Monthly Archives: April, 2013

In the Archives: An Easy Chair in an Uneasy World (1920)

It may be heresy to admit on a website dedicated to American humor that I find great relief in the British variant. Since I first learned of knights who say Ni! I’ve thoroughly appreciated heady concepts wrapped in silly nonsense. I have even found principles to incorporate in my general code of conduct, for instance, in Douglas Adams’s lesser known Dirk Gently detective series, Adams introduces the concept of zen navigation.

“I rarely end up where I was intending to go, but often I end up somewhere that I needed to be.” You’d be amazed the liberty one feels at discovering the correct destination when relieved of plotting the course. Such was the case for this week’s submission to the Archives.

Quite often we hear the careless expression “In the wake of…” and understand the causality of A on the outcome of B. But the idiom in this case homophonically reminds us of our vigil in a funeral while punning on the context of current events. When the broad scope of law enforcement pulled Boston Marathon suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev out of a boat in a Watertown backyard, neither the boat, the backyard, nor the town were near water. But the wake cast by that young man in the boat capsized Boston for the better part of a week.

I was fortunate to be at a Dairy Queen with a small child twenty miles from the finish line when the bombs went off Patriots’ Day. I plan to stay near that child as close as I can when I see the pictures of children whose parents can’t hold them again. It sends the mind looking for answers. I thought I might find them in precedent.

That's me on the left...

That’s me on the left…

Continue reading →

Advertisements

BOSTON YOU’RE OUR HOME

The source of all humor is not laughter, but sorrow. ~ Mark Twain

101183_c81f9951063b278f944877dcc531a961_largeIt has not been a week of laughter. The terrorist bombings in Boston last week were a troubling reminder that we live in a changed and tragic world; a world changed long enough ago we were almost getting comfortable. There have been other attacks and even more horrific tragedies in recent years, but this was a man-made explosion in the heart of an American icon and that carries with it a certain kind of pain and frustration.

The Patriot’s Day holiday in Massachusetts represents everything positive about a civilized society. Patriot’s Day is the biggest day of the year in Boston. Its origins are in tribute to the great American Revolutionary fighters and thinkers whose blood spilled upon those very same streets centuries ago, but it is mainly an excuse to drink during a weekday and watch other, more sober, people run. This itself is noble. What better way to celebrate humanity and freedom than to take a pause from work, bend a few social norms, and host a sporting event that is a testament to the human spirit, individualistic accomplishment, and the coming together of all cultures, from all corners of the globe, to compete in a non-adversarial quest using nothing extracurricular to the human body other than shorts and a pair of shoes? The genius of a marathon is that anyone can do it – you don’t have to run quickly, or run at all. You don’t even have to finish. Performances are timed, yes, but runners truly compete against only themselves. It is whatever the runner wishes to make of it. It is a mission of personal fulfillment that also happens to be witnessed by and shared with the world. For anyone to want to disrupt such a triumph with death and devastation is a painful reminder of the lowest in humanity – oppression, fanaticism, ignorance, and tyranny.

It is true that Boston has had its share of Puritan repression and racial dysfunction. But one thing quintessentially Bostonian is that Boston rejects tyranny. That is essentially its existence. Boston pride is a special breed.

When I lived in Boston I discovered harmony in the past and present coexisting; in the profound poetry of the reflection of Trinity Church in the glass exterior of the John Hancock Tower in Copley Square, mere feet from last week’s explosions. I learned that there are indeed bars where everybody knows your name and that, as my boss at the pizzeria made clear, it would be rude to not bring a pizza from the neighborhood joint where I worked for the bartender at the neighborhood joint where I drank. My boss was happy, the bartender was happy, and I was certainly happy; drinks on the house. There’s a certain cyclical poetic profoundness in that as well.

This is a humor blog and my monthly entries are about humor in music. It has been difficult to enjoy either since last Monday but in Boston you don’t sit around feeling sorry for yourself. You show your reverence for the fallen of the past – be it centuries ago or just a few days – by showing your pride for the present.

So here are five funny songs about one tough and beautiful town:

Banned in Boston – Sam the Sham & The Pharaohs

I’m proud to say that my best friends are Boston’s biggest freaks

Boston is known for its bizarre and antiquated “blue laws” (it only became legal to sell liquor on Sundays as recently as 2004 and it is still illegal to harass pigeons). This phrase dates back to the city’s puritanical roots when literary works deemed “objectionable” were forbidden. Sam the Sham was a turban-wearing, Hearse-driving, Mexican-American rock ‘n’ roll singer from Texas named Domingo Zamudio who added his name alongside the likes of Walt Whitman, Ernest Hemingway, William Burroughs and The Everly Brothers as being a little too “weird and bearded, baby, wild and wooly” for Beantown. Now let me get up on this doctored up thunder ticket.

Boston Beans – Peggy Lee

They have Cambridge and Harvard and MIT, they didn’t have any beans for me

The “Beantown” nickname dates back to the slave trade era when the city was infused with an inordinate amount of molasses from the West Indies, which was used to sweeten a then-popular baked bean dish. Imagine Peggy Lee’s surprise to find out no one really eats Boston baked beans in Boston. They have “plenty of fish, Chinese food if that’s your dish,” but, alas, no molasses baked beans.

Dirty Water – The Standells

Frustrated women have to be in by 12:00 (ah, that’s a shame)

The Standells were from Los Angeles, not Boston. But the city’s reputation in the 1960’s for college co-ed curfews and water pollution was enough to inspire one of the coolest and most influential garage rock anthems ever waxed. It remains a staple at local sporting events.

Government Center  – The Modern Lovers

Make those secretaries feel better, when they put the stamps on the ledgers

An ode to the monotony of bureaucratic government workers’ daily doldrums. But it’s nothing a little rock ‘n’ roll can’t fix. Recorded in 1972, this proto-punk track was left off The Modern Lovers’ original eponymous 1976 release.

M.T.A. – The Kingston Trio

He may ride forever ‘neath the streets of Boston

This colorful tale is like a musical T map – name checking Kendall Square, Jamaica Plain, Chelsea, and Roxbury – detailing the adventures of Charlie, a rider stuck on the Boston subway system unable to pay the “exit fare” increase implemented after he started his ride. Never mind that his wife could hand him the requisite extra cash instead of a sandwich at the Scollay Square (now Government Center) station each day. The song was composed in 1949 as part of a political campaign and shares a melody with the train tragedy folk classic, “Wreck of the Old 97.”  The Kingston Trio recorded the definitive version in 1959. More than half a century later, Charlie’s fate is still unlearned.

(c) 2013, Matt Powell

Is a (tired) goat like a (dead) frog?; or Some thoughts on the objections to the humorous object as an object of study

Tracy Wuster

When computers learn how to make jokes, artists will be in serious trouble.

–Donald Barthelme, “Not Knowing”

We have all had the experience of having something we are fascinated by dampened by learning more about it.  The tragedy of poor schooling is not unmet standards or bad test scores–the tragedy of school is having the natural curiosity of childhood deadened.  Of course, much of the transition from magical world of wonder to rational world of knowledge is necessary… we wouldn’t want an entire nation of clowns who do not understand that magnets are not miracles.  But thought and study don’t have to lead to the death of wonder–what I, and I would hope other scholars of humor (and of almost any subject, really), would like to convince you is that study can lead to both a knowledge and a deeper appreciation of the subject, a deeper fascination with the complicated and, yes, fun workings of humor.

But when it comes to humor, people often have a different reaction.  Humor, of course, is not a science–and there is not formula that a computer can learn to tell a joke properly in front of an audience, even if computers can make jokes.  Jokes and laughter are a different kind of subject, and one dominant thread holds that turning humor into an object of study might diminish the vitality of the work.

The objection that the study of humor takes something alive and turns it into something like a computer program is a real fear, and surely one with some basis.  But often, and maybe unfortunately, this real issue for discussion gets wighted down into one simple, and somewhat misleading, metaphor: “killing the frog.” Both Sharon McCoy and I have taken on E.B. White’s semi-famous warning that studying humor is like dissecting a frog.  I have seen several versions of this saying:

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.

Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog.  Few people are interested and the frog dies of it.[1]

Sharon nicely explains that the metaphor is off–frogs are already dead when they are dissected–and that the act of dissecting the frog leads to scientific understanding of not only frogs, but of ourselves and of our environment.  In my post, I explained that White states this position, and then he goes on to offer some definitions of humor–partaking in a long tradition of people claiming you can’t define or discuss characteristics of humor and then going ahead and doing so.  I call it a “definitional denial.”

What I think the prevalence of this quote points to is a larger fear that the study of literature–or of film, or of television, or of any piece of artistic expression–somehow seeks to lessen the experience of that object.  That to seek to understand a cultural object is to lessen the authentic interaction one might have with that object.  That to call something a “cultural object,” and to point out that it might have a historical or sociological or psychological or linguistic or any other academicalistic meaning, takes that thing out of the realm of enjoyment, of relaxation, of appreciation and then puts it into the realm of school.  And with humor–which most people  experience as enjoyment, as laughter–the feeling is either heightened or easier to vocalize.  For those who didn’t get pleasure out of school, putting humor into the scholarly realm might be a heightened betrayal [2].

When encountering a frog, most people just want to watch it, not cut it open to see how it works.

But some of people like to think about how humor works.  We are scholars.  Just as there are scholars of frogs, and of schools, and of Texas music, and of male flight attendants, and of religion, and of stadiums, and of just about everything else, there are scholars of humor.  And unless you don’t like scholars in general, there should be no need to defend any particular branch of study: from frogs to funny.

That being said, I seem to be venturing close to my a corollary form of the “definitional denial”: the defensive denial–claiming I don’t need to defend the study of humor and then doing so.  Instead, let’s turn not to a dissecting a frog, which is not a terribly good metaphor for humanistic study of humor, to looking at a goat.  Not just any goat.  This goat:

Robert Rauchenberg, "Monogram” (1959)

Robert Rauschenberg, “Monogram” (1959)

Seeing this piece, we might have any number of reactions–“What does it mean?”  “Who is it by?” “is it supposed to be funny?” “I like it” “I hate it” “eh” “wow” “is it art?”  These reactions are not much different from the reactions people might have to a piece of humor more generally.  Your answers to these questions, your reactions, matter to you.  And the range of reactions a cultural object might have are important as evidence of audience reception.

But to the art historian, or the aficionado of art more broadly, the historical context of Rauschenberg’s combine matters, along with its formal characteristics and its place in his development as an artist.

Continue reading →

Standing Askew: If Tragedy Plus Time Equals Comedy, What Do You Call It When There Is No Time?

The idea of “comedy” carries with it a sense of lightness, easy laughter, or distance.  It also carries with it the implication that the audience who is listening, watching or reading is primed to laugh.  They expect to be entertained and amused, to hear something funny.

When people are in the midst of tragedy, or dealing with its aftermath, their expectations are different.  They seek comfort.  Connection.  Strength.  Relief.  Information.  Laughter can seem inappropriate — especially lighthearted laughter or any sort of mockery.  But laughter can also provide comfort, connection, strength, and relief.  And sometimes humor — as opposed to comedy or a joke — can also provide information, or a new perspective that enables coping.  In other words, humor can allow us to stand a little askew — a stance that can help in surviving a tragedy, or in coping afterward.  This use of humor is very human, but I also think, in many ways, it is particularly American.

In September 1857, the ship Central America, carrying 626 crew and passengers and almost $2,000,000 in treasure,  went down in a hurricane off the southeastern coast of the United States.  Sighting a ship in the distance, all of the women and children were put aboard the only three lifeboats they had.  The men aboard went grimly about the business of bailing until the ship finally went down.  Of the approximately 576 men cast into the waters when the ship went down, fewer than 10% survived to be rescued.  But amid the terror of the wreck, a group of survivors remembered most what gave them hope and strength:  humor.

One of the passengers on board the ship was the blackface minstrel Billy Birch.  Along with other men, he had put his wife Virgina (with her pet canary firmly and safely tucked into the bosom of her dress) into a lifeboat.  Cast into the sea with the others when the ship went down, Birch swam about until he found a bit of flotsam.  Hailing other survivors in the nearby waters, he invited them expansively to have a perch on his “yacht” to rest, and apparently kept up a running patter of jokes and humorous comments as they waited hours in the cold and stormy seas for rescue.  Years later, long after the stories of the night’s terror had dimmed in the popular imagination, occasional re-tellings surfaced about the incongruity of the famous actor and his impromptu floating stage, of his indefatigable good humor and laughter.

The story resonated because it appealed to something deep within Americans’ sense of themselves.  Unlike the legendary British “stiff upper lip,” Americans seem to pride themselves on meeting disaster and danger with resolve and quips and humor.  Events of the last week show that this is still true.

When on April 15, the Boston Marathon was violently disrupted by bombs exploding near the finish line, the initial response across the nation was of course shock, empathy, sadness, and anger — simultaneous with pride in those who helped and in the resilience of survivors who woke up “happy to be alive” and runners who had not been able to finish the race but who, only a day or two later, were discussing online how to finish the race in honor of the fallen, which included an 8-year-old boy, and out of determination not to be stopped.  Humor quickly came into the national conversation as well, as one of the slain, Krystle Campbell, was described over and over as having “a great sense of humor” as one of her most important and defining characteristics.

Stephen Colbert weighed in the next evening, with a tribute to the people of Boston in his opening monologue that is being shared on websites and in news reports around the world.  The monologue has already been characterized as “masterful,” “meaningful,” “eloquent,” “touching,” “patriotic,” “moving” — and “humorous.”  I would argue that it is also quintessentially American.  Continue reading →

The Mad Mad Mad Mad Comedy of Jonathan Winters

I’m generally not given to hagiography in the wake of celebrity death. Still, hearing about Jonathan Winters’ Jonathan Wintersdying touched me. This is likely in part because he looked so much like my grandfather, but also because I really liked Jonathan Winters. I remember fighting to catch my breath watching the short-lived sitcom Davis Rules as a kid. If memory serves, Winters’ had advised his grandchildren that to dissuade people from sitting near you at the movies, you should stick Raisinets to your face and cry, “fungi fever.” It was the delivery that sold it. The Emmy voters agreed as he won Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series for the sitcom that could not make it past 29 episodes.

My favorite Winters moment comes from a less esoteric source: It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World. This film contains, with all due respect to the Stooges and Chris Farley, my favorite three and a half minutes of anarchic, destructive physical comedy in a visual medium.

In this scene, Winters’ captors condescend as they explain that he is about to be shipped off to a mental hospital. In fact, Jonathan Winters had, by this film’s 1963 release, spent time in what he referred to on his 1960 LP The Wonderful World of Jonathan Winters as “the zoo.” Mental illness haunted Winters throughout his life. Despite the challenges and stigmas associated with these issues, he had broken through by the 1960s. In an era where comedy engaging in profanity, political commentary, or innovation ran the risk of being called “sick,” Winters embodied the mentally ill connotations of the term – acting out the manic half of his real-life bipolar disorder with stream-of-consciousness routines that I trust the surrealists (along with a coked-up Robin Williams) appreciated. Introducing Winters on The Jack Paar Program in 1964, Paar made sly reference to Winters’ mental illness explaining, “If Jonathan Winters is ever accused of anything, he’s got the perfect alibi. He was someone else at the time.”

While stunt doubles seemingly accomplish much of the physical comedy in the above scene from It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World, Winters’ continual attempts to calm the situation even as the gas station lays in rubble, along with his voiceover’s underplayed threats (“uh huh, there you are”) speak to his particular angle on sick comedy in mid-century. Winters lay at one end of a spectrum occupied at the other end with the likes of Bob Newhart. If Newhart (in his routines and on his sitcom as a psychologist) calmly played sane while those around him demonstrated the world’s insanity, Winters was the comic driven to mania and dissociative disorder by an overly buttoned-down world. But Jonathan Winters’ discontent would not be repressed by civilization. The joy of his comedy then was that he broke from the attempt at control, tearing out of and tearing down the proverbial electric tape and gas station that could not contain him.

(c) 2013, Phil Scepanski

extended metaphors and empathetic laughter

shutterstock_100507999I glance at the kitchen clock. It’s past midnight and I’m alone, reminiscing about the old days when the hum and click-clack of my typewriter provided a bit of company. Now all I hear are driving rain and vehement claps of thunder after each flash of lightening that fractures the starless sky. Once again, there’s a chill in the air.

How could it be just a few hours earlier, I’d strolled through fragrant, sun-drenched streets festooned with azaleas, dogwood and magnolia blossoms?

Simple answer: It’s April––that irrational month which feels like an extended metaphor for life. Edna St. Vincent Millay, whose own circumstances and temperament were every bit as capricious and bittersweet, illuminated this parallel through the desperate humor of this poem:

Spring

To what purpose, April, do you return again?
Beauty is not enough.
You can no longer quiet me with the redness
Of little leaves opening stickily.
I know what I know.
The sun is hot on my neck as I observe
The spikes of the crocus.
The smell of the earth is good.
It is apparent that there is no death.
But what does that signify?
Not only under ground are the brains of men
Eaten by maggots.
Life in itself
Is nothing,
An empty cup, a flight of uncarpeted stairs.
It is not enough that yearly, down this hill,
April
Comes like an idiot, babbling and strewing flowers.
                                                         — Edna St. Vincent Millay, 1921
In other words, my friend, you’re not alone. Arbitrary April dupes us all. Should this tug of war leave you out of sorts, remember it lasts only thirty days . . .  and we can amble through them hand in hand.

What is Not Funny: Using Surveys in Teaching Humor

Teaching American Humor

It’s just a joke. I was only joking. Can’t you take a joke?

In an earlier post, I discussed how I have used opinion surveys as a way for students to examine their own tastes in humor and as a way to introduce humor as a vibrant and crucial component of American culture.  In the first part of the surveys, students name their favorite films and television shows and classify their tastes. I have found it is a useful way to establish a context for discussion of theoretical concepts in humor while also getting students to open up about their expectations for the course. Here is a link to that post, “What is Funny: Using Surveys in Teaching Humor“.

In the second part of the survey, students must address the potential complications to their enjoyment of humor. What if the person next to them not only doesn’t share their sense of humor but finds it offensive? When is a joke not a joke but an attack? And even if that “joke” is a veiled attack, should it be silenced? These are complicated issues and demand much more space (and brain power) than I can offer here, but no class on humor can rightly avoid the ever-present tension concerning differing opinions on what is and what is not funny.

Steve Brykman recently posted an excellent discussion concerning social and political challenges inherent in this issue. The underlying violence associated with much of American humor becomes especially troublesome when the humor concerns political figures, in particular the President of the United States. The post, “Is a Joke a Joke?,” can provide an astute and perfectly concise introduction for students who must consider the potential power of humor not only to the change the world but also blow it up. A joke can be provocative, but what if it is more accurately described as incendiary speech? Here is a link to Steve’s post.

As a way to force a potentially tense discussion, I use the survey to ask students to address this issue so that initially they can provide comments anonymously.  They must answer the following two paired questions. In each case, I provide a list, but they are also encouraged to add items if they see fit to do so:

1. What subject matter is off-limits for humor with you personally if someone is kidding with you? (Circle as many, or as few, as you wish)

Your mother

Your religion

Your gender

Your race

Your sexual orientation

Your body (height, weight, etc.)

Your disabilities or challenges

2.  What subject matter is off-limits for humor socially when the audience is public? (Circle as many, or as few, as you wish)

mothers

religions

genders

races

sexual orientations

bodies (height, weight, etc.)

disabilities or challenges

deaths and/or tragedies affecting real people

Continue reading →

Is a Joke a Joke?

Back in January, local businessman Marty Jakosa thought that along with the honor of being chosen to MC the 45th the Turlock Chamber’s 45th annual “Best of Turlock” dinner came the right to tell an off-color—even conceivably treasonous—joke about our President.

The joke was about Obama following in the footsteps of past presidents like Washington and Jefferson, and concluded with, “How about you be like Abe Lincoln and go to a play?”

Apparently, somebody with some influence said something to change Jakosa’s opinion, because not too much later, he effusively apologized, saying he was “truly, truly sorry,” and had “exercised extremely poor judgement,” adding, “I would never purposely disrespect the office of the President of the United States.”

Except that he did. And since “never” includes things that happened in the past, one can only conclude he was lying. And you couldn’t argue that his intentions weren’t purposeful, either, since in response to audience moans and boos, he felt compelled to add, “That’s a cute joke.” As in, ‘Come on, you oversensitive nits, that was a cute joke and you know it.’

According to Wikipedia, the prototype for 18 USC § 871, Threats Against the President, was the British Treason Act 1351, an act that made it a crime to “compass or imagine” the King’s death. More relevantly, convictions under 18 USC § 871 have been sustained for simply declaring “President Wilson ought to be killed,” and for displaying posters calling for the hanging of President Roosevelt. “The US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit held that a threat was knowingly made if the maker comprehended the meaning of the words uttered by him.”

I suppose one could argue Jakosa in fact didn’t comprehend the actual meaning of his joke, that perhaps he felt Obama just needs more culture in his life. At least this would help explain why he thought the joke was cute to begin with.

Then again, According to the US Attorney’s Manual, “Of the individuals who come to the Secret Service’s attention as creating a possible danger to one of their protectees, approximately 75 percent are mentally ill.” Given Jakosa’s assertion the joke is “cute” in the face of a offended audience, I’d say deteriorating mental health is also a likely possibility.

But here’s the thing. Just a few days ago, I caught an NPR story about some Republican (whose name I don’t remember) who’s defending Jakosa’s joke, saying (and I’m paraphrasing), “Well, back when Bush was President, right after Cheney shot his friend in the face, there were tons of jokes flying around from Democrats about how Bush should go hunting with Cheney. So that makes what Jakosa said okay.”

Only there weren’t.

First off, the hunting incident was so bat-shit crazy, even Bush himself couldn’t help joking about about it. While hosting the 2007 Stanley Cup winners at the White House, (at which the Anaheim Ducks were in attendance), he said, “Have you noticed a lot of security around here? It’s because the Vice President heard there were some ducks around.”

Solid joke, right? Score one for President Bush.

Not enough? How about this: at an executive order signing in October, 2007, Bush said he was going to do some fishing because, “The Secret Service won’t let me go hunting with [Cheney].”

In other words, Bush had opened the doors, providing clearance for any Cheney hunting jokes to come. However, if you look at those that did follow, you’ll see a fundamental difference between them and Jakosa’s. A difference Republicans either don’t appreciate or choose to ignore.

And I don’t know about you, but frankly, I can’t recall any specific Bush-Cheney jokes that paralleled this situation, nor could I find any online, Despite scouring the web for late-night talk show Cheney jokes, not one came close to implicating Bush as shooting victim or even implying he should become one.

06.02.12.SittingDuck-X

For whatever reason, Argus Hamilton has amassed an exhaustive collection of Cheney hunting jokes, which can be found here: argushamilton.com/hunting.htm. Funny thing is, out of the fifty or so jokes listed, in every instance, the butt of the joke remains Cheney. This only makes sense, since Cheney is the one who shot his buddy in the face and then didn’t report the incident until the following day.

This joke from the Hamilton list is interesting, but the aim (sorry) of the joke is to avoid Cheney’s birdshot, not to get taken out by it, so really it’s just a variation on Bush’s own joke: “Dick Cheney’s job approval rating fell to twenty-nine percent in polls released Monday. However, President Bush stated categorically he’s standing behind the vice president. If he’s standing anywhere else the Secret Service makes him move.”

Out of all the jokes listed on Hamilton’s site, this one comes closest to Jakosa’s: “Dick Cheney got bad news Wednesday when the CBS News poll came out showing that the vice president’s approval rating has sunk to eighteen percent. There’s a way out of anything. To get his numbers up, he just invited President Bush to go hunting.”

However, even here, Cheney is the butt of the joke, the one inviting Bush to go hunting, suggesting the VP is the one who wants to shoot the President in order that he might take over his position. That’s very different than implying the general public would like to see Obama go the way of Lincoln.

In general, whenever I think about the ways Republicans respond to allegations of impropriety (whether it’s assassination jokes, or redefining rape) I can’t help but think of my four year old son. After being caught slamming his sister’s head into the wall, he’ll defend himself by shouting, “She poked me in the eye!” But when you sit them down and the truth comes out, we learn what had happened was she had accidentally brushed his face with a feather…after he gave her the feather.

The point is, let’s all tread lightly. Sometimes a joke isn’t just a joke. The assassination pump is already primed, people. According to Wikipedia, President George W. Bush received 3,000 threats a year, while Barack Obama received four times that many.

Maybe Jakosa should be like Abe Lincoln and Gettysburg the hell out of here.

Be sure to check out my Huffington Post blog – I’m with Mitt: Adventures in Amercia!

In the Archives: Washington Irving, “The Art of Book-Making” (1819)

Tracy Wuster

Having recently emerged from a long-winter’s haze (which, here in Texas, involves lounging around in seventy-degree weather), I am now ready to resume the full duties of editor of this humor publication.  Granted, I never really left per se, but I have been absent to a degree, owing to various events both personal and professional, both grand and tragic.  Never mind the details.

One detail: I sent my book off to the publisher.  And while the satisfying thud of a 400-page manuscript in a mailbox would have been nice, the click of the mouse and the electronic thud of the manuscript landing in the publisher’s inbox was rewarding, if a bit anti-climactic.  Now that I have written the definitive tome on the reputation of Mark Twain as a humorist (1865-1882)–or at least a tome that hopefully will come out sometime in 2014–I can resume my full duties as editor of this fine publication, which I had already been doing, but in something of a distracted manner.

So, I apologize for the lack of a post this past Monday.  April Fool’s Day would either require a hoax post or something equally worthwhile of the day.  I thought of writing about the imminent closure of this site but did not get around to it.  See above re: book being due.

Washington Irving sketch book geoffrey crayon

Washington Irving

So, for today, April 3, we have a selection from Washington Irving, born on this day in 1783.  The piece is from his Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, published serially in 1819 and 1820.  The subject is fittingly the making of books, the natural predatory nature (and flatulence) of the author, and the inappropriateness of napping and/or laughing in the archive. Here is “The Art of Book-Making”:

If that severe doom of Synesius be true,–“It is a greater offence to steal dead men’s labor, than their clothes,”–what shall become of most writers?

BURTON’S ANATOMY OF MELANCHOLY.

I HAVE often wondered at the extreme fecundity of the press, and how it comes to pass that so many heads, on which Nature seems to have inflicted the curse of barrenness, should teem with voluminous productions. As a man travels on, however, in the journey of life, his objects of wonder daily diminish, and he is continually finding out some very simple cause for some great matter of marvel. Thus have I chanced, in my peregrinations about this great metropolis, to blunder upon a scene which unfolded to me some of the mysteries of the book-making craft, and at once put an end to my astonishment.

I was one summer’s day loitering through the great saloons of the British Museum, with that listlessness with which one is apt to saunter about a museum in warm weather; sometimes lolling over the glass cases of minerals, sometimes studying the hieroglyphics on an Egyptian mummy, and some times trying, with nearly equal success, to comprehend the allegorical paintings on the lofty ceilings. Whilst I was gazing about in this idle way, my attention was attracted to a distant door, at the end of a suite of apartments. It was closed, but every now and then it would open, and some strange-favored being, generally clothed in black, would steal forth, and glide through the rooms, without noticing any of the surrounding objects. There was an air of mystery about this that piqued my languid curiosity, and I determined to attempt the passage of that strait, and to explore the unknown regions beyond. The door yielded to my hand, with all that facility with which the portals of enchanted castles yield to the adventurous knight-errant. I found myself in a spacious chamber, surrounded with great cases of venerable books. Above the cases, and just under the cornice, were arranged a great number of black-looking portraits of ancient authors. About the room were placed long tables, with stands for reading and writing, at which sat many pale, studious personages, poring intently over dusty volumes, rummaging among mouldy manuscripts, and taking copious notes of their contents. A hushed stillness reigned through this mysterious apartment, excepting that you might hear the racing of pens over sheets of paper, and occasionally the deep sigh of one of these sages, as he shifted his position to turn over the page of an old folio; doubtless arising from that hollowness and flatulency incident to learned research.

Continue reading →