Category Archives: James Russell Lowell

Happy Birthday, Samuel Langhorne Clemens. Not you, Mark Twain.

 

Tracy Wuster

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, Wuster Mark Twain American Humorist1863. 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?

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In the Archives: Agnes Repplier, “Wit and Humor” (1893)

Tracy Wuster

Last time I posted “In the Archives,” I posted William Hazlitt’s “On Wit and Humour” (1818).  In her 1893 book, Essays in Idlesness, the critic Agnes Repplier takes up many of the threads of Hazlitt’s easy in her own essay entitled, “Wit and Humor.”  Repplier was a prominent essayist who published many books over almost 50 years, often writing on the subject of humor (a primer on Repplier’s works).  Repplier is better known in humor studies for her essay, “A Plea for Humor,” (1891) which will undoubtedly show up here in a future post.

Repplier at Mark Twain’s 70th Birthday Party

Published in the same year as James Russell Lowell’s “Humor, Wit, Fun, and Satire,” Repplier’s essay shows less of Lowell’s didactic style and classical leanings, offering a much more direct discussion of humor and one that reflects her concerns with the place of humor in her society.

In this essay, reprinted in full below, Repplier takes up Hazlitt’s subject, examining it from new perspectives and extending or revising some of his main points.  She starts with this point:

while he gathers and analyzes every species of wit and
humor, it plainly does not occur to him for a
moment that either calls for any protection at
his hands. Hazlitt is so sure that laughter is
our inalienable right, that he takes no pains
to soften its cadences or to justify its mirth. 

In the age of George Vasey and his philosophy that viewed humor as dangerous, Repplier found it necessary to defend humor.  The bulk of the essay, in fact, seeks to redeem the rougher edges of humor in favor of an essence of “geniality” as the keynote of humor.

for sympathy is the legitimate attribute of
humor, and even where the humorist seems
most pitiless, and even brutal, in his apprehen-
sion of the absurd, he has a living tenderness
for our poor humanity which is so rich in its
absurdities. 

After discussing Hazlitt’s definition of humor, Repplier then discusses the difference between wit and humor (see pages 169-170 below).  As is common in the nineteenth century, Repplier discusses the national characteristics of humor:

Nevertheless, an understanding of the differ-
ences in nations and in epochs helps us to the
enjoyment of many humorous situations. 

But:

It is in its simplest forms, however, that
humor enjoys a world-wide actuality, and is
the connecting link of all times and places and
people.

And though some humor may be cruel–witness the scene of the wealthy man falling on his backside while a chimney sweep laughs uproariously–the humorist’s view of life is, she argues, at heart “genial.”  True, many of the great English humorist (even Dickens) were often cruel, but humor had changed:

But we have now reached that
point of humane seriousness when even puppet-
shows cannot escape their educational respon-
sibilities, and when Punch and Judy are
gravely censured for teaching a lesson in bru-
tality. (175)
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In the Archives: James Russell Lowell “Humor, Wit, Fun, and Satire” (1893)

Tracy Wuster

See our other posts in this series:

In the Archives: William Hazlitt, “On Wit and Humour” (1818)

I have been writing about James Russell Lowell as a humorist and critic recently.  So I thought I would share Lowell’s essay on “Humor, Wit, Fun, and Satire,” originally a lecture and first printed in the Century Magazine in November 1893 with a preface by Charles Eliot Norton. Reprinted from THE FUNCTION OF THE POET AND OTHER ESSAYS (1920) [Buy this book to support our site: The Function of the Poet and Other Essays]

james russell lowell humor

In the style of the time, the piece takes awhile to get to its subject.  But there is a lot of good material there–both on the general subject and on specific examples.  I have posted the essay below, but here are a few morsels.

Men of one idea,—that is, who have one idea at a time,—men who accomplish great results, men of action, reformers, saints, martyrs, are inevitably destitute of humor; and if the idea that inspires them be great and noble, they are impervious to it. But through the perversity of human affairs it not infrequently happens that men are possessed by a single idea, and that a small and rickety one—some seven months’ child of thought—that maintains a querulous struggle for life, sometimes to the disquieting of a whole neighborhood. These last commonly need no satirist, but, to use a common phrase, make themselves absurd, as if Nature intended them for parodies on some of her graver productions. ….

In human nature, the sense of the comic seems to be implanted to keep man sane, and preserve a healthy balance between body and soul. But for this, the sorcerer Imagination or the witch Enthusiasm would lead us an endless dance.

The advantage of the humorist is that he cannot be a man of one idea—for the essence of humor lies in the contrast of two. He is the universal disenchanter. He makes himself quite as much the subject of ironical study as his neighbor. Is he inclined to fancy himself a great poet, or an original thinker, he remembers the man who dared not sit down because a certain part of him was made of glass, and muses smilingly, “There are many forms of hypochondria.” This duality in his mind which constitutes his intellectual advantage is the defect of his character. He is futile in action because in every path he is confronted by the horns of an eternal dilemma, and is apt to come to the conclusion that nothing is very much worth the while. If he be independent of exertion, his life commonly runs to waste. If he turn author, it is commonly from necessity; Fielding wrote for money, and “Don Quixote” was the fruit of a debtors’ prison. …

Humor, in its highest level, is the sense of comic contradiction which arises from the perpetual comment which the understanding makes upon the impressions received through the imagination. …

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