In my last post, I suggested that Edgar Allan Poe was essentially a practical joker. That is, although he remains best known today for tales of terror and mystery, of the Grotesque and Arabesque, Poe in his own time was very much a satirist or humorist. Not infrequently, the joke is on us, the readers, who are duped into believing the most incredible things, as becomes embarrassingly clear in “The Balloon-Hoax” or “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar,” for example. After all, Poe was the philosopher who was able to explicate “diddling” – that is, tricking or swindling – as “one of the exact sciences.” In his various hoaxes, satires, and “diddles,” Poe proved himself to be an accomplished prankster, which unsurprisingly stood him in good stead in the bumptious literary marketplace of his era.
Less obvious, perhaps, is the way that Poe the Poet might also be considered a practical joker. Poe’s poetry, unlike his more well-known prose tales, is generally thought to represent the Romantic ideals of supernal beauty. In the best poems, Poe’s mastery of sound and sense helps to produce poems of haunting loveliness, as in “The Raven” or “Annabel Lee.” But, then, it should also be observed that many of his poems appear to be crudely imitative; Poe concedes that his earlier poems were essentially attempts to reproduce Byron, for instance. Some might be labeled failed experiments, while others appear to be downright awful. Who can listen to “The Bells” more than once without going mad? The pealing repetitions are so intensely jangling to the nerves that one can only conclude that such was the poet’s intention. The point of the poem is to drive us crazy! But even in Poe’s most successful poems, there is a lurking sense that Poe is putting one over on us. The reader of Poe’s poems must always be on guard, as one cannot shake the vague suspicion that the poetry may be an ornate armature upon which to hang a joke in poor taste. However, we can identify at least one poem in Poe’s corpus that is unquestionably also a practical joke: “O Tempora! O Mores!”
“O Tempora! O Mores!” is one of Poe’s earliest poems, although it was not published until years after his death. Its title, deriving from Cicero’s famous lament and translated “Oh, the times, Oh, the manners [or customs]!,” is already suggestive of humor in a modern context. The phrase is generally reserved for those satirizing the jeremiads of the era. Studying the poem more closely, we see that the jaunty doggerel appears to lampoon a single character, a handsome salesman or clerk who has charmed his lady customers, but who the poet recognizes as an unintelligent and unworthy “ass.” The poem was written sometime in 1826, when Poe was only 17 years old, and in my own reading I had taken it to be a satirical critique of the crass, commercial culture of the United States in the nineteenth-century. That is, like the biographer Kenneth Silverman, who noted the poem’s “scorn toward the clerk as a plebian vulgarian, and its contempt for the world of merchandising,” I saw the young poet in “O Tempora! O Mores!” as a Romantic bemoaning the unrefined, boorish, middle-class values of the day. Like nearly everyone else, I was perplexed about the final word of the poem, in which the speaker names his object of ridicule, “Pitts.” But, in the end, I was able to file this away as mildly interesting juvenilia.
However, I heard a fascinating talk by renowned scholar Richard Kopley at the 2014 MLA convention, which shed light on the backstory of the poem. (An abstract of the talk appears in The Edgar Allan Poe Review 14.2 [Autumn 2013]: 250–251.) Alas, I can offer only a teaser here based on my faulty memory of the presentation, but Professor Kopley is currently working on a scholarly biography of Poe, which I have no doubt will be well worth the wait. For now, let me just say that the poem “O Tempora! O Mores!” was the acid coup de grâce of an elaborate practical joke.
I’m giving Poetry a rest today in order to share an insightful, humor-related blog post by Dan McCleary, Founder and Producing Artistic Director of the Tennessee Shakespeare Company. (This article was originally published on Broadwayworld.com.)
I was once speaking over the phone with a man I had never met in person, yet he had given every indication to me that he bordered on lunacy. He rambled and ranted, but as he approached the end of his one-way conversation he offered to me that, in the end between two people in a relationship, what truly mattered was that they were able to laugh at the same things.
Foolishly, as things unfolded later in life, I did not consider this deeply enough at the time it was shared with me. Shakespeare‘s madmen and fools usually carry the belly of the play with them — the chaotic, ugly truth. I knew this but didn’t apply it.
Sharing the same sense of humor can be blissful unusualness between two people. It can save two people, personally and professionally, I have observed, and it can provide a touchstone of faith. Humor bespeaks intelligence, and wit. It frequently tells us about ourselves, tells others about us, and can be inexplicable. It can be psychic medicine, and it can be the first unconscious progress toward weeping. An uncontrolled laugh can wear you out.
We might sometimes laugh quietly at knowing our partner will laugh. Then it is sometimes the substitute for words. I suggest it is perhaps the quickest way to come to know another person.
My sense currently in rehearsals with TN Shakespeare Company‘s Petruchio and Kate is that what too many of us define as a “battle of the sexes” (an all-too-frequent marketing slogan which I find misguided about the relationship in The Taming of the Shrew) is potentially a perfect match waiting to happen. And that perhaps what provides the match is the singular sense of humor of these two people heretofore destined, each, for a single life.
The famous wooing scene between the two actors is finding its romance and even sexiness in each person discovering what makes the other laugh, despite him/herself. (Below is an excerpt from that scene. For the complete text of Act 2, Scene 1, click here. )
KATE: If I be waspish, best beware my sting.
PETRUCHIO: My remedy is then, to pluck it out.
KATE: Ay, if the fool could find it where it lies,
PETRUCHIO: Who knows not where a wasp does wear his sting? In his tail.
KATE: In his tongue.
PETRUCHIO: Whose tongue?
KATE: Yours, if you talk of tails: and so farewell.
PETRUCHIO: What, with my tongue in your tail? nay, come again, Good Kate; I am a gentleman.
KATE: That I’ll try. (She strikes him)
PETRUCHIO: I swear I’ll cuff you, if you strike again.
KATE: So may you lose your arms: If you strike me, you are no gentleman; And if no gentleman, why then no arms.
PETRUCHIO: A herald, Kate? O, put me in thy books!
KATE: What is your crest? a coxcomb?
PETRUCHIO: A combless cock, so Kate will be my hen.
KATE: No cock of mine; you crow too like a craven.
PETRUCHIO: Nay, come, Kate, come; you must not look so sour.
KATE: It is my fashion, when I see a crab.
PETRUCHIO: Why, here’s no crab; and therefore look not sour.
KATE: There is, there is.
PETRUCHIO: Then show it me.
KATE: Had I a glass, I would.
PETRUCHIO: What, you mean my face?
KATE: Well aim’d of such a young one.
PETRUCHIO: Now, by Saint George, I am too young for you.
KATE: Yet you are wither’d.
PETRUCHIO: ‘Tis with cares.
KATE: I care not.
PETRUCHIO: Nay, hear you, Kate: in sooth you scape not so.
KATHARINE: I chafe you, if I tarry: let me go.
Making someone laugh is a palpable victory. Allowing oneself to submit to being the butt of the joke is a special gift to the other.
Humor is a way in. And right now, we are discovering that the way in then cannot always be the way through. That’s a cover. But the hearts of Kate and Petruchio have longing in them, and poetry, and capacity. They just haven’t been exercised.
Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn are probably the most well known of Mark Twain’s characters. Bronze statues of the boys grace Schoolyard Hill in Hannibal. Their images have been used for everything from selling paint to Norman Rockwell pictures that evoke the nostalgia of childhood. Each boy is the subject of his own novel, and although Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has stood the test of time better than Tom’s adventures, the character of Tom remains that of a charming if mischievous boy. While Huck is practical, and can improvise a workable solution to any problem, Tom’s forte is the grand effect—the spectacle. He has read all of the romance novels, and his dreams as a boy are populated by robbers, pirates, and steamboat captains who perform feats of derring-do, rescue, capture and ransom ladies and gentlemen, and ambuscade Arabs, carrying of piles off booty.
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer ends with this “Conclusion”:
So endeth this chronicle. It being strictly the history of a boy, it must stop here; it could not go further without becoming the history of a man…Some day it may seem worth while to take up the story of the younger ones again and see what sort of men and women they turned out to be; therefore it will be wisest not to reveal any of that part of their lives at present. (TS 215)
Twain takes up the story of the boys yet again in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Tom’s part in this later novel is, of course, much smaller, as this is Huck’s story. Twain uses Tom to tie this second novel to the first, where Tom makes good on his plan to instigate Tom Sawyer’s Gang, and initiates the members with blood oaths. His imagination turns a Sunday School picnic into a caravan of Arabs, whom the gang intend to rout and rob. Tom then disappears from the narrative except for moments of decision in Huck’s adventures when he invokes Tom as his “authority” on how to do things with “style.” After setting up the elaborate ruse that fakes his death, Huck says: “I wished Tom Sawyer was there. I knowed he’d take an interest in this kind of business, and throw in the fancy touches. Nobody could spread himself like Tom Sawyer in such a thing as that” (HF 657). Huck’s appreciation of Tom’s “fancy touches” occurs in other parts of the novel as well, but Tom’s return in the Evasion chapters demonstrates a shift in Twain’s indulgent, “boys will be boys” attitude concerning Tom.
Those chapters show a Tom who creates an elaborate and dangerous (to Jim) plan for freeing the runaway slave from his imprisonment at Phelps’ farm. Huck’s plan is simple, straightforward, and to the point: “Here’s the ticket. This hole’s [window] big enough for Jim to get through if we wrench off the board” (HF 854). Tom’s reply offers the reader a glimpse of his romantic notions of escape from captivity: “It’s as simple as tit-tat-toe, three–in-a-row, and as easy as playing hooky. I should hope we can find a way that’s more complicated than that, Huck Finn” (657). Huck just “knows” that Tom’s plan will be “worth fifteen of mine for style” and “would make Jim just as free a man as mine would, and maybe get us all killed besides. So I was satisfied…” (HF 853). The difference between the two boys is clear—Tom is all style, and Huck substance. While Tom’s escape plan works out in the end, Tom is shot and Jim very nearly hung.
It stems from a conversation that Bob Mankoff had one time while trying to arrange to have lunch with a “friend.” After several attempts to get together and several “not availables,” in frustration, Mankoff asked, “How about never—is never good for you?” Luckily, Mankoff is a cartoonist for the New Yorker, and he was able to parlay that conversation into a cartoon that is an oft-repeated question as used by Nancy Pelosi on Jon Stewart’s Daily Show during the 2012 election, and it is listed in The Yale Book of Quotations somewhere between Herman J. Mankiewicz and Mao Tse-Tung. It is also printed on coffee mugs and thong panties. To paraphrase Mark Twain, this is the joke that made Bob’s fortune.
Bob Mankoff has exploited his joke one more time by naming his memoir, How About Never—Is Never Good for You? My Life in Cartoons. Never is a new release by Henry Holt and Co. It is 285 pages of text and cartoons—lots of cartoons, most of which are from The New Yorker. There are cartoons from other sources used to compare the cartoon style of the different publications. But, most of all, it narrates the rise of Mankoff from an aspiring cartoonist to the cartoon editor of The New Yorker.
Along the way, Mankoff talks about the rhetoric of magazine cartoons. Among the stories is how a cartoon by Peter Arno that was published in 1941 became the cliché “Well, back to the old drawing board.” Some cartoons have a je ne sais quoi that resonates with the public and captures the imagination. As depicted, it may be the casual quality of the statement in light of the circumstances, but for some reason we, as readers, find it to our taste to repeat the phrase, and everyone knows what we are talking about whether we own a drawing board or not.
Caption: Well, back to the old drawing board.
Other aspects of the world of cartoons that Mankoff explores is the use of the Cartoon Bank, a digital storehouse of cartoon images that have been rejected by The New Yorker, but are still fine drawings that can be accessed by the public for a small fee. Mankoff began the bank in the early 1990s and managed it himself until it became unmanageable. The cartoons in the bank are sorted by subject matter so they are easy to access. He also discusses a Seinfeld episode in which Elaine cannot discern a New Yorker cartoon. And he assesses the different types of humor that are represented in the cartoons (while reminding us that analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog).
Perhaps, Mankoff’s most prized innovation is his “Caption Contest” in The New Yorker. This is his crowd-sourcing initiative that asks readers to write a caption for a drawing that is printed in the magazine. It is also available to non subscribers at http://www.newyorker.com/humor/caption. On the page, readers can submit an entry and vote on selected entries for previous contests. As a result of The New Yorker contest, there have been many political cartoonists that run caption contests. This is a link to one that was run by Tom Toles in the Washington Post.
The book is worth a read whether you invest the $32.50 (suggested retail price) for it now or wait until it sells for lower prices as a used book. But if I have not convinced you that it is time and money well-spent, listen to the interview between Terri Gross and Mankoff on NPR’s Fresh Air.
American Humor Studies Association
Mark Twain Circle of America
Quadrennial Conference 2014
December 4-7, 2014
Four Points Sheraton French Quarter
The American Humor Studies Association, in conjunction with the Mark Twain Circle of America, sends out this general call for papers on American humor and Mark Twain. The topics below are suggestions for topics that we think will be of interest; other topics are welcome, and we welcome especially submissions of sessions of three papers or roundtables. The topics are broad in the hope that scholars will be able to find one that fits their current research. Submissions should be sent to Jan McIntire-Strasburg via email (email@example.com). Please send your submissions by May 15, 2014.
Those sending in submissions for the Mark Twain Circle of America can email their proposals to Ann Ryan at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Topics include but are not limited to:
Early American Humor and its European Roots
Nineteenth Century Humor—from Southwest to Northeast to Far West
20th Century Humor and the American Novel
Regional and/or transnational humor
New Media Approaches to Humor
Humor in film, television, comics, and other visual media
Humor and Theatre
Humor and Ethnicity
Humor and Gender
Humor and Class
Humor and Sexuality
Humor and War
Contemporary Approaches to Irony, Satire, Wit, and other topics
New Directions in American Humor Studies