Monthly Archives: May, 2015

Sherman Alexie’s Survival Humor Turns “Legal”

Some days you just have two choices. You can laugh, or you can cry. Both of these actions define us as human beings. While crying can be cathartic, laughing is what we do in order to assert some form of control over circumstances that threaten to overwhelm us. In the study of Native American humor, the term “survival humor” is quite common; but I have yet to find a working definition of this term. What I did find a definition of is a term I had never heard used as a literary term: snark.
This is how “snark” is literarily defined:

Snark can be used for different purposes. However, mostly it is utilized as a mask. Others might use it as a defensive device. When bitterness is not easy to express in an agreeable way, snark is used without hurting anyone directly.[i]

This seems as good a term as any for the purpose here. In general usage, it tends to have a more negative connotation, but it does describe what you will see if you read Sherman Alexie’s The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. Every story in the collection is guaranteed to have a reader laughing and crying at the same time. Many of the stories are sad; however, the ways that Alexie’s characters view and think about them reflect an essential humor that belies the gravity and pain.

The Spokane/Ceour d’Alene author shows his readers how to both laugh and cry at the same time, and in doing so:

  • takes some of the sting out of reservation life for indigenous people
  • shows whites what reservation life is and how it affects those who live there
  • tries to make peace with what history has dealt Indians in general and his own tribe in particular

This first short story collection reached the “legal” age of 21 last year. When the collection was published in 1993, Alexie was a 27 year old resident of the Spokane Indian reservation. His first book, a collection of poems called The Business of Fancydancing, had received critical praise and awards. In the New York Times Book Review, James Kincaid (University of Southern California) “declared [him] one of the major lyric voices of our time” (xix). [ii]  In his Prologue to the 20th Anniversary edition, Alexie reflects on his career since and his uneasy fit into the world of authors and book publishing. He remembers, for example, stepping out of a penthouse elevator at a New Yorker magazine party to see Stephen King and Salman Rushdie hugging each other. Pretty heady stuff for a rez boy, as he says. In the twenty-some years since its publication, Alexie has written more poetry, novels, and short stories, all of which contain this signature humor, and I have read most of them; but this one stays with me as one of the best.

In “Because My Father Always Said that He Was the Only Indian Who Saw Jimi Hendrix Play ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ at Woodstock” he describes his father as a young man who was photographed demonstrating against Vietnam. His father is wearing bell-bottoms and a flowered shirt, his hair is in braids, and his face painted with peace symbols in red like war paint. The image ran in several newspapers with varied captions. Alexie says, “The one I like best is from the Seattle Times: Demonstrator goes to war for peace. Capitalizing on his father’s native heritage, others read things like “One Warrior against War” and “Peaceful gathering Turns into Native Uprising.”

The photograph won a Pulitzer for the photographer. The character’s father goes to jail for attempted murder. He is released just in time to see that epic version of the national anthem, and twenty years later continues to play it as the backdrop to his drinking—Alexie says: “My father and Jimi became drinking buddies” (26). Like many of the stories in this collection, he relates both heartache and humor in the alcoholism he sees around him.

“The Trial of Thomas Builds-the-Fire” showcases white authorities’ fear and fascination with Indians by creating a “trial” in which Thomas is accused of “making small noises, form[ing] syllables that contained more emotion and meaning than entire sentences constructed by the BIA [Bureau of Indian Affairs].” His previous infraction against authority, “holding the reservation postmaster hostage for eight hours with the idea of a gun and ha[ving] also threatened to make significant changes in the tribal vision. But that crisis was resolved years ago; Thomas surrendered voluntarily and agreed to remain silent. Thomas had not spoken in nearly twenty years”[iii]

In effect, Thomas is arrested for speaking—speaking stories that reflect an oral tradition and a belief that words hold power. Clearly words do—other members of the tribe hear the sounds and the words effect change on the reservation. In trying to decide upon what charges to bring against him, the BIA representatives state that “It has to be a felony charge. We don’t need his kind around here anymore.”[iv]

Alexie ranges across present day social issues associated with reservation life, as well as historical wrongs the tribe has endured, and emphasizes the importance of keeping those issues alive through speech and the language of stories.

This story ends with Thomas being sentenced to two life sentences in Wall Walla State Penitentiary, where he continues to tell his stories to the men of color with whom he shares the bus to prison.

These two short pieces are representative examples. Some tell of love, some of history, some of life (and death). But all demonstrate humor in the face of adversity, and a will to survive the stolen land, the broken treaties, the broken promises, and the aftermath of assimilation, allotment, and hunger. Snark may define the literary device Alexie uses here—but survival humor is the end result.

Other works by Sherman Alexie that you might also enjoy reading are two other short story collections: Toughest Indian in the World and Ten Little Indians, and novels: Reservation Blues, Indian Killer, and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian. More recent editions of the short stories contain discussion questions as an afterward as a guide for reading groups. These are primarily of interest to teachers, but also to reading groups. They offer some historical information and questions that help readers understand and discuss the texts from an indigenous viewpoint.

So if you like your humor laced with irony and, yes, a bit of snark, these all make great summer reads.


[i] “Literary Devices: Definition and Examples of Literary Terms,”

[ii] Alexie quotes here come from the 20th Anniversary edition of The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, New York/ Grove Press, 2013.

[iii] Page 94.

[iv] Ibid.

Who Invented the Rube Goldberg Invention?

Who Invented The Rube Goldberg Invention?

The Rube Goldberg invention is a complex device that achieves a simple objective. Entering the American lexicon in 1931, it defines the adjective “Rube Goldberg,” a staple of most American English dictionaries. “Rube Goldberg,” of course, is only the adjective, but it is followed by “invention,” “contraption,” “device,” or a plethora of other synonyms of those words that “Rube Goldberg” modifies. But who is Rube Goldberg and where does the convention of the Rube Goldberg invention come from?

Ruben Lucius Goldberg was born in San Francisco, California on July 4, 1883. He received a degree in engineering from UC Berkeley in 1904, but in 1907 he moved to New York City and became a cartoonist for the New York Evening Mail. He was very popular, and by the time America entered World War I, Goldberg was nationally syndicated and, true to the journalistic standards of the time, William Randolph Hearst had already begun a bidding war to lure Goldberg from the Evening Mail to the New York Journal. The Evening Mail was able to keep Goldberg until 1934, at which time he continued syndicating cartoons until his death in 1970.

According to Charles Keller in his book, The Best of Rube Goldberg, Goldberg began drawing the iconic inventions in 1915 and they became a weekly institution in American journalism. In fact, there are innumerable imitations of the motif in various aspects of popular culture including television (especially animated features), movies, and games. His name is also given to the cartoonist of the year award (Ruben Award), by the National Cartoonists Society. There are even Rube Goldberg Machine Contests for high school and college students around the United States. The idea of creating fanciful machines to complete simple tasks taps into human imagination and foolish inefficiency at the same time.

Rube Goldberg Putter

Above: Rube Goldberg improves the game of golf.

William Heath Robinson (1872-1944) also drew complex machines that completed tasks in Britain at about the same time as Goldberg. Robinson began his art career by illustrating books. He did several of them from 1897 to 1916. In the 19-teens, Robinson began drawing cartoons satirizing World War I for British media specializing in drawing impossible secret weapons that the enemy might use. This morphed into drawing the complex machines, and by 1917, the Oxford English Dictionary listed “Heath Robinson contraption” as a noun.

Robinson began drawing the absurd devices in children’s book illustrations and continued in several media until he died in 1944. During his lifetime he, as did Goldberg, published several books of cartoons including the machines. Both of their legacies have continued. For Robinson, it is an improvised device that was engineered by the British Air Force for its chaff dispensing mechanism called a Heath Robinson Chaff Modification.

So, who invented the Rube Goldberg Invention? As Robinson, being 11 years older than Goldberg got started drawing his machines first, there is a good chance that he was the first of the two to do it, but because those contraptions got their start in children’s books, it is unlikely that Goldberg saw them and was inspired. Goldberg’s methodology for drawing his inventions includes a step-by-step instruction of how the thing works. Those steps often utilize an item in the news at the time, a difference between him and Robinson.

Eventually, of course, both cartoonists became aware of the other’s work, but there was a big world full of many new products that were ripe for satire during the industrial age. Between the two of them they had enough material to keep themselves and scores of other cartoonists busy on a daily basis. Not only that, there was a big ocean between them, and American media did not print the Robinson cartoons any more than the British media ran the Goldberg variations on the Robinson theme.

Heath Robinson Atom Splitting

Above: Heath Robinson simplifies atomic fission.

The King is Gone

aacdd_b-b-kingIn my inaugural post for this website I discussed the subtle humor of the blues, and how that humor helps to give the blues its healing power. Last week we lost an American icon, a musician who is perhaps the best-known blues musician of them all.

B.B. King was neither the most versatile nor the most emotionally impactful blues musician. The ever-amiable master displayed little of the hellhounds that cast tortured shadows over the early delta players, the sheer frightening force of Howlin’ Wolf or the commandeering magnetism of Muddy Waters. But the “Blues Boy” developed his own influential style of fluid, single note guitar leads – moving seamlessly through his very being and out through his fingertips – which became the defining sound that many think of when they think of the blues. He spoke through his fingers. Tone flowed through his veins. His immense popularity and consistency made him the unquestionable ambassador of the blues to the world, and for that he rightly earned the title of King.

B.B. King defined his long and impressive career with class, sophistication and an effortless grace. But he wasn’t above a little good-natured humor, and had no reservations about making music with any artist from any genre, human or otherwise.

Here is a clip of the “King of the Blues” sitting in with the gang from Sesame Street, singing a song about the importance of the letter B. It’s a fun, humorous clip, but it underscores a deeper truth. Without the letter B, so the song goes, there would be no birds, no Berts and, most importantly, no blues. And without the blues, there would be no spirituals, no jazz, no honky tonk country, no R&B, no Rock ‘n’ Roll, no soul music, no funk, no hip-hop, not even pop. Without the blues there would be no anecdote for life’s unbearable heft. There could be no healing. Without the blues there is no American music. There is no America.

Play on, Blues Boy.


Call for Papers: “Is American Satire Still in a Postmodern Condition?” 

Special issue on contemporary satire for Studies in American Humor (Fall 2016), James E. Caron(University of Hawaii—Manoa), Guest Editor; Judith Yaross Lee (Ohio University, Editor).
In response to the torrent of satiric materials that has been and continues to be produced in recent years, Studies in American Humor invites proposals for 20-page essays using the rubric of “the postmodern condition” as an analytical gambit for demarcating a poetics of American comic art forms that use ridicule to enable critique and promote the possibility of social change. Proposals might focus on aspects of the following issues.


What problems are associated with defining satire as a comic mode, and how do recent examples fit into such debates? How useful is the term postmodern to characterize satire—i.e. does it refer to a period or an operation? How useful for understanding recent and contemporary satire are terms designed to indicate we have moved into something other than postmodernism: e.g. trans- or post-humanism, cosmodernism, digimodernism, post-theory? In accounts of satire as a mode of comic presentation of social issues, what differences arise from varied technologies andplatforms, not just print but also TV sitcoms (live-action or animated), movies, comic strips, stand-up formats, or the sit-down presentation of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert? Do significant differences emerge from satires on YouTube (or the video-sharing service, Vines) and various Internet sites (e.g., Funny or Die) and social media? If ridicule, broadly speaking, is the engine of satiric critique, what ethical concerns are entailed in its use?

Humor_web cover

Various disciplinary perspectives and methods are welcome. StAH values new transnational and interdisciplinary approaches as well as traditional critical and historical humanities scholarship. Submit proposals of 500-750 words to StAH’s editorial portal <> by June 15, 2015, for full consideration. Authors will be notified of the editors’ decisions in early July.  Completed essays will be due by January 15, 2016.   For complete information on Studies in American Humor and full submission guidelines see < >.  At the time of publication all authors are expected to be members of the American Humor Studies Association, which began publishing StAH (now produced in association with the Penn State University Press) in 1974. Queries may be addressed to the editors at <>.

On the 70th Anniversary of Germany’s Surrender

Sam_sackett_bookToday, May 7, 2015 is the 70th Anniversary of Germany’s Surrender. In the context of Humor in America, I feel it’s appropriate to mark the occasion with a review of  Sam Sackett‘s book, “Adolph Hitler in Oz.

Don’t let the title scare you. It’s marvelous, worthwhile read. The premise is basic: With Germany on the brink of its demise, Adolph Hitler fakes his own death and find himself–without fanfare- in the metropolis of Oogaboo on the outskirts of Oz.

In juxtaposition reminiscent of an off-kilter dream, Laurel and Hardy are the first to greet him. Struck by the innocence of the Ozians, and true to his nature, Hitler sets about to convince the “meat people” that they have long been oppressed by a conspiracy of “non-meat people” (including the Scarecrow). But coping with talking animals, raising an army of pacifists and conquering a utopian kingdom that fares well without money is a path fraught with obstacles every step of the way. The unpredictable twists make this story hard to put down.

Though the morality in this tale is painted in simple black and white, Hitler’s encounters otherworldly landscapes, fanciful creatures and lily-hearted eccentrics are rich, nuanced, and witty. The vibe of the book is hard to describe. Think “Dr. Strangelove” meets a secular C.S. Lewis meets Animal Farm, chockablock with  Abbott and Costello style interchanges and alive with the imagination and whimsy of an original Oz book.  This uncanny exploration of ideologies and human nature makes many interesting points but never gets preachy or mired. Coming in at just under 300 lively pages, it’s a fun, accessible read unlike any other.

Reissued by New York-based Royal Publisher of Oz this children’s story for adults was first released in 2011. The new edition, available in paperback, has been edited to correct minor discrepancies pointed out by L. Frank Baum devotees who know Oz from O-Z.   Its layout and illustrations by Patricio Carbajal are reminiscent of the books in Baum’s complete Oz series I discovered in our small neighborhood library years ago. This edition also contains a bonus author’s essay entitled “The Utopia of Oz.”




In the Archives: “Yankeeana” from the London and Westminster Review (1838)

Humor in America

Tracy Wuster

Much of the writing on the subject of “American humor” in the nineteenth century–when the idea of a distinctly American humor took shape–came from British critics writing in British journals on the subject of “American Humour.”

Whereas American literature, philosophy, and theology had largely been imitative of European models, British critics consistently saw American “humour” as a new development in American national literature.  American humor was increasingly framed as a worthwhile expression of American national life, in addition to being a product that the British reading public consumed with increasing eagerness.  American humor expressed important aspects of American life:  the scale and grandness of the land through exaggeration, the democratic variety of people through its diversity, and the immaturity of the country and its people through its exuberance and occasional profanity.  To use a popular critical metaphor, the British saw humor as a national growth of a young…

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