As Americans pushed west from the Atlantic seaboard, they formed settlements here and there. In those days before radio or television, they established in nearly every settlement what they called “literary societies,” which met once a month at the schoolhouse or church to provide entertainment. In the intervening days the settlers memorized and rehearsed their presentations.
Winter evenings, when it was too snowy to go outside and plow the frozen ground, families often met in one another’s homes for dinner, and after dinner some of them would be called on to deliver the presentations they had given at the last literary society meeting.
These presentations were not short. They lasted several minutes. They might be poems, like “The Wreck of the Hesperus.” They might be songs, like “She’s Only a Rose with a Broken Stem.” They might be literary narratives, like Edward Everett Hale’s “The Man without a Country.” They might be speeches from drama, like Portia’s moving plea from The Merchant of Venice. Sometimes two settlers would go together. Perhaps a man and a woman would team up for the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet; or two men might present the quarrel scene between Brutus and Cassius from Julius Caesar or a comic turn, like “The Arkansas Traveler.”
“The Arkansas Traveler” required two men and a fiddle or banjo. The settler is sitting on his porch, playing the first half of the tune which derived its title from the name of the sketch. The traveler arrives. “Farmer, can you tell me the way to Little Rock?” “I don’t know bout no little rock, but there’s a whopper down in my spring branch.” And the settler plays the first half of the tune again. The two men go at it, back and forth several times, a straight line from the traveler which is one-upped by the settler, punctuated by the first half of the tune. Finally the traveler asks the settler why he doesn’t play the second half of the tune. The settler admits he doesn’t know it. The traveler takes the fiddle or banjo and plays the tune through. The settler is so overjoyed to learn the second half of the tune that he invites the traveler for dinner.
Editor’s note: In a post on the Not Even Past website, a blog published by the history department of at the University of Texas, the historian Karl Hagstrom Miller discusses the history of the tune and provides several samples of the tune from the The Cylinder Preservation and Digitization Project at the University of California at Santa Barbara. The photo below is from this post.
Another type of literary society presentation was a story the teller had heard somewhere, or even one invented by the teller. Such narratives might be humorous stories of the type that Mark Twain described in “How to Tell a Story.” Twain’s essay most likely deals not only with stories told by one person to another and those told before an audience, but also with stories told in the intimate gathering of a literary society or after dinner at someone’s home. “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” which first brought Twain to national attention, contains a humorous story of the type that might have been told in such a setting.
After hearing the acclaimed scholar Arnold Rampersad speak on the history of African American poetry as part of the TILTS “Poets & Scholars Institute” at the University of Texas, I was thinking about the poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar and about the role of humor in African-American poetry. It seems to me that more scholarly attention might be paid to humorous poetry–both good and bad.
With this in mind, the “Humor in America” blog has “hired” Caroline Sposto as poetry editor. She will be posting humorous poetry on a regular basis. See her first post here. If you are interested in creating a regular column on a humorous subject–movie reviews, political cartoons, TV shows, or any other relevant subject–you, too, can be “hired” as an editor to contribute to our enterprise, which has no payment apart from a growing reading public.
See below for Paul Laurence Dunbar’s great poem, “An Ante-Bellum Sermon.”
Don and Alleen Nilsen became emeritus professors at Arizona State University on May 15th, 2011. Their opus magnum is the Encyclopedia of 20th-Century American Humor which in 2000 was selected as an “Outstanding Academic Book” by Choice, and which in 2001 won an “Outstanding Reference Source” award from the American Library Association’s. Don has also written three books about humor in British literature, one about humor in American literature, and one about humor in Irish literature. In 2004, Don and Alleen published two books about teaching metaphor in public schools, and in 2007, they published their Names and Naming in Young Adult Literature. Don and Alleen’s most recent book is their revised Pronunciation Contrasts in English, about half of which is about English spelling as a rule-governed system. Don and Alleen are presently working on the 9th edition of Literature for Today’s Young Adults, which will appear in 2012.
Tracy Wuster: Tell me about your start in humor studies. How and when did you begin pursuing it as a subject?
Don Nilsen: I’m a linguist and a teacher. If I make an insightful point in my teaching, it is of no value if the students have all gone to sleep. So I started inserting humor into my presentations and interactions with students. In class I try to keep my humor on task, but I also try to force students to see the world from a slightly new and surprising perspective. I guess, that like Mark Twain, I’m sort of a “Gonzo Journalist.” I’m reporting real truths, but at the same time I’m exaggerating these truths, or parodying them, or understating them, or making strange connections. A teacher needs to be careful in using humor, because students may miss the point you are making, or may take the humor the wrong way. Sarcasm is especially dangerous for two opposite reasons. It is so powerful that it can hurt a student’s self esteem. But if you use sarcasm on a smart student, you are challenging him to a classroom duel that you might not win. Ironies and paradoxes are especially good humor tools to use in the classroom. Erma Bombeck, Art Buchwald, Gary Trudeau, and Charles Preston have been major influences on my life. Erma Bombeck and Art Buchwald both received honorary Ph.D. degrees from ASU, Gary Trudeau wrote Arizona’s impeached governor Evan Meacham into his comic strip, and Charles Preston, cartoonist for the Wall Street Journal did a cartoon about one of our humor conferences that was published in the Wall Street Journal. His original cartoon can now be seen hanging in our home.
Caption: “There are essentially for basic forms for a joke–the concealing of knowledge later revealed, the substitution of one concept for another, an unexpected conclusion to a logical progression, and slipping on a banana peel.”
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Mark Twain plays a central role in the history of American humor and humor studies. And since I am teaching Adventures of Huckleberry Finn for the first time currently, this week’s productination will be mostly Mark Twain.
Mark Twain achieved scale, with the gusty breadth astir in the country as the Pacific was reached. Huckleberry Finn belongs within the scope of that epical impulse which had taken shape in the ’50’s : it has indeed a cumulative epical power as its main story branches off in innumerable directions under the stress of an opulent improvisation. In this book Mark Twain gave to the great flood of the Mis sissippi its elementary place in the American experience, with the river as a dominating fantasy, with the small human figures as prototypes of those untethered wanderers who had appeared so often on the popular horizon.
–Constance Rourke, American Humor: A Study in the National Character (1931)
What made Mark Twain so funny? one answer: cannabis
And a happy birthday to Amy Poehler. If you don’t watch Parks and Recreation, you should catch up in preparation for the new season.
I am not a reviewer of books. I am a consumer of Health Care, and it was only after rereading Mark Twain and Medicine: “Any Mummery Will Cure.” by K. Patrick Ober, (MD), University of Missouri Press, 2003, that my one world impinged on the other and I felt the need to speak of this book to other Mark Twain enthusiasts. My friend “Dr.” Kevin Mac Donnell of Texas reviewed this book for the Mark Twain Forum in 2004 and there is very little to add to his comprehensive survey of Dr. Ober’s work. At that time, Kevin stated, “Ober’s work will certainly… provoke new insights into some previously accepted diagnoses.”
When I consulted with my surgeon, a wise and caring man, he realized immediately what I needed: a healthy fear of God and a dose of staphylococcus bacteria. He didn’t have any of the microbes on hand at the clinic where I saw him but he knew where he could lay hands on plenty, so he sent me to the hospital. There on the operating table I was given what I needed which later, when the lab confirmed their success, I was informed that the staph had gone to my heart. It was then that the healing balm of antibiotics was administered along with the aforementioned fear of God. The caring men and women of medicine have always served me well. It is with this, a grateful heart and other medical mishaps in mind I wish to add the following regarding this book.
You need only know that the first time I read a thing I do it for fun. The second time through I use the yellow marker and do the underlining. The third time through I make notes in a notebook and the final read is when I put important stuff–stuff that will be on the test–on flash cards. I’ve finished my second reading of Ober’s book and even though I know better, I want to share two “summaries” with you.
The literary critics of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries made a sharp distinction between “wit” and “humour,” a distinction that is useful also in characterizing radio and television comedians.
“Wit” was perhaps best defined by Pope in the “Essay on Criticism”:
True Wit is Nature to advantage dress’d,
What oft was thought, but ne’er so well express’d . . . . (ll. 297-8)
Pope’s poetry also provides numerous examples; one of the best appeared earlier in the same poem:
‘Tis with our judgments as our watches, none
Go just alike, yet each believes his own. (Ll. 9-10)
Everyone has noticed how rare agreement is, except among politicians who have been fed “talking points” by their party’s campaign committees; yet no one but Pope thought to compare disagreements about literature to the disagreements we have among ourselves when we try to answer the question “What time is it?”
Wit, then, relies on the expression of an idea. It is a kind of verbal cleverness. “Humor” – or “humour” if you’re British – is an older concept, going back to medieval medicine. Medieval physicians believed there were four fluids (humours) in the body which were responsible for both diseases and he formation of personality: blood, phlegm, yellow bile (choler), and black bile (melancholy). (If I’m telling you what you already know, please forgive me; perhaps somebody else out there doesn’t know it.) A person in whom blood predominated was “sanguine,” that is, eager and excitable; if the blood was excessive, it caused a disease, and the patients had to be bled by attaching leeches to them.
The classic example of the literary application of this theory was a play by Shakespeare’s friend and rival, Ben Jonson, Every Man in His Humour, in which the comedy arose from the personalities of the characters. It was so successful that Jonson followed it with a sequel, Every Man Out of His Humour.
If you followed radio comedy in the days when there was any, or if you’ve been watching television comedy in the years since radio devolved into disk jockeying, you can see how the distinction between wit and humor applies to the comics on those media. Here’s how my watch ticks – and yours, like Pope’s, may very well run differently from mine.
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the managing editor.
The very next person who views this website will be the 1000th viewer (or so, the site counts individual page views…). Still, in approximately one month of existence, we have had quite a few views. Thank you.
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Last week, Texas media personality and humorist Richard “Cactus” Pryor passed away at the age of 88. A number of fitting tributes to the man have since appeared in Austin. Many of these attest to Cactus’s role as a pioneering media presence who defined the city’s voice on radio station KLBJ since the mid-1940s, and as program manager of Austin’s first, and for a long time only, television station, KTBC. Incidentally, Lady Bird and Lyndon Johnson owned both stations, placing this regional humorist on an interesting historical stage. Unlike many of the tribute writers over the past week, I did not come to know Pryor by growing up with his iconic voice and image, listening to his narration of Austin’s civil defense films in the 1960s or watching his weekly shows on UT football with Coach Darrell Royal. Rather, I first encountered him in the archives of the Briscoe Center for American History at the University of Texas, finding in him an associate and contemporary of Texas regional folklorists and historians J. Frank Dobie, Walter Prescott Webb, Roy Bedichek, and Alan Lomax, and as the funny face of LBJ’s political machine in Central Texas. Some of my most enjoyable experiences in archival research, actually, came in a packet of correspondence between Pryor and humorist John Henry Faulk. Faulk, like Pryor, is an Austin icon whose career had many phases. He studied under Dobie, conducted some of the only existing recorded interviews of ex-slaves in the Library of Congress, moved to the East Coast for a career in radio before being purged for supposed Communist associations, won one of the largest libel suits in U. S. history based on those charges in 1962, and, late in life, ran for Congress and had a recurring role on Hee Haw. The two men were close, and I wanted to take this opportunity to share a nugget or two from their correspondence speaking to the issue of humor.
I’ll begin with the tragic moment that upended Pryor’s life, as it did so many others. More or less a local dj at the time of the JFK assassination, LBJ’s ascent to the White House suddenly changed Pryor’s points of reference. Cactus had been slated to emcee Kennedy’s dinner in Austin after his visit to Dallas. Instead, he suddenly saw his immediate social circle transform into a locus of American politics. In a letter to Faulk in early December, 1963, Pryor wrote:
You won’t want to miss the rest of the story
(including a monkey on a dog),
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