Category Archives: jumping frog

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?

Continue reading →

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 →

Happy Mark Twain Name Day!

Tracy Wuster

 

Today marks the 150th anniversary of “Mark Twain.”  The name.  Other reasons to celebrate or otherwise gather should be secondary.  By proclamation:

****

By His Excellency Dannel P. Malloy

Governor: anOfficial Statement

WHEREAS, the state of Connecticut is deeply proud of its association with
Mark Twain (Samuel L. Clemens) who chose–not once–but twice to build
a home here=2C spending 20 years in Hartford and two years in his final ho-
me in Redding; and

WHEREAS, while living here Twain wrote books, articles, speeches,
and other writings that have brought laughter, joy, and cause to think
deeply about the issues of humanity, to millions of readers worldwide,
and

WHEREAS, one of those residences is now one of that state’s most promin-
ent historic and literary sites, recently voted the State Fan Favorite in-
the Still Revolutionary tourism program, The Mark Twain House & Museum,
and

WHEREAS, February 3, 2013 marks the 150th Anniversary of the date that
Samuel L. Clemens first used the name “Mark Twain” to sign one of his
writings, and

WHEREAS, this occasion has created interest and excitement throughout the
state where Twain lived and worked for so long,

THEREFORE I, DANNEL P. MALLOY, Governor of the State of Connecticut,
do hereby officially proclaim February 3, 2013, as

MARK TWAIN’S NAME DAY
in the State of Connecticut

****

Celebrate accordingly.  Non-Connecticut residents are welcome to issue their own proclamations. Toasts also acceptable.  Cash donations to your favorite website welcome.  Birthday presents to the editor of this site also welcome, although not required.

Mark Twain birthday celebration 150

His First Birthday.

“I remember that first birthday well,” he began. “Whenever I think of it, it is with indignation. Everything was so crude, so unaesthetic. Nothing was really ready. I was born, you know, with a high and delicate aesthetic taste. And then think of – I had no hair, no teeth, no clothes. And I had to go to my first banquet like that.

“And everybody came swarming in. It was the merest little hamlet in he backwoods of Missouri, where never anything happened at all. All interest centered on me that day. They came with that peculiar provincial curiosity to look me over and to see if I had brought anything fresh in my particular line. Why, I was the only thing that had happened in the last three months – and I came very near being the only thing that happened there in two whole years.

“They gave their opinions. No one had asked them, but they gave them, and they were all just green with prejudice. I stood it as long as – well, you know, I was born courteous. I stood it for about an hour. Then the worm turned. I was the worm. It was my turn to turn, and I did turn. I knew the strength of my position. I knew that I was the only spotlessly pure person in that camp, and I just came out and told them so.

“It was so true that they could make no answer at all. They merely blushed and went away. Well, that was my cradle song, and now I am singing my swan song. It is a far stretch from that first birthday to this, the seventieth. Just think of it!”

****

Remember to get your abstracts in for the 7th International!

Mark Twain and The Jumping Frog

Tracy Wuster

One of the key moments in the career of Mark Twain was the tremendous success of his story “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” first published in the Saturday Post on August 12, 1865.  The reputation of this magazine as a key New York periodical, different in tone but of similar importance in its own literary culture as the Atlantic Monthly was in Boston, was certainly a boon to Twain’s East Coast reputation.  But as James Caron has argued in Mark Twain: Unsanctified Newspaper Reporter, the importance of the jumping frog story in establishing Twain’s reputation may be overstated.[1]  Instead of a sudden burst into public consciousness, the piece represents the culmination of more than a year of success on both coasts, where newspapers had published Mark Twain’s writings for the Californian, a magazine aimed at national and international, rather than regional, audiences.[2]

Nevertheless, the story of the Jumping Frog quickly took a central, if possibly oversized, role in the public’s view of Mark Twain.  Writing in the New York Tribune in May 1867, the drama critic Edward “Ned” House wrote:
The chance offering of ‘The Jumping Frog,’ carelessly cast, eighteen months ago, upon the Atlantic waters, returned to him in the most agreeable form which a young aspirant for public fame could desire.  The wind that was sowed with probably very little calculation as to its effect upon its future prospects, now enables him to reap quite a respectable tempest of encouragement and cordiality.
For many years in the early career of Mark Twain, newspapers and magazines linked the fame of the Jumping Frog story to the fame of Mark Twain–sometimes very literally.
****
I would like to share three major images of Mark Twain in conjunction with his jumping frog.  First, and undoubtedly most famous, is the illustration by Frederick Waddy from the English journal Once a Week from December 1872, shortly after Twain’s first visit to England.
Mark Twain Jumping Frog Calaveras County
**Keep reading for two more images of Twain and the Jumping Frog.**

Rarely Seen!

                                                                                   Can’t be missed!
                                                                                         ****