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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