Let me propose that American literary humor, in becoming modern, branched in two during the Great Depression. On one side are absurd, language-driven vignettes, short magazine pieces ranging from whimsical to surreal where the narrator tries to make sense of, or at least describe, a crackpot world. This strand was largely created and mainly defined by S.J. Perelman, whose comic genius engendered two of the Marx Brothers’ best movies, Monkey Business (1931) and Horsefeathers (1932), and a steady stream of brilliant short pieces for (mainly) The New Yorker.
The other branch trades in black comic predicaments of grotesque dysfunction: a ridiculous overabundance of misery, of mental and physical illness and often absurd violence. Laughter here is defensive: relief at seeing something so horrible happen to someone else. This strain was best, and arguably first, articulated by Nathanael West, author of the superb short novels Miss Lonelyhearts (1933) and The Day of the Locust (1939), who was, funny enough, Perelman’s brother-in-law.
In Perelman’s camp we find his older contemporaries, James Thurber and Robert Benchley, neither of whom had the idiomatic snap, that aggrieved brilliance and fine timing, that Perelman gave the form. Woody Allen and David Sedaris are his natural heirs, along with—in the sillier episodes with his oddly-named characters—Thomas Pynchon.
West’s example, heaping outlandish misery upon uncomprehending and helpless characters, has gained more followers: among the most notable being Joseph Heller (whose Catch-22 only gained wide recognition after Perelman praised it), Stanley Elkin, and David Foster Wallace.
And though West’s own work has never quite overcome the cult status given it following his untimely 1940 death, his artistry is now acknowledged, his works collected in a Library of America edition in 1997. The Day of the Locust may still be our best novel about Hollywood, made into a major 1975 film directed by John Schlesinger, starring Donald Sutherland and Karen Black, and creating, in one of its characters, a hopeless dope named Homer Simpson.
November 30, 2015 will be celebrated as the 180th birthday of one Mark Twain—novelist, humorist, and all around American celebrity. I, for one, will not be celebrating.
You see, I recently finished up a book about Mark Twain, and I know, for a
fact, that Mark Twain was born on February 3, 1863. Or thereabouts. No one knows for certain, but that is as certain as we can be, so that is enough. And not so much born, but created, or launched…inaugurated…catapulted…
That means that this February 3, 1863 will be Mark Twain’s 153rd birthday, which is not that fancy of a number, but it is getting up there for someone still so famous as to have people writing books about him—and more importantly, people reading books by him.
Sure, everyone knows that “Mark Twain” was really the pseudonym of Samuel Langhorne Clemens. Even early in his career, almost everyone knew that, often using the names interchangeably, as most Americans still do. Not as many people know the names Samuel Clemens used an abandoned before creating Mark Twain: “Grumbler,” “Rambler,” “Saverton,” “W. Epaminondas Adrastus Blab,” “Sergeant Fathom,” “Quintus Curtis Snodgrass,” “Thomas Jefferson Snodgrass,” and “Josh.” Selecting “Mark Twain” was clearly a wise choice, although the name would have had a second, nautical meaning for many nineteenth century folk.
Samuel Clemens mixed up the use of his given name and his chosen name—making the whole distinction a mush of confusion that is either a bonanza of psychological material or, alternately, meaningless. For most people, I would guess the distinction is meaningless trivia, which is fine. I’m just happy people still know and read books by Mark Twain. But, I for one, will still grumble when people wish Mark Twain a “Happy Birthday” each November 30th, and I will still try to correct them by pointing out that the “Mark Twain” they refer to really was born—or created—on February 3rd, 1863.
But what does it matter?
Today, 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.”
The “reward” for humor is obvious—the payback for the humorist is when the audience laughs. The payback for the audience is also the laugh—it brightens an otherwise difficult day, relaxes as the laughter happens, and lets an audience leave the show, piece, or joke a bit happier than they were before. However, being the humorist is not without risk. What induces laughter in one person can offend another—this has been the legacy of humor since ancient times. Thus, those to whom humor is a profession must walk a fine line between taking a risk and reaping a reward.
Mark Twain found this out during his Whittier Birthday speech, delivered on 17 December 1877. In the speech, he told a story about four drunken miners whom he described such that without doubt, the characters referred to Whittier, the guest of honor, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Oliver Wendell Holmes—often described as the “Boston Brahmins.” The joke fell through, and Twain was embarrassed by the reactions of the audience and the public when the speeches were published in the Boston Globe the following day. The Cincinnati Commercial asserted that Twain “lacked the instincts of a gentleman,” and even in the less conservative West the Rocky Mountain News called the speech “offensive to every intelligent reader.” Twain published an abject apology a week later, and even after 25 years the criticism still stung. Sometimes parodying a cultural icon is just too risky.
Twain’s 1877 faux pas illustrates just how difficult it is to gauge an audience’s reaction to material that the artist considers humorous. At this year’s Modern Language Association in Vancouver, three fine presenters delivered papers on the topic of “Comic Dimensions and Variety of Risk.” Jennifer Santos read her paper on Holocaust jokes in Epstein’s King of the Jews, Roberta Wolfson presented on the Canadian television show, Little Mosque on the Prairie, and John Lowe read his essay on Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint. Each presenter focused the talk on reception of the humor and the acceptable amount of risk a comedian or humorist can take and still reap the “reward” of laughter. Aside from hearing three wonderful examinations on a variety of humorous subjects, this panel generated discussion of the broader issue of risk versus reward every purveyor of humor must determine for any written or spoken performance. Who is allowed to joke about possibly sensitive events? From whom are we willing to accept a joke that takes a risk of offending?
For this, my final post on Humor in America this year, I would like to revisit the previous post, in which I made the case that by trivializing humor, we are overlooking one of the most persuasive elements in creating and/or maintaining social norms within our culture. In that post, I asserted that all humor is subversive. I would like to expand on that assertion, as I believe that when we think of subversive behaviors, actions, or texts, we almost always think of radical changes to our culture. In that case, we eliminate from our consideration humorists who, rather than attempting to shift a norm, are actually advocating the status quo.
In the “canon” of humor (a wide range to say the least) examples of authors who try to subvert the status quo abound. In my earlier post, I mentioned Benjamin Franklin’s “ Rules by Which a Great Empire May be Reduced to a Small One.”
In that piece, Franklin ‘s piece can be read on its face as advice to any country that believes administering its colonies is just too much trouble. All of the ways he suggests to reduce an empire’s size, however, require imposing hardship on the colonists. By the essay’s end, it seems clear that Franklin is speaking primarily about England and King George—all of his examples stem from the hardships the colonies are experiencing. A bit later (1868) Petroleum Vesuvius Nasby (David Ross Locke) takes to the Lyceum Circuit (an early version of the stand-up comedian) to advocate for suffrage for women primarily by portraying an ignorant back country man who is ostensibly arguing that women should not have the vote (page 660 in the referenced text).
Langston Hughes’s roughest book of poetry is also an homage to laughter.
In 1925 Langston Hughes lived with his mother on the north side of S Street, a few short blocks from Dupont Circle in Washington, D.C. The tiny two-story square row home, painted in deep brown trim today, is set back from the sidewalk. A meandering path leading up to the house meets, at the sidewalk’s edge, the meandering path of the house next door; they bend together in the rough shape of a heart. The first story of the home has a large single window, broad and revealing like a storefront display. The second and top story, where Hughes most likely lived and wrote, seems squat, pared down, resting atop the broad window. The house itself is inconspicuous, quiet, and low––slyly hidden by the grander-seeming homes surrounding it.
Langston Hughes lived in many places during his pivotal year in Washington, but, walking by this house one day recently, I found myself wondering if it was here that the seeds were planted for his 1927 book of poems, Fine Clothes to the Jew, a book famous among a small group of scholars for its controversial release but that remains unknown to many.
Today the book is out of print. Google Books does not “preview” it, most libraries do not carry it, and even The Library of Congress cannot locate their lone copy. A small number of first editions are available on-line for upwards of a thousand dollars. The book is worth far more. (Two Collected Works of Langston Hughes editions, Arnold Rampersad’s and Dolan Hubbard’s, contain the poems from Fine Clothes to the Jew.) The book received scathing reviews when first released, mostly from Hughes’s fellow literati in Harlem, for its seemingly unabashed and degrading depictions of African Americans.
In situation and appearance, Langston Hughes’s mother’s home resembles the paradox in the reception history of Fine Clothes to the Jew. The house is removed, easy to miss, simple, and confined in the heart of a bustling city. Yet the house is also solid and stern, its gazing window luminous. Likewise the poems in this book are hard, describing people who live hard lives in the brusque city or lonely, rural south. Actually, written in six parts alternating between the city and the country, Fine Clothes doesn’t describe these people; rather, each poem is spoken in the voice of a different, struggling soul—the prostitute, the pimp, the abusive husband, the abused wife, the player, the played, the child, the worried parent, the broken-hearted, and the philanderer—to name just a few of the characters. A burdened consciousness of race and ethnicity is made overt notably in the book’s title, which pairs beauty or opulence (fine clothing) with the ugliness of bigoted social perceptions.
Edgar Allan Poe remains one of the most popular writers in the history of American literature. In the twenty-first century, Poe finds himself at the center of movies, television shows, and internet memes; the very name or image of Poe can be considered “click-bait” on the web. Yet the pop-cultural version of Poe is not a very accurate picture of the man, as a number of Poe scholars (a.k.a. pedantic killjoys) like to point out. Although biographers reveal the man to have been a savvy, business-like, professional magazinist, someone who knew what sold in the literary marketplace and who gave the people what they wanted, most fans prefer to confuse Poe with some of his more memorable protagonists. Many readers envision Poe as a dark, brooding, Gothic madman, a visionary poet obsessed with waking nightmares, horror, and the mysteries beyond the grave. The author of “Ligeia,” “The Fall of the House of Usher,” “The Tell-Tale Heart,” and “The Raven” is assumed to be obsessed with premature burials, murder, and death. But what if this is all a ruse? What if, to employ a term that Poe uses with approval, Poe is “diddling” his audience. In Poe and the Subversion of American Literature: Satire, Fantasy, Critique, I argue that Poe is perhaps best viewed as a practical joker, a highly skilled literary prankster whose fundamental talent lay in putting one over on people. More frequently than we care to admit, the victims of these confidence games, these diddles, are us, the readers. While we are thrilled by otherworldly wonders, aghast at inhuman terrors, and in awe of supernal beauty, Poe is grinning.
Although Poe is best known and best loved as a figure of dark romanticism, he was also a humorist. In fact, Poe wrote far more pieces that could be considered humor or satire than those that would be called horror. If his first published tale (“Metzengerstein,” which actually could be viewed as a burlesque) was not intended to be comical, then his second (“The Duc De L’Omelette”) certainly was, and one of the last tales published during Poe’s lifetime, “X-ing a Paragrab,” was a silly little piece lampooning the newspaper or magazine industry itself. As David Galloway has pointed out, “comedies, satires, and hoaxes account for over half of his output of short stories.” (Significantly, Galloway’s observation appears in his introduction to a collection of short stories titled The Other Poe, whose title serves to emphasize the degree to which Poe is not widely known for his comedies and satires.) By numbers alone, one could argue that Poe was primarily a humorist, if sometimes a black humorist, and that his tales of terror or mystery were secondary to the main body of his collected works.
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 Walter 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 title—They 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?