An Interview with Judith Yaross Lee. With an excerpt from “Twain’s Brand.”

Tracy Wuster

We are very excited to present this interview with Judith Yaross Lee.  Judith is Professor & Director of Honors Tutorial Studies in the School of Communication Studies at Ohio University.  She is the author of, among many works,Defining New Yorker Humor and Garrison Keillor: A Voice of America.

Judith is the new editor of Studies in American Humor.  Through the American Humor Studies Association, and on her own, Judith has mentored many humor studies scholars, including myself.  It is a pleasure to print this interview and an excerpt of her excellent and important new book: Twain’s Brand: Humor in Contemporary American Culture. (Find an Excerpt here).

Tracy Wuster: Tell me about your start in humor studies.  How and when did you begin pursuing it as a subject? who has influenced you as a scholar of humor?   

Judith Yaross Lee: I had the great good fortune to take a course on Mark Twain with Hamlin Hill in my first quarter of my M.A. program in English at the University of Chicago, where I was first introduced to the study of humor as an interdisciplinary historical and cultural study, largely through my ancillary reading in Henry Nash Smith, later augmented by the works of early American Studies luminaries such as Perry Miller and Leo Marx.

Then in my second year of doctoral study I had another course with Ham, a seminar in contemporary American humor in which I was one of just two students (I guess we were the only ones who trundled over to the department office to find out what the special topic was, because all our friends were jealous when they learned about it).  We were so intimidated by Ham’s expertise and so worried about holding up our end of the discussion–my classmate had taken the regular course in American humor from Judith Yaross Lee Twain's Brand Mark Twain Samuel ClemensWalter Blair, who was retired but had filled in during Ham’s sabbatical, but I had not–that we spent huge amounts of time preparing each class.  The result was that both of us had found dissertation topics by the end of the term.  My dissertation covered humor in six novels by Melville, Twain, Faulkner, Nathanael West, and Philip Roth under the pompous title “To Amuse and Appall: Black Humor in American Fiction.” I never published it or any piece of it, though I revisited two of the novels in Twain’s Brand, which now that I think of it has a similarly large scope, though this time around I felt more able to manage it.

So obviously the Chicago school of neo-Aristotelian formalism and the Blair-Hill school of humor and Mark Twain studies influenced me from the start, as did the humor theory of Constance Rourke, whose work I felt did not have the stature it deserved. But I was mortified when, soon after defending my dissertation in 1986, I read Emily Toth’s “A Laughter of Their Own:  Women’s Humor in the United States” (1984) and realized how little I knew about women humorists, so I began devouring the pioneering articles and books by Nancy Walker, whose scholarly rigor I appreciated as much as her insights, and by Regina Barreca, whose first book had such an exciting titleThey used to call me Snow White– but I drifted: Women’s strategic use of humor (1991)–that I ordered it something like a year before it came out.  About the same time I was also inspired and greatly helped by David Sloane, especially his bibliographic work; his American Humor Magazines and Comic Periodicals (1987) is a trove yet to be fully mined.

In the 1990s (like everyone else) I also began reading Bakhtin, whose focus on the “lower stratum” I found immediately satisfying and much more congenial than Freud’s joke theory.  However, I have also been strongly influenced by communication theory–most strongly by the medium theory of Walter Ong and the performance theories of Erving Goffman–and cultural theorizing by Edward Said and W. E. B. DuBois, among others. I like Johan Huizinga on play, which I think has strong overlaps with humor as a non-instrumental form of human expression.  I confess to love reading humor theory!

TW: Was there resistance from others in your field or department to the study of humor as a “non-serious” subject?

JYL: I felt a lot of encouragement from my professors at the University of Chicago.  Because Ham left before I was ready to write my dissertation, however, I worked with three other Americanists, William Veeder, as director, John Cawelti, as second reader, later replaced after he left by James E. Miller, Jr.  John was a pioneer of popular culture historiography and theory, so he had no qualms about my work on humor, but Bill, who worked mainly on 19th-century fiction, insisted that I prepare for a field exam in an unequivocally serious or heavy topic in order to demonstrate to a search committee that I was not an academic lightweight and that I could contribute to the core teaching mission of an English or American Studies department. (I was inclined toward the latter, but those jobs were very scarce.)  That was wise advice, as my decision to do a special field in theories of literary effect as particularly relevant to humor that landed me my current position in the Rhetoric and Public Culture program in the Scripps College of Communication at Ohio University.

Humor has not been an issue at either of the two schools where I’ve been on a tenure line.  My colleagues in the School of Communication Studies have promoted me through the ranks since I arrived as an advanced assistant professor in 1990.  Far from exhibiting prejudice against my topic, they think of my work as hard-core traditional humanities scholarship because of my archival and historical research methods. I am grateful for their collegiality and open-mindedness.

Before Ohio I had an assistant professorship teaching composition at LaGuardia Community College/CUNY, which was a wonderful place to learn the ropes of being a teacher and faculty member. And before that, while writing my dissertation, for many years I taught composition and occasionally media theory as an adjunct. I often marvel at my good fortune at escaping the adjunct ranks.

I should note for graduate students in English and American Studies that I have not held a position in one of those departments since 1990. But other American humor studies colleagues have, so perhaps they can speak more directly to issues of the job search. Most of them, like me, have their fingers in some more conventional or highly valued pies for their teaching and research portfolios–often particular authors or themes, or in my case, media history (including periodicals) and theory. Humor colleagues probably don’t know that I published a theory of email in 1996.

TW: What have been the most interesting developments in humor studies in your time in the field?

JYL: Theoretical, rhetorical, and historical studies of comic performance and graphic humor (print and animated) have grown tremendously in the last 25 years, and we now know a lot more about the techniques, traditions, practitioners, and meanings in those two arenas.  Periodical studies have also provided insights on politics and ideology of American humor. I’ve found that work tremendously exciting and have learned a lot from it.  Ethnographic approaches are moving from anthropology and folklore studies into cultural and literary studies, and they have a lot to teach us about the practice and reception of humor.  Transnational approaches have often been in the background of American humor studies because of the Anglo-American traffic in periodicals, but now may inform new work on antebellum humor in print and contemporary humor in film and television, especially.

TW: What trends do you see (or wish you saw) in the development of humor studies?  What do you hope for the future of the field?

JYL: I’d like to see more work addressing the overlap and interplay among comic media.  Right now studies tend to silo film from literature from solo performance from theatrical stage from television from the internet.  While some of these media require specific research methods, and all have distinct histories, the horizontal slice of humor in a single place and time gets less attention than it might from the standpoint of cultural analysis of conventions, trends, and contested meanings. New York in the 1920s?, Hollywood in the 1960s? the U.S. in the 2000s?–perhaps such projects would require collaboration across traditional fields such as film and theater or literature, but I would be excited to see scholars engage in them.  More locally, not enough information about African-American and ethnic humor informs work in canonical–usually white–literary humor.  And it’s definitely time to revisit antebellum humor, perhaps in a transnational Anglo-American or Anglo-European context.

I’m particularly interested in new theoretical approaches, especially broad cultural ones, that might cross these divides because they will bring American humor studies into focus as a field of inquiry.  But I also hope for more studies of antebellum humor and individual humorists, texts, or trends in their cultural and historico-ideological contexts, because this material has not received nearly enough attention in recent years, despite new ways of thinking about cultural activity in the colonial and post-colonial/early national eras. Among other possibilities for archival and recovery work, notably in the periodicals recently digitized by EBSCO from the collections of the American Antiquarian Society, humor in almanacs strikes me as ripe for reexamination via digital data analysis, because there’s really too much else in almanacs aside from humor to get hold of any other way.  That would take a critical mass of interested scholars, however, because it is probably not a solo project.

TW: Your new book, Twain’s Brand, examines the influence of Mark Twain on humor in the 20th century. What are the most important aspects of Mark Twain’s influence that you found through your writing this book?

JYL: I think of Twain’s Brand less as an influence study than as a demonstration that Samuel Clemens was far ahead of his time, or rather prescient in seizing the opportunities of the modern information economy that has only just reached its full power but was emerging in the publishing and electronic communication explosions of the post-Civil War era.  His pioneering efforts to brand himself for commercial success gave extra power to modern elements of his comic rhetoric: a pragmatist view of the self as unstably constructed through social interaction (rather than stably existing prior to it), an ambivalence toward American exceptionalism, a commitment to the epistemological ironies of vernacular satire, and his recognition (and exploitation) of branding as a commodified form of symbolic capital.  These ideas keep Mark Twain relevant today, when politics have devolved into advertising campaigns and college students receive exhortations from the career office to develop their brands, by showing now only how far back that commodification trend goes in American culture, but how it is tied to particularly modern economic and cultural conditions:  our post-industrial society trades less in goods than in attitudes, ideas, and symbols–the stuff of humor and politics.  No wonder political humor is so important today!  And no wonder, either, that humor and irony so heavily mark our political and commercial discourse. Humor lends itself to branding because both are rhetorics that denote, connote, and differentiate.

So for me Twain’s Brand is more about the centrality of humor to American culture than about Mark Twain’s centrality, a la Hemingway’s tired (and to my mind, overblown) claim about all modern literature stemming from Huckleberry Finn, a book I adore but am happy to put in other company. And one strand is a critique of claims about what’s new: not branding, not a certain kind of stand-up comedy, not satires of American exceptionalism, not vernacular satire. And certainly not the commodification of rhetoric or humor.

Twain’s Brand Excerpt

Judith Yaross Lee Twain's Brand Mark Twain Samuel Clemens


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