Happy Birthday…E.B. White!

Tracy Wuster

For two follow-up posts on this question, see:

Sharon McCoy, “Is a Joke Really Like a Frog?” and my piece here.

Born July 11, 1899.  White is famous for children’s books, style guides, and his work at the New Yorker, but in humor studies, he is probably best known for his introduction to the 1941 book, A Subtreasury of American Humor, which he edited with Katherine White.

E. B. White, subtreasury of american humor, frog

The beginning of White’s introduction is one of the most widely known statements about the study of humor, functioning as a witty injunction against the serious study of humor. It reads:

Analysts have had their go at humor, and I have read some of this interpretative literature, but without being greatly instructed. Humor can be dissected, as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the pure scientific mind.[1]

But as with many essays on the subject of humor, this statement acts as a clever dodge, what I have taken to calling a “definitional denial.”  With a definitional denial, an author says “humor is undefinable”–often in a witty or humorous manner–but this rhetorical move is almost always followed by a definition of various aspects of humor. It is like saying “one can’t define ‘virtue,’ but everyone knows that virtue is this or that, but not the other.”  Thus, for another instance, William Dean Howells’s review of Mark Twain’s The Innocents Abroad from the November 1869 Atlantic Monthly begins:

The character of American humor, and its want of resemblance to the humor of Kamatschatka or Patagonia,—will the reader forgive us if we fail to set down here the thoughts suggested by these fresh and apposite topics?  Will he credit us with a self-denial proportioned to the vastness of Mr. Clement’s (sic) very amusing book, if we spare to state why he is so droll, or—which is as much to the purpose—why we do not know? [2]

And then Howells spends some time discussing humor, not defining it per se, but exploring pertinent aspects of humor in relation to Mark Twain.  And Howells and White are not alone–many discussions of humor begin with this almost ritual denial of the inability, or even the inadvisability, of defining humor, followed by an essay, review, or article that says a good deal about what humor is. Why do authors feel that they must deny their aim of defining humor, or the very existence of such a definition, before they are willing to discuss humor? In the case of E.B. White, after denying the possibility of defining humor (and even pointing to the undesirability of such a task), he goes on to make some pretty large generalizations about humor.  Many of these points, in fact, echo essays on humor from the nineteenth century by Howells and others, such as the line between the humorous and the serious:

Practically everyone is a manic-depressive of sorts, with his up moments and his down moments, and your certainly don’t have to be a humorist to taste the sadness of situation and mood. But there is often a rather fine line between laughing and crying, and if a humorous piece of writing brings a person to the point where his emotional responses are untrustworthy and seem likely to break over into the opposite realm, it is because humor, like poetry, has an extra content. It plays close to the big hot fire which is Truth, and sometimes the reader feels the heat.

But even though humor is afforded this moment of potential “serious” content in proximity to the big hot fire of Truth, White then notes the lower status afforded to humor, what Brander Matthews and other nineteenth-century critics had dubbed “the penalty of humor.”  White writes:

The world likes humor, but it treats it patronizingly. It decorates its serious artists with laurel, and its wags with Brussels sprouts. It feels that if a thing is funny it can be presumed to be some- thing less than great, because if it were truly great it would be wholly serious. Writers know this, and those who take their literary selves with great seriousness are at considerable pains never to associate their name with anything funny or flippant or nonsensical or “light.” They suspect it would hurt their reputation, and they are right. [3]

Thus, the humor collection is a “subtreasury,” and thus humor studies confronts some longstanding critical and cultural views about humor as a subject of knowledge.  But then again, much can be learned from dissecting a frog, can it not?


[1]  See http://hs.hpisd.org/uploads/45/f69347.pdf

[2] [William Dean Howells], “The Innocents Abroad,” 24: 146 (December 1869), 764.  Kamatschatka (now Kamatchka) is a peninsula in eastern Russia, which had a port prominent in Alaska’s exploration.

[3] Table of Contents of the book:  http://www.modernlib.com/authors/misc/misc/miscMiscToCs/G73Subtreasury.html

(c) Tracy Wuster, 2011-2

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4 responses

  1. Reblogged this on Humor in America and commented:

    On E.B. White and the definition of humor.

  2. […] and versatile  that it is hard to define, an example of what I have called elsewhere the “definitional denial.”  So, after that paragraph and the fairly lengthy discussion of laughing too much, Hazlitt […]

  3. […] Sharon McCoy and I have taken on E.B. White’s semi-famous warning that studying humor is like dissecting a frog.  I […]

  4. […] Wuster have both take up E.B. White’s famous saying about humor and dissecting a frog (here, here, and here).  Jeff Melton and Sharon McCoy have written on teaching […]

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