro, the Dutchman, the Dago, the farmer. Each in turn becomes humorous through failure to adapt himself to the prevalent type. A long-bearded Jew is not ridiculous in Russia, but he rapidly becomes ridiculous even on the East Side of New York. Underneath all this popular humor of the comic supplements one may catch glimpses of the great revolving wheels which are crushing the vast majority of our population into something like uniformity. It is a process of social attrition. The sharp edges of individual behavior get rounded off. The individual loses color and picturesqueness, precisely as he casts aside the national costume of the land from which he came. His speech, his gait, his demeanor, become as nearly as possible like the speech and carriage of all his neighbors. If he resists, he is laughed at; and if he does not personally heed the laughter, he may be sure that his children do. It is the children of our immigrants who catch the sly smiles of their school-fellows, who overhear jokes from the newspapers and on the street corners, who bring home to their foreign-born fathers and mothers the imperious childish demand to make themselves like unto everybody else.

A similar social function is performed by that well-known mode of American humor which ridicules the inhabitants of certain states. Why should New Jersey, for example, be more ridiculous than Delaware? In the eyes of the newspaper paragrapher it unquestionably is, just as Missouri has more humorous connotations than Kentucky. We may think we understand why we smile when a man says that he comes from Kalamazoo or Oshkosh, but the smile when he says "Philadelphia" or "Boston" or "Brooklyn" is only a trifle more subtle. It is none the less real. Why should the suburban dweller of every city be regarded with humorous condescension by the man who is compelled to sleep within the city limits? No one can say, and yet without that humor of the suburbs the comic supplements of American newspapers would be infinitely less entertaining,--to the people who enjoy comic supplements.

So it is with the larger divisions of our national life. Yankee, Southerner, Westerner, Californian, Texan, each type provokes certain connotations of humor when viewed by any of the other types. Each type in turn has its note of provinciality when compared with the norm of the typical American. It is quite possible to maintain that our literature, like our social life, has suffered by this ever-present American sense of the ridiculous. Our social consciousness might be far more various and richly colored, there might be more true provincial independence of speech and custom and imagination if we had not to reckon with this ever-present censure of laughter, this fear of finding ourselves, our city, our section, out of touch with the prevalent tone and temper of the country as a whole. It is one of the forfeits we are bound to pay when we play the great absorbing game of democracy.

We are now ready to ask once more whether there is a truly national type of American humor. Viewed exclusively from the standpoint of racial characteristics, we have seen that this question as to a national type of humor is difficult to answer. But we have seen with equal clearness that the United States has offered a singularly rich field for the development of the sense of humor; and furthermore that there are certain specialized forms of humor which have flourished luxuriantly upon our soil. Our humorists have made the most of their native materials. Every pioneer trait of versatility, curiosity, shrewdness, has been turned somehow to humorous account. The very institutions of democracy, moulding day by day and generation after generation the habits and the mental characteristics of millions of men, have produced a social atmosphere in which humor is one of the most indisputable elements.

I recall a notable essay by Mr. Charles Johnston on the essence of American humor in which he applies to the conditions of American life one familiar distinction between humor and wit. Wit, he asserts, scores off the other man, humor does not. Wit frequently turns upon tribal differences, upon tribal vanity. The mordant wit of the Jew, for example, from the literature of the Old Testament down to the raillery of Heine, has turned largely upon the sense of racial superiority, of intellectual and moral differences. But true humor, Mr. Johnston goes on to argue, has always a binding, a uniting quality. Thus Huckleberry Finn and Jim Hawkins, white man and black man, are afloat together on the Mississippi River raft and they are made brethren by the fraternal quality of Mark Twain's humor. Thus the levelling quality of Bret Harte's humor bridges social and moral chasms. It creates an atmosphere of charity and sympathy. In fact, the typical American humor, according to the opinion of Mr. Johnston, emphasizes the broad and humane side of our common nature. It reveals the common soul. It possesses a surplusage of power, of buoyancy and of conquest over circumstances. It means at its best a humanizing of our hearts.

Some people will think that all this is too optimistic, but if you are not optimistic enough you cannot keep up with the facts. Certain it is that the pioneers of American national humor, the creators of what we may call the "all-American" type of humor, have possessed precisely the qualities which Mr. Johnston has pointed out. They are apparent in the productions of Artemus Ward. The present generation vaguely remembers Artemus Ward as the man who was willing to send all his wife's relatives to the war and who, standing by the tomb of Shakespeare, thought it "a success." But no one who turns to the almost forgotten pages of that kindly jester can fail to be impressed by his sunny quality, by the atmosphere of fraternal affection which glorifies his queer spelling and his somewhat threadbare witticisms. Mark Twain, who is universally recognized by Europeans as a representative of typical American humor, had precisely those qualities of pioneer curiosity, swift versatility, absolute democracy, which are characteristic of the national temper. His lively accounts of frontier experiences in Roughing It, his comments upon the old world in Innocents Abroad and A Tramp Abroad, his hatred of pretence and injustice, his scorn at sentimentality coupled with his insistence upon the rights of sentiment, in a word his persistent idealism, make Mark Twain one of the most representative of American writers. Largeness, freedom, human sympathy, are revealed upon every page.

It is true that the dangers of American humor are no less in evidence there. There is the danger of extravagance, which in Mark Twain's earlier writings was carried to lengths of absurdity. There is the old danger of the professional humorist of fearing to fail to score his point, and so of underscoring it with painful reiteration. Mark Twain is frequently grotesque. Sometimes there is evidence of imperfect taste, or of bad taste. Sometimes there is actual vulgarity. In his earlier books particularly there is revealed that lack of discipline which has been such a constant accompaniment of American writing. Yet a native of Hannibal, Missouri, trained on a river steamboat and in a country printing-office and in mining-camps, can scarcely be expected to exhibit the finely balanced critical sense of a Matthew Arnold. Mark Twain was often accused in the first years of his international reputation of a characteristically American lack of reverence. He is often irreverent. But here again the boundaries of his irreverence are precisely those which the national instinct itself has drawn. The joke stops short of certain topics which the American mind holds sacred. We all have our favorite pages in the writings of this versatile and richly endowed humorist, but I think no one can read his description of the coyote in Roughing It, and Huckleberry Finn's account of his first visit to the circus, without realizing that in this fresh revelation of immemorial human curiosity, this vivid perception of incongruity and surprise, this series of lightning-like flashes from one pole of experience to the other, we have not only masterpieces of world humor, but a revelation of a distinctly American reaction to the facts presented by universal experience.

The picturesque personality and the extraordinarily successful career of Mark Twain kept him, during the last twenty-five years of his life, in the focus of public attention. But no one can read the pages of the older American humorists,--or try to recall to mind the names of paragraphers who used to write comic matter for this or that newspaper,--without realizing how swiftly the dust of oblivion settles upon all the makers of mere jokes. It is enough, perhaps, that they caused a smile for the moment. Even those humorists who mark epochs in the history of American provincial and political satire, like Seba Smith with his Major Jack Downing, Newell with his Papers of Orpheus C. Kerr, "Petroleum V. Nasby's" Letters from the Confedrit X Roads, Shillaber's Mrs. Partington--all these have disappeared round the turn of the long road.


"Hans Breitman gife a barty--
Vhere ish dot barty now?"


It seems as if the conscious humorists, the professional funny writers, had the shortest lease of literary life. They play their little comic parts before a well-disposed but restless audience which is already impatiently waiting for some other "turn." One of them makes a hit with a song or story, just as a draughtsman for a Sunday colored supplement makes a hit with his "Mutt and Jeff." For a few months everybody smiles and then comes the long oblivion. The more permanent American humor has commonly been written by persons who were almost unconscious, not indeed of the fact that they were creating humorous characters, but unconscious of the effort to provoke a laugh. The smile lasts longer than the laugh. Perhaps that is the secret. One smiles as one reads the delicate sketches of Miss Jewett. One smiles over the stories of Owen Wister and of Thomas Nelson Page. The trouble, possibly, with the enduring qualities of the brilliant humorous stories of "O. Henry" was that they tempt the reader to laugh too much and to smile too little. When one reads the Legend of Sleepy Hollow or Diedrich Knickerbocker's History of New York, it is always with this gentle parting of the lips, this kindly feeling toward the author, his characters and the world. A humorous page which produces that effect for generation after generation, has the stamp of literature. One may doubt whether even the extraordinary fantasies of Mark Twain are more successful, judged by the mere vulgar test of concrete results, than the delicate humor of Charles Lamb. Our current newspaper and magazine humor is in no respect more fascinating than in its suggestion as to the permanent effectiveness of its comic qualities. Who could say, when he first read Mr. Finley P. Dunne's "Mr. Dooley" sketches, whether this was something that a whole nation of readers would instantly and instinctively rejoice over, would find a genial revelation of American characteristics, would recognize as almost the final word of kindly satire upon our overworked, over-excited, over-anxious, over-self-conscious generation?

The range of this contemporary newspaper and magazine humor is well-nigh universal,--always saving, it is true, certain topics or states of mind which the American public cannot regard as topics for laughter. With these few exceptions nothing is too high or too low for it. The paragraphers joke about the wheel-barrow, the hen, the mule, the mother-in-law, the President of the United States. There is no ascending or descending scale of importance. Any of the topics can raise a laugh. If one examines a collection of American parodies, one will find that the happy national talent for fun-making finds full scope in the parody and burlesque of the dearest national sentiments. But no one minds; everybody believes that the sentiments endure while the jokes will pass. The jokes, intended as they are for an immense audience, necessarily lack subtlety. They tend to partake of the methods of pictorial caricature. Indeed, caricature itself, as Bergson has pointed out, emphasizes those "automatic, mechanical-toy" traits of character and behavior which isolate the individual and make him ill adapted for his function in society. Our verbal wit and humor, no less than the pencil of our caricaturists, have this constant note of exaggeration. "These violent delights have violent ends." But during their brief and laughing existence they serve to normalize society. They set up, as it were, a pulpit in the street upon which the comic spirit may mount and preach her useful sermon to all comers.

Despite the universality of the objects of contemporary American humor, despite, too, its prevalent method of caricature, it remains true that its character is, on the whole, clean, easy-going, and kindly. The old satire of hatred has lost its force. No one knows why. "Satire has grown weak," says Mr. Chesterton, "precisely because belief has grown weak." That is one theory. The late Henry D. Lloyd, of Chicago, declared in one of his last books: "The world has outgrown the dialect and temper of hatred. The style of the imprecatory psalms and the denunciating prophets is out of date. No one knows these times if he is not conscious of this change." That is another theory. Again, party animosities are surely weaker than they were. Caricatures are less personally offensive; if you doubt it, look at any of the collections of caricatures of Napoleon, or of George the Fourth. Irony is less often used by pamphleteers and journalists. It is a delicate rhetorical weapon, and journalists who aim at the great public are increasingly afraid to use it, lest the readers miss the point. In the editorials in the Hearst newspapers, for instance, there is plenty of invective and innuendo, but rarely irony: it might not be understood, and the crowd must not be left in doubt.

Possibly the old-fashioned satire has disappeared because the game is no longer considered worth the candle. To puncture the tire of pretence is amusing enough; but it is useless to stick tacks under the steam road-roller: the road-roller advances remorselessly and smooths down your mischievous little tacks and you too, indifferently. The huge interests of politics, trade, progress, override your passionate protest. "Shall gravitation cease when you go by?" I do not compare Colonel Roosevelt with gravitation, but have all the satirical squibs against our famous contemporary, from the "Alone in Cubia" to the "Teddy-see," ever cost him, in a dozen years, a dozen votes?

Very likely Mr. Lloyd and Mr. Chesterton are right. We are less censorious than our ancestors were. Americans, on the whole, try to avoid giving pain through speech. The satirists of the golden age loved that cruel exercise of power. Perhaps we take things less seriously than they did; undoubtedly our attention is more distracted and dissipated. At any rate, the American public finds it easier to forgive and forget, than to nurse its wrath to keep it warm. Our characteristic humor of understatement, and our equally characteristic humor of overstatement, are both likely to be cheery at bottom, though the mere wording may be grim enough. No popular saying is more genuinely characteristic of American humor than the familiar "Cheer up. The worst is yet to come."

Whatever else one may say or leave unsaid about American humor, every one realizes that it is a fundamentally necessary reaction from the pressure of our modern living. Perhaps it is a handicap. Perhaps we joke when we should be praying. Perhaps we make fun when we ought to be setting our shoulders to the wheel. But the deeper fact is that most American shoulders are set to the wheel too often and too long, and if they do not stop for the joke they are done for. I have always suspected that Mr. Kipling was thinking of American humor when he wrote in his well-known lines on "The American Spirit":--


"So imperturbable he rules
Unkempt, disreputable, vast--
And in the teeth of all the schools
I--I shall save him at the last."


That is the very secret of the American sense of humor: the conviction that something is going to save us at the last. Otherwise there would be no joke! It is no accident, surely, that the man who is increasingly idolized as the most representative of all Americans, the burden-bearer of his people, the man of sorrows and acquainted with grief, should be our most inveterate humorist. Let Lincoln have his story and his joke, for he had faith in the saving of the nation; and while his Cabinet are waiting impatiently to listen to his Proclamation of Emancipation, give him another five minutes to read aloud to them that new chapter by Artemus Ward.


(The end)
Bliss Perry's essay: Humor And Satire

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