For this month’s installment of “In the Archives,” we are featuring “On Wit and Humour,” the printed version of a lecture by William Hazlitt, the influential essayist and critic of the nineteenth century. Hazlitt’s essay was often cited in discussions of humor throughout the century by English and American scholars and humorists.
I have excerpted a few selections below. For the whole essay, please see the version at the site of Maarten Maartensz, a Dutch philosopher and psychologist, who prepared a corrected version of the text. His critiques of GoogleBooks and their preparations of texts raises relevant questions about the preparation and use of digital archives.
The first two paragraphs of the essay seem especially important:
On Wit and Humour.
Man is the only animal that laughs and weeps; for he is the
only animal that is struck with the difference between what
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They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Most great musicians develop their style by first imitating their musical heroes. This is especially true in country music. Ray Price was little more than a Hank Williams sound-alike until he eventually developed his own unique and influential sound. Ernest Tubb tried to sing like Jimmie Rodgers but a tonsillectomy caused him to end up sounding like, well, Ernest Tubb. Lefty Frizzel also tried to sound like Jimmie Rodgers, but his sweet, sliding way of singing resulted in yet another distinctive voice. Merle Haggard, who idolized Lefty’s singing, tried to emulate his style and ended up creating what is arguably the single most influential voice in country music.
One of our greatest feats as sophisticated beings is our ability to laugh at ourselves, in spite of ourselves. Merle Haggard’s life is the stuff of great fiction: born in a boxcar in Oildale, California to Okie migrant workers; a troubled childhood laboring in the California cotton fields and hopping freight trains; his incarceration in San Quentin State Prison where he discovered music as a means of escape, both figuratively and literally; his eventual pardon by then-governor Ronald Reagan, allowing him the freedom to tour unrestricted and build the career in music which would save his life. His songs are weighty, earnest, even Steinbeckian in their examination of hard lives and solitary men. But behind the melancholy Haggard has always had a bright and prevalent sense of humor. The man who wrote “Mama’s Hungry Eyes,” “If We Make it Through December,” and “Silver Wings,” also had a knack for spot-on and hilarious impressions of his country music super star contemporaries.
Haggard not only causes his voice to sound eerily like the subjects of his impersonations, he can manipulate his face and body to reflect their mannerisms and overall physical presence in uncanny ways.
Here’s a clip of Merle Haggard on the Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour having some fun with Marty Robbins, Hank Snow, Buck Owens and Johnny Cash. Make sure to stick around for the special guests at the end of the clip.
And here he is with the actual Marty Robbins. The set up takes a few minutes but is well worth it just to see Robbins’ reaction when Merle hits Marty’s trademark high falsetto.
And finally, an excerpt from Haggard’s 1970 album The Fightin’ Side of Me, recorded live in Philadelphia during a time when this medley of impersonations was a standard part of his live show.
I was reminded of a chain of events in the development of a humorous phrase when I saw a rather poignant cartoon by Jim Morin last month. It got me to thinking about how these phrases get started and how they change over time. There is a book called Nice Guys Finish Seventh by Ralph Keyes that goes into the process more deeply, but this is my experience with one phrase.
Walt Kelly’s phrase, “We have met the enemy and he is us” derives from braggadocio during the War of 1812 in which commodore Oliver Hazard Perry reported, “We have met the enemy and they are ours” to William Henry Harrison after the Battle of Lake Erie. That phrase stands with John Paul Jones’s “I have not yet begun to fight,” and Julius Caesar’s “Veni, vidi, vici” (I came, I saw, I conquered) as one of the most famous battle reports in history.
Walt Kelly did not originate “We have met the enemy and he is us” in a cartoon strip. It was first used on a poster to promote Earth Day in 1970. Later, the artist put Porkypine and Pogo into a strip and attributed the phrase to Pogo as seen below.
Because it is a pun on a very familiar quote, this phrase caught the collective imagination of Americans. It is still used in public discourse to describe, for instance, the potential results of man-made global warming. And cartoonist Jim Morin paraphrased it in a poignant drawing following the murders of servicemen at Ft. Hood in April of 2014.
The phrase lives on, not by constant reuse in similar circumstances, but by clever rephrasing in divergent situations. That is what has kept this phrase from becoming a cliché. As it is artfully applied to different scenarios, it continues to tell us about ourselves—and the world around us.
McDonalds is Impossible
In my introduction to literary genre course this semester, we had a running joke that all started with my introductory letter to students in January asking them to consider what humor could do. A bit of background: I begin and end each semester with the epistolary form – in August I introduce myself and my goals for the semester, as well as my rationale for selecting the various readings, and in May, my students craft their own letters back to me regarding their experiences in the course, their continuing struggles, and their diverse accomplishments. My students remark how these letters help them to reflect on everything they have learned, to express a new-found confidence they often feel as young writers and critical thinkers, to feel connected to their professor and their own learning, and to garner a sense of responsiveness and engagement for the future learning of peers who will take this course. Most students this semester examined their appreciation for the theme of our course, incorporating our joke in their responses: humor can do that!
You see, as a professor, like many of us I’m sure, I find myself constantly thinking about the progress of my students and my classes, especially while I’m performing tasks that permit my mind to wander and reflect, such as grocery shopping, waiting in line at the post office (yes, I still frequent the USPS), or trying to fall asleep. Recently, while sitting and waiting and waiting and waiting in my doctor’s office, I came across an abstract in an October 2003 issue of Science (see Eisenberger, Lieberman, and Williams’ abstract) detailing a study on the connectivity of social isolation to physical pain and instantly thought of my students. All semester long, they read plays, novels, short stories, and poems that showcased a variety of types of humor. I also supplemented their genre introduction with discussions on humor from physiological, economic, and psychological prospectives. This Science abstract, while not itself humorous, fit right into my theme, and I shared it with students via email as they were working hard to complete their final essays and reflective letters.
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I hate word games. I suffer Scrabble, abhor Boggle, and you’ll never catch me cross words. I prefer etymology, and catch myself wondering about the subtleties of language the way you might answer, “I’ll take New York Times crossword for $200, __”. Consider an example: in English the first ordinal number might also serve as the numerical superlative. Given the ordinal role shows rank, or position, and the “-st” ending it shares with the hyperbolic “most” or “best,” I am comfortable maintaining that while “first” may be subject to the same controversies and debates the application of any superlative generates, it inspires the same level of awe upon discovery.
I felt this sense of awe when reading E. P. Hingston’s Prefatory Note, “Artemus Ward as Lecturer,” at the beginning of Ward’s posthumous publication Artemus Ward’s Panorama (1869). You may know the name Artemus Ward as the…
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