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 nation, the first literary fruits of the national soil.
One of the first major critical assessments of American Humour can be found in John Robertson’s “Yankeeana” from The Westminster Review of December 1838 (reprinted in The Museum of Foreign Literature, Science, and Art, Vol. VII, January to April 1839 in Philadelphia). Printed under the initials W.H., this piece examined the works of the following humorists:
This argument is based on the critical assumption that humor as a genre was national in expression, that “it is impregnated with the convictions, customs, and associations of a nation.” American humor expressed the conditions of the people, a list that included: institutions, laws, customs, characters, scenery, Democracy, forests, freedom, universal suffrage, bear-hunts, Puritans, the American revolution, and the “influence of the soil and the social manners of the time.” Such peculiar characteristics of a nation infuse themselves into men, who express the national character through their literature—starting with humor.
Although it takes the author awhile to get to his point, give it some time. Here is the text, in full:
These books show that American literature has ceased to be exclusively imitative. A few writers have appeared in the United States, who instead of being European and English in their styles of thought and diction, [these writers] are American—who, therefore, produce original sounds of far-off echoes,—fresh and vigorous pictures instead of comparatively idealess copies. A portion of American literature has become national and original, and, naturally enough, this portion of it is that which in all countries is always most national and original—because made more than any other by the collective mind of the nation—the humorous.
We have many things to say on national humour, very few of which we can say on the present occasion. But two or three words we must pass on the heresies which abound in the present state of critical opinion on the subject of national humour: we say critical, and not public, for, thank God, the former has very little to do with the latter.
“Lord Byron,”–says William Hazlitt, in a very agreeable and suggestive volume of ‘Sketches and Essays,’ now first collected by his son,–“was in the habit of railing at the spirit of our good old comedy, and of abusing Shakspeare’s Clowns and Fools, which he said, the refinement of the French and Italian stage would not endure, and which only our grossness and puerile taste could tolerate. In this I agree with him; and it is pat to my purpose. I flatter myself that we are almost the only people who understand and relish nonsense.” This is the excuse for the humour of Shakspeare, his rich and genuine English humour!
In Lord Byron the taste which the above opinion expresses is easily accounted for; it was the consequences of his having early formed himself according to the Pope and Gifford school, which was the dominant one among the Cambridge students of his time. Scottish highland scenery, and European travel, aided by the influences of the revival of a more vigorous and natural taste in the public, made his poems much better than the taste of the narrow school to which he belonged could ever have made them; but above the dicta of his school his critical judgment never rose. We thought the matter more inexplicable as regards William Hazlitt, a man superior to Byron in force and acuteness of understanding–until we found the following declaration of his views:–“In fact, I am very much of the opinion of that old Scotch gentleman who owned that ‘he preferred the dullest book he had ever read to the most brilliant conversation it had ever been his lot to hear.’ ” A man to whom the study of books was so much and the study of men so little as this, could not possibly understand the humour of Shakspeare’s Clowns and Fools, or national humour of any sort. The characters of a Trinculo, or Bardolph, a Quickley, or a Silence, are matters beyond him. That man was never born whose genuine talk, let it be as dull as it may, and whose character, if studied aright, is not pregnant with thoughts, deep and immortal thoughts, enough to fill many books. A man is a volume stored all over with thoughts and meanings, as deep and great as God. A book, even when it contains the “life’s blood of an immortal spirit,” still is not an immortal spirit, not a God-created form. Wofully fast will be his growth in ignorance who prefers reading books to reading men. But the time-honoured critical journals have critics–
“The earth hath bubbles as the waters hath”–
and William Hazlitt, with his eloquent vehemence, was one of the best of them.
The public have of late, by the appreciation of the genuine English humour of Mr. Dickens, shown that the days when the refinement which revises Shakspeare and ascribes the toleration of his humour to grossness and puerility of taste, or relish for nonsense, have long gone by. The next good sign is the appreciation of the humour of the Americans, in all its peculiar and unmitigated nationality. Humour is national when it is impregnated with the convictions, customs, and associations of a nation. What these, in the case of America, are, we thus indicated in a former number:–“The Americans are a democratic people; a people without poor; without rich; with a ‘far-west’ behind them; so situated as to be in no danger of aggression from without; sprung mostly from the Puritans; speaking the language of a foreign country; with no established church; with no endowment for the support of a learned class; with boundless facilities for “raising themselves in the world;” and where a large family is a fortune. They are English men who are all well off; who never were conquered; who never had feudalism on their soil; and who, instead of having the manners of society determined by a Royal court in all essential imitative to the present hour of that of Louis the Fourteenth of France had them formed, more or less, by the stern influences of Puritanism.
National American humour must be all this transformed into shapes which produce laughter. The humour of a people is their institutions, laws, customs, manners, habits, characters, convictions,—their scenery, whether of the sea, the city, or the hills,—expressed in the language of the ludicrous, uttering themselves in the tones of genuine and heartfelt mirth. Democracy and the ‘far-west’ made Colonel Crockett: he is a product of forests, freedom, universal suffrage, and bear-hunts. The Puritans and the American revolution, joined to the influence of the soil and the social manners of the time, have all contributed to the production of the character of Sam Slick. The institutions and scenery, the convictions and the habits of a people, become enwrought into their thoughts, and of course their merry, as well as their serious thoughts. In America, at present, accidents of steamboats are extremely common, and have therefore a place in the mind of every American. Hence we are told that, when asked whether he was seriously injured by the explosion of the boiler of the St. Leonard steamer, Major N. replied that he was so used to be blown-up by his wife, that a mere steamer had no effect upon him. In another instance laughter is produced out of the very cataracts which form so noble a feature in American scenery. The captain of a Kentucky steam-boat praises his vessel thus:—”She trots off like a horse—all boiler—full pressure—it’s hard work to hold her in at the wharfs and landings. I could run her up a cataract. She draws eight inches of water—goes at three knots a minute—and jumps all the snags and sand-banks.” The Falls of Niagara themselves become redolent with humour. “Sam Patch was a great diver, and the last dive he took was off the Falls of Niagara, and he was never heard of agin till t’other day, when Captain Enoch Wentworth, of the Susy Ann whaler, saw him in the South Sea. ‘Why,’ says Captain Enoch to him—’why, Sam,’ says he, ‘how on airth did you get here, I thought you was drowned at the Canadian lines.’—’Why,’ says Sam, ‘I didn’t get on earth here at all, but I came slap through it. In that are Niagara dive I went so everlasting deep, I thought it was just as short to come up t’other side, so out I came on these parts. If I don’t take the shine off the sea-serpent, when I get back to Boston, then my name’s not Sam Patch.'”
The curiosity of the public regarding the peculiar nature of American humour, seems to have been very easily satisfied with the application of the all-sufficing word exaggeration. We have, in a former number, (‘London and Westminster Review’ for January 1838, p. 266.) sufficiently disposed of exaggeration, as an explanation of the ludicrous. Extravagance is a characteristic of American humour, though very far from being a peculiarity of it; and, when a New York paper, speaking of hot weather, says:—”We must go somewhere—we are dissolving daily—so are our neighbours.—It was rumoured yesterday, that three large ridges of fat, found on the side-walk in Wall street, were caused by Thad. Phelps, Harry Ward, and Tom Van Pine, passing that way a short time before:—the humour does not consist in the exaggeration that the heat is actually dissolving people daily—a common-place at which no one would laugh—but in the representation of these respectable citizens as producing ridges of fat. It is humour, and not wit, on account of the infusion of character and locality into it. The man who put his umbrella into bed and himself stood up in the corner, and the man who was so tall that he required to go up a ladder to shave himself, with all their brethren, are not humorous and ludicrous because their peculiarities are exaggerated, but because the umbrella and the man change places, and because a man by reason of his tallness is supposed too short to reach himself.
The cause of laughter is the ascription to objects of qualities or the representations of objects or persons with qualities the opposite of their own:—Humour is this ascription or representation when impregnated with character, whether individual or national.
It is not at all needful that we should illustrate at length by extracts the general remarks we have made, since the extensive circulation and notice which American humour has of late obtained in England have impressed its general features on almost all minds. But we may recall them more vividly to the reader, and connect them more evidently with the causes in which they originate, by showing very briefly how institutions infuse themselves into men, how the peculiarities of the nation re-appear in the individual, and how, in short, the elements of the society of the United States are ludicrously combined and modified in the characters, real and fictitious, of Sam Slick, Colonel Crockett, and Major Jack Downing.
Sam Slick is described as “a tall thin man, with hollow cheeks and bright twinkling black eyes, mounted on a good bay horse, something out of condition. He had a dialect too rich to be mistaken as genuine Yankee.” His clothes were well made and of good materials, but looked as if their owner had shrunk since they were made for him. A large brooch and some superfluous seals and gold keys, which ornamented his outward man, looked “New England” like. “A visit to the States had, perhaps, I thought” —says the traveller, who describes him, as he fell in with him on the road—”turned this Colchester beau into a Yankee fop.” The traveller at one time thought him a lawyer, at another a Methodist preacher, but on the whole was very much puzzled what to make of him. Sam Slick turns out to be an exceedingly shrewd and amusing fellow, who swims prosperously through the world by means of “soft sawder” and “human natur.” Ho is a go-ahead man, convinced that the Slicks are the best of Yankees, the Yankees the best of the Americans, and the Americans are generally allowed to be the finest people in the world. He is an enthusiast in railroads. Of the “gals” of Rhode Island he says they, beat the Eyetalians by a long chalk—they sing so high some on ’em they go clear out o’ hearin, like a lark. When a man gets married, he says, his wife “larns him how vinegar is made—Put plenty of sugar into the water aforehand, my dear, says she, if you want to make it real sharp.” The reader will recognise several of the peculiarities of American society in “Setting up for Governor:”—
” ‘I never see one of them queer little old-fashioned teapots, like that are in the cupboard of Marm Pngwash,’ said the Clockmaker, ‘that I don’t think of Lawyer Crowningshield and his wife. When I was down to Rhode Island last, I spent an evening with them. After I had been there a while, the black househelp brought in a little home-made dipt candle, stuck in a turnip sliced in two, to make it stand straight, and set it down on the table.’—’Why,’ says the Lawyer to his wife, ‘Increase, my dear, what on earth is the meaning o’ that? What does little Viney mean by bringin in such a light as this, that aint ftt for even a log hut of one of our free and enlightened citizens away down east; where’s the lamp?’—’My dear,’ says she, ‘I ordered it—you know they are a goin to set you up for Governor next year, and I allot we must economise or we will be ruined—the salary is only four hundred dollars a year, you know, and you’ll have to give up your practice—we cah’t afford nothin now.’
“Well, when tea was brought in, there was a little wee china teapot, that held about the matter of half a pint or so, and cups and sarcers about the bigness of children’s toys. When he seed that, he grew most peskily ryled, his under lip curled down like a peach leaf that’s got a worm in it, and he stripped his teeth, and showed his grinders like a bull-dog. ‘What foolery is this?’ said he.—’My dear,’ said she, ‘it’s the foolery of being Governor; if you choose to sacrifice all your comfort to being the first rung in the ladder, don’t blame me for it. I didn’t nominate you—I had not art nor part in it. It was cooked up at that are Convention, at Town Hall.’ Well, he sot for some time without sayin a word, lookin as black as a thunder cloud, just ready to make all natur crack agin. At last he gets up, and walks round behind his wife’s chair, and takin her face between his two hands, he turns it up and gives her a buss that went off like a pistol—it fairly made my mouth water to see him; thinks I, them lips aint a bad bank to deposit one’s spare kisses in, neither. ‘Increase, my dear,’ said he, ‘I believe you are half right, I’ll decline to-morrow, I’ll have nothin to do with it—I won’t be a Governor on no account.
“Well, she had to haw and gee like, both a little, afore she could get her head out of his hands; and then she said, ‘Zachariah,’ says she, ‘how you do act, aint you ashamed? Do for gracious sake behave yourself:’ and she coloured up all over like a crimson piany; ‘if you havn’t foozled all my hair, too, that’s a fact,’ says she; and she put her curls to rights, and looked as pleased as fun, though poutin all the time, and walked right out of the room. Presently in come two well-dressed house-helps, one with a splendid gilt lamp, a real London touch, and another with a tea tray, with a large solid silver coffee-pot, and tea-pot, and a cream jug, and sugar bowl, of the same genuine metal, and a most an elegant set of real gilt china. Then in came Marm Crowingshield herself, lookin as proud as if she would not call the President her cousin; and she gave the Lawer a look, as much as to say, I guess when Mr. Slick is gone I’ll pay you off that are kiss with interest, you dear you—I’ll answer a bill at sight for it, I will, you may depend.
“‘I believe,’ said he, ‘agin, you are right, Increase, my dear, its an expensive kind of honour that bein Governor, and no great thanks neither; great cry and little wool, all talk and no cider—its enough I guess for a man to govern his own family, aint it, dear?'”
Of Colonel Crockett we shall not say one word further than to direct the attention of our readers to a passage which they may have seen before, but which they will not regret seeing again, so full is it of meanings regarding both the man and the influences by which he was made what he was. The humours of an English election are somewhat different from those described by Crockett, and he evidently knows little of anything like the loyal affection which the electors of the mother country have for “her Majesty’s likeness in gold.”
“I met with three candidates for the Legislature; a Doctor Butler, who was, by marriage, a nephew to General Jackson, a Major Lynn, and a Mr. McEver, all first-rate men. We all took a horn together, and some person present said to me, ‘Crockett, you must offer for the Legislature.’ I told him I lived at least forty miles from any white settlement, and had no thought of becoming a candidate at that time. So we all parted, and I and my little boy went on home.
“It was about a week or two after this, that a man came to my house, and told me I was a candidate. I told him not so. But he took out a newspaper from his pocket, and show’d me where I was announced. I said to my wife that this was all a burlesque on me, but I was determined to make it cost the man who had put it there at least the value of the printing, and of the fun he wanted at my expense. So I hired a young man to work in my place on my farm, and turned out myself electioneering. I hadn’t been out long before I found the people began to talk very much about the bearhunter, the man from the cane; and the three gentlemen, who I have already named, soon found it necassary to enter into an agreement to have a sort of caucus at their March court, to determine which of them was the strongest, and the other two was to withdraw and support him. As the court came on, each one of them spread himself, to secure the nomination; but it fell on Dr. Butler, and the rest backed out. The doctor was a clever fellow, and I have often said he was the most talented man I ever run against for any office. His being related to Gen’l. Jackson also helped him on very much; but I was in for it, and I was determined to push ahead and go through, or stick. Their meeting was held in Madison county, which was the strongest in the representative district, which was composed of eleven counties, and they seemed bent on having the member from there.
“At this time Colonel Alexander was a candidate for Congress, and attending one of his public meetings one day, I walked to where he was treating the people, and he gave me an introduction to several of his acquaintances, and informed them that I was out electioneering. In a little time my competitor, Doctor Butler, came along; he passed me without noticing me, and I suppose, indeed, he did not recognise me. But I hailed him, as I was for all sorts of fun; and when he turned to me, I said to him, ‘Well, doctor, I suppose they have weighed you out to me; but I should ltke to know why they fixed your election for March instead of August? This is,’ said I, ‘a branfire new way of doing business, if a caucus is to make a representative for the people!’ He then discovered who I was, and cried out ‘D—n it, Crockett, is that you?’—’Be sure it is,’ said I, ‘but I don’t want it understood that I have come electioneering. I have just crept out of the cane, to see what discoveries I could make among the white folks.’ I told him that when I set out electioneering I would go prepared to put every man on as good footing when I left him as I found him on. I would, theretore, have me a large buckskin hunting-shirt made, with a couple of pockets holding about a peck each; and that in one I would carry a great big twist of tobacco, and in the other my bottle of liquor; for I knowed when I met a man and offered him a dram, he would throw out the quid of tobacco to take one, and after he had taken his horn, I would out with my twist, and give him another chaw. And in this way he would not be worse off than when I found him; and I would be sure to leave him in a first-rate good-humour. He said I could beat him electioneering all hollow. I told him I would give him better evidence of that before August, notwithstanding he had many advantages over me, and particularly in the way of money; but I told him that I would go on the products of the country; that I had industrious children, and the best of coon dogs, and they would hunt overy night till midnight to support my election; and when the coon fur wa’n’t good I would myself go a wolfing, and shoot down a wolf, and skin his head, and his scalp would be good to me for three dollars, in our state treasury money; and in this way I would get along on the big string. He stood like he was both amused and astonished, and the whole crowd was in a roar of laughter. From this place I returned home, leaving the people in a first-rate way; and I was sure I would do a good business among them. At any rate I was determined to stand up to my lick-log, salt or no salt.
“In a short time there came out two other candidates, a Mr. Shaw and a Mr. Brown. We all ran the race through; and when the election was over, it turned out that I beat them all by a majority of two hundred and forty-seven votes, and was again returned as a member of the Legislature from a new region of the country, without losing a session. This reminded me of the old saying—’A fool for luck, and a poor man for children.'”
Major Jack Downing is, like Sam Slick, a fictitious character, while Crockett, though now dead, was a real one. But in the letters of Major Jack Downing, there is reality enough to show that they express much that is highly characteristic of America. Here is a caricature of some of the toils of a President.
“I cant stop to tell you in this letter how we got along to Philadelphy, though we had a pretty easy time some of the way in the steam-boats. And I cant stop to tell you of half the fine things I have seen here. They took us up into a great hall this morning as big as a meeting-house, and then the folks begun to pour in by thousands to shake hands with the President; federalists and all, it made no difference. There was such a stream of ’em coming in that the hall was full in a few minutes, and it was so jammed up round the door that they could’nt get out again if they were to die. So they had to knock out some of the windows and go out t’other way.
“The President shook hands with all his might an hour or two, till he got so tired he could’nt hardly stand it. I took hold and shook for him once in awhile to help him along, but at last he got so tired he had to lay down on a soft bench covered with cloth and shake as well as he could, and when he could’nt shake he’d nod to ’em as they come along. And at last he got so beat out, he couldn’t only wrinkle his forard and wink. Then I kind of stood behind him and reached my arm oand under his, and shook for him for about a half an hour as tight as I could spring. Then we concluded it was best to adjourn for to-day.”
In the following passage, with which we conclude, there is some playful banter on the present President of the United States.
“But you see the trouble ont was, there was some difficulty between I and Mr. Van Buren. Some how or other Mr. Van Buren always looked kind of jealous at me all the time after he met us at New York; and I couldn’t help minding every time the folks hollered ‘hoorah for Major Downing’ he would turn as red as a blaze of fire. And wherever he stopped to take a bite or to have a chat, he would always work it, if he could, somehow or other so as to crowd in between me and the President. Well, ye see, I wouldn’t mind much about it, but would jest step round ‘tother side. And though I say it myself, the folks would look at me, let me be on which side I would; and after they’d cried hoorah for the President, they’d most always sing out ‘hoorah for Major Downing.’ Mr. Van Buren kept growing more and more fidgety till we got to Concord. And there we had a room full of sturdy old democrats of New Hampshire, and after they all had flocked round the old President and shook hands with him, he happened to introduce me to some of ’em before he did Mr. Van Buren. At that the fat was all in the fire. Mr. Van Buren wheeled about and marched out of the room looking as though he could bite a board nail off. The President had to send for him three times before he could get him back into the room again. And when he did come, he didn’t speak to me for the whole evening. However we kept it from the company pretty much; but when we come to go up to bed that night, wo had a real quarrel. It was nothing but jaw, jaw, the whole night. Mr. Woodbury and Mr. Cass tried to pacify us all they could, but it was all in vain, we didn’t one of us get a wink of sleep, and shouldn’t if the night had lasted a fortnight. Mr. Van Buren said the President had dishonoured the country by placing a military Major on half-pay before the second officer of the government. The President begged him to consider that I was a very particular friend of his; that I had been a great help to him at both ends of the country; that I had kept the British out of Madawaska away down in Maine, and had marched my company clear from Downingville to Washington, on my way to South Carolina, to put down the nullifiers; and he thought I was entitled to as much respect as any man in the country.
“This nettled Mr. Van Buren peskily.—He said he thought it was a fine time of day if a raw jockey from an obscure village away down east, jest because he had a Major’s commission, was going to throw the Vice President of the United States and the heads of Departments into the back ground. At this my dander began to rise, and I stepped right up to him, and says I, Mr. Van Buren, you are the last man that ought to call me a jockey. And if you’ll go to Downingville and stand up before my company with Sargeant Joel at their head, and call Downingville an obscure village, I’ll let you use my head for a foot-hall as long as you live afterwards. For if they wouldn’t blow you into ten thousand atoms, I’ll never guess again. We got so high at last that the old President hopt off the bed like a boy; for he had laid down to rest him, bein it was near daylight though he couldn’t get to sleep.”
Major Jack Downing (not from the article)
 John Robertson, “Yankeeana.” The Westminster Review (December 1838). Quoted in The Museum of Foreign Literature, Science, and Art, vol. VII—New Series (Philadelphia: E. Littell & Co., 1839), 75-6.