Had Thomas McGuane’s life ended before forty, lost behind the wheel or in some small-town motel misadventure, he’d be remembered today with the same cultish sense of loss held for such late literary contemporaries as Fred Exley, Tom McHale, and George Trow. The epitome of the bad-boy author, McGuane spent his thirties, which nearly coincided with the 1970s, in the sway of heroic, largely picturesque excess. Somehow, against type, he survived.
His first novel, The Sporting Club, appeared in 1969 and launched a career of great length and depth. Nine others have followed, along with three short story collections, four filmed screenplays, and dozens of personal essays, published in three collections that address his life as a horseman and angler of some accomplishment.
His fiction’s larger themes are alpha male behavior, individual autonomy, and dread, and range from tales of criminal misadventure to sketches of contemporary life out west. A lot happens in all of them. The typical McGuane hero is a self-reliant, fairly skilled guy who, either by overestimating himself or underestimating others, screws up badly.
In righting his own ship, McGuane repaired to his Montana home, the Raw Deal Ranch, to raise horses and recast himself as a regionalist—a sardonic, graceful observer of small town Montana life, a social landscape that closely models the classic American tropes of heroic optimism and failure; his broad subject being: How the West Was Lost. For that he is one of our greatest, and certainly least appreciated, living novelists.
But McGuane was at the start a satirist of broad national concerns. His first four novels exemplify a variety of comic work that was itself going out of style as he wrote. Absurdist in their aim, emblematic of higher disorders in the ‘60s and early ‘70s, the great comic novels of Heller, Bellow, Elkin, Vonnegut, and, yes, McGuane, along with the concurrent movies of Robert Altman, Arthur Penn, Mike Nichols and Woody Allen were consumed at the time by an avid public, homeopathic remedies against the madness of the era.
The impulse to laughter remains the animating spirit of McGuane’s work, even as he’s found varied and subtler means of expressing it. His enduring strengths as a writer, obvious at the start, remain: a flair for subtle observation, dramatic, sometimes violent, action, a cast of vivid, often desperate characters, and arch dialogue that’s at once plain and ornate. Even his bit players are alive on the page. Tying it all together all is one of the great narrative voices in American fiction, right up there with Bellow, Ring Lardner and Flannery O’Connor.
The Sporting Club is a very able, conventionally told story of the increasingly lunatic goings-on at an upper-class hunting and fishing club in McGuane’s native northern Michigan. Its WASP membership, descendants of 19th century Robber Barons, run the gamut from conventionally uptight to barking mad.
Here, told in third-person narration, is James Quinn, a second-generation Detroit auto parts manufacturer in residence for the summer, and Quinn’s old partner in schoolboy crime, Vernor Stanton, whose immense inherited wealth allows him a perpetual juvenile revolt from the adult world of business and social standing. The novel’s tried-and-true satiric points include how easily social veneers are stripped away; the incompetence of a hereditary ruling class; and the loathing felt between it and its putatively respectful underlings. The latter are represented by Earl Olive, the club’s sinister groundskeeper whom Stanton gleefully goads into transformative violence.
The Sporting Club has a good first novel’s flaws: simple characterizations, reliance on set pieces, and over-determined gags (such as a club historian named Spengler). There is a gimmicky, multi-headed ending that includes a loony Lord of the Flies reboot, and the grand reveal of a very compromising antique photograph, found in a time capsule opened for the club’s centenary celebration.
Humor in America 2018
Call for Participants
American Humor Studies Association
Mark Twain Circle of America
“Humor in America” will be held on the campus Roosevelt University in downtown Chicago from July 12-15. The conference will feature paper panels and roundtables on all aspects of American humor and/or any subject related to Mark Twain.
Please send proposals to email@example.com by February 1, 2018. Notifications will be sent by March 1. Please feel free to contact the conference organizers, Tracy Wuster, Larry Howe, and Pete Kunze, with any questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Proposals for paper presentations of 15-18 minutes should consist of a 250-word proposal and A/V requests.
Proposals for organized panels of 15-18 minute papers moderated by a chair should include individual 250-word proposals, an overview of 100 words, a proposed Chair (not required), ad A/V requests.
Each roundtable participant will speak for 7-9 minutes on a topic related to the larger theme (see below). Participants may present both a paper and participate in a roundtable, should space allow. If you wish to participate only in a roundtable, please indicate with your submission. Please submit a title and 100-word abstract if interested by February 1, 2018.
–Theory, Methodology, and Practice of Humor Studies: New Directions
–MT and Graphic Humor: Icon and Caricature
–Gender and Humor: Can Men be Funny?
–Race, Ethnicity, and the Study of Humor
–Mark Twain and Today’s satirists: Colbert, Bee, and Oliver
–The Publics of Political Humor and Satire
–Violence in the humor of Mark Twain
–Humor, Comedy, and Historiography
We welcome proposals for paper presentations and panels on any topic related to American humor and/or Mark Twain, broadly conceived. Scholars across the humanities are invited to present research on any of the following topics (or others related to humor, comedy, laughter, etc., etc.):
- literary humor (including but not limited to Chesnutt, Fanny Fern, Parker, Faulkner, Melville, Vonnegut, Ellison, Morrison, Kingston, Beatty, Ephron, Sedaris, etc.)
- humor and gender, race, sexuality, class, religion
- stand-up comedy, sketch comedy, and other humorous performances
- radio comedy, television, and film comedy
- visual humor, comics, and graphic narratives
- podcasts, internet humor, memes, and other new media
- satire, ridicule, parody, and other forms of humor
- humor in “serious” contexts or works
- humor in regional, national, transnational, international, and other spatial contexts
- All topics related to Mark Twain (especially the following topics: Mark Twain language play, MT and Political humor, MT and stand-up, MT a and gendered humor, Laughter and the Color Line: Huckleberry Finn and Pudd’nhead Wilson, The Fantastic and The Comic in MT, The Comic Rhetoric of MT’s Speeches and/or Interviews)
We especially welcome proposals from scholars of color, junior scholars, and independent scholars. Graduate students attending the conference will be eligible for “Constance Rourke Travel Grants” to assist with travel funds. We highly encourage scholars to contribute to this fund. See the conference website for more information.
Attendees must be (or become) a member of the American Humor Studies Association or the Mark Twain Circle of America. Presenters will be highly encouraged to submit article-length versions of their work for possible publication in Studies in American Humor, a peer-reviewed journal published by the American Humor Studies Association since 1974 and in conjunction with the Penn State University Press since 2015. Presenters on Mark Twain will be encouraged to submit article-length versions to the Mark Twain Annual, published by Penn State University Press.
The conference registration fee will be $40 for graduate students, adjunct faculty, and independent scholars, and $75 for tenure-track faculty members.
“Humor in America” is looking for contributions for an August issue. Started in 2011, this website publishes pieces about American humor and humor studies. We have published over 500 pieces, had over 350k visitors and over 600k page views, and have been attacked by Roseanne Barr (although Ricky Gervais tweeted a nice response).
In January 2017, we decided to go from a weekly (or thereabouts) publication schedule to a twice per year format, in which we hope to publish a number of high quality pieces each year in August and February. Thus, we are looking for contributors who can submit pieces by July 15th for publication in early August. If you are interested in writing a post, please write Tracy Wuster for more information.
Please review the types of pieces we tend to publish, which are largely focused on humor and its multiple roles in American culture. We generally to not publish humorous writing. We do not publish posts meant primarily to drive traffic or advertise something else. We are an academic community dedicated to smart writing about humor. We do not make money and we do not pay money for contributions.
A little different this year…
Last Saturday the Washington glitterati gathered at the Washington Hilton for what has become a major political event; the White House Correspondent’s Dinner. The draw has over the years become the president doing a stand-up bit followed by a professional comedian roasting more or less everybody in the room. This year’s invited host was Cecily Strong, a Saturday Night Live cast member known for playing The Girl You Wish You Hadn’t Started a Conversation With. Strong, only the second female to host in the last 20 years, did not go soft on those attending, pun intended. In twenty minutes she made sure to joke both left and right. My personal favorite was when she went after Obama: commenting on criticism that Senator Elizabeth Warren is “too idealistic and her proposed policies are too liberal,” she told people to look at President Obama “people thought the same about
View original post 507 more words
His humor is so rude, in such bad taste, that it offends no one — it is too offensive to be offensive. – Gay Talese
Don Rickles is bigger than stand-up comedy. The same way Frank Sinatra is bigger than singing. They each developed a style which would, in essence, become its own genre. They were both actors and, more accurately, entertainers. And they both forged their respective careers by refusing to compromise or vainly chase ephemeral trends. Such stuff as icons are made.
Don Rickles studied acting formally at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, where Lauren Bacall, Grace Kelly, Spencer Tracy and Kirk Douglas studied. Rickles admits he wasn’t the best student at the Academy, but he received advice and direction there which he applied throughout his career. Rickles landed some film and television roles and appeared in a few stage productions, but the loudmouthed Jewish kid from Jackson…
View original post 2,029 more words
As the first snows of December drift across my South St Louis windows, and the last shards of Thanksgiving turkey find their way into the requisite casseroles, cold cuts, and cauldrons of stock, I find myself harkening back to early Advent Sundays of yore.
My childhood, like so many others, was loaded with the humor of the holidays, but one of my family’s favorite traditions always tended in a more marsupial direction. So if you’ie got some time between mixing tubs of “Tom and Jerry” and trimming the tree, I’d like to share one of many meaningful excursions through the absurd quadrants of kiddie Christmas culture.
As I boy growing up in Detroit in the 1970s, I loved watching my mother collapse the last of her gargantuan Thanksgiving feast into a few impossibly crammed Tupperware containers and stuff the serving platters, gravy boats, and silver-plate cutlery away for their long…
View original post 1,901 more words
While it’s a common complaint that holiday traditions and stories have become too commercialized, this beloved tale actually began as a commercial gimmick.
Robert May created the concept of a misfit reindeer in 1939 at the behest of his employer, the Montgomery Ward department store in Chicago. Ward’s had traditionally given a free coloring book to children at holiday time. That year, store executives decided it would be more cost-effective to create an original children’s book in-house. They didn’t know exactly what they wanted, but had the notion it should be an animal story with a main character…
View original post 375 more words
Inspired by the outcome of the recent presidential election, I decided to devote this blog post to an ersatz poet instead of a real one. Julia A. Moore, the “Sweet Singer of Michigan” was a poetaster. Stinking with sentiment, and fouled by forced rhyme, her work was unintentionally amusing and thereby gained a cult following. “Literary,” she explained, “is a work very difficult to do.”
Her most poetized topics were the joys of sobriety, the sudden deaths of small children, and fallen soldiers. Mark Twain is said to have counted her among his favorite poets because she made him laugh. Twain alluded to her work in Following the Equator, and is thought to have based the character of Emmeline Grangerford in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn on her as well.
In addition to being maudlin, she was also prolific. Two of her poems are below. If you haven’t had enough, you can read more by clicking here.
AIR — “Gypsy’s Warning”
Andrew was a little infant,
And his life was two years old;
He was his parents’ eldest boy,
And he was drowned, I was told.
His parents never more can see him
In this world of grief and pain,
And Oh! they will not forget him
While on earth they do remain.
On one bright and pleasant morning
His uncle thought it would be nice
To take his dear little nephew
Down to play upon a raft,
Where he was to work upon it,
An this little child would company be —
The raft the water rushed around it,
Yet he the danger did not see.
This little child knew no danger —
Its little soul was free from sin —
He was looking in the water,
When, alas, this child fell in.
Beneath the raft the water took him,
For the current was so strong,
And before they could rescue him
He was drowned and was gone.
Oh! how sad were his kind parents
When they saw their drowned child,
As they brought him from the water,
It almost made their hearts grow wild.
Oh! how mournful was the parting
From that little infant son.
Friends, I pray you, all take warning,
Be careful of your little ones.
— Julia A. Moore
THE TEMPERANCE ARMY
Come all ye friends, and citizens,
Where-ever you may be,
Come listen to a few kind words
A friend will say to thee,
Although going to speak to you
I mean you all no harm,
Tho’ I wish you’d join the army
Of the temperance reform.
Come join the glorious army
Of the temperance reform,
And every man that joins the ranks,
Will find it is no harm,
To wear Red Ribbon on his breast,
To show to this rare world,
There is one that joined the army
And his colors has unfurled.
Come all men in our nation,
Come join this happy band,
And make your homes an eden,
Throughout our happy land.
Your homes will then be happy,
Your friends will all be kind;
And in the domestic circle
True happiness will find.
Ah, from this temperance army,
Your feet shall never stray.
Your mind will then be balmy
If you keep the shining way.
Your paths are strewn with flowers,
And your homes are rosy light,
And God will watch the hours,
For He’s ever on the right.
Come all ye merry happy lads,
And listen to my rhyme.
Don’t be afraid to join the pledge
And let be the cursed wine.
Ah, lay the flowing bowl aside,
And pass saloons if you can,
And let the people see that you
Can be a sober man.
Go join the temperance army,
And battle for the right,
And fight against the enemy
With all your main and might.
For it is a glorious army
This temperance reform,
And the badge Red Ribbon
Will do you all no harm.
— Julia A. Moore
. . . Here’s to the next four years. Let’s laugh to keep from crying.
I am pleased to announce the Humor in America book series at Penn State University Press. Although sharing a name and an editor, the series is not officially connected with this site, but it does share the same goals: the intelligent and illuminating scholarly discussion of humor.
Humor in America Series
Penn State University Press
Series Editors: Judith Yaross Lee & Tracy Wuster
From Benjamin Franklin to Mark Twain, Mel Brooks to Richard Pryor, Our Gang to Inside Amy Schumer, American humor has time and again proven itself to be more than mere entertainment: it has brought cultural norms and practices in America into sharp relief and, sometimes, successfully changed them. The Humor in America series considers humor as an expression that reflects key concerns of people in specific times and places.
The series engages the full range of the field, from literature, theater, and stand-up comedy to comics, radio, and other media in which humor addresses American experiences. With interdisciplinary research, historical and transnational approaches, and comparative scholarship that carefully examines contexts such as race, gender, class, sexuality, and region, books in the Humor in America series show how the artistic and cultural expression of humor both responds to and shapes American culture. The series will publish mainly authored volumes, not edited collections, and will appeal to audiences that include scholars, students, and the intellectually curious general reader.
Judith Yaross Lee is Distinguished Professor of Communication Studies and Charles E. Zumkehr Professor of Rhetoric & Culture in the School of Communication Studies at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio, and the author, most recently, of Twain’s Brand: Humor in Contemporary American Culture.
Tracy Wuster teaches at the University of Texas at Austin. He is the director of the Humor in American Project at UT and the executive director of the American Humor Studies Association. He is the author of Mark Twain, American Humorist.
Initial inquiries should take the form of a three- to five-page proposal outlining the intent of the project, its scope and relation to other work on the topic, and the likely audience(s) for the book. Please also include a current CV. The editors note that although it is a logical fallacy to expect scholarship on humor to be funny, the best humor scholarship can be fun— and illuminate its exemplars’ comic spirit—while also being intellectually rigorous and a pleasure to read.
Series Editorial Board
Southern Methodist University
Emeritus, University of Illinois at
University of Toronto