Category Archives: William Dean Howells

In the Archives: Sprachen Studies (1917 then 1897)

Not Zach Galifianakis

Not Zach Galifianakis, around 1906

So last month, when I recounted the recent Mark Twain Quadrennial, in Elmira, New York, I did not lie to you when I said my last name was a rarity outside of Brazil. But I might’ve misled. I’m not Hispanic. The name, phonetically confusing no matter the accent, originates from a very localized area in the Catholic part of Germany. Before social media made rabble of us all, my immediate network of genetic cognates stretched the length and width of America, but number well under forty (out of 313.9 million Americans without my last name). Once humans began twittering, a search for my surname generates hundreds of Andrés, Rafaels, Guilhermes, Edleides, and Gabriels. All of them write in Portuguese, and the best I can figure populated the Southern Hemisphere in the nineteenth century. Their ancestors did anyway. My ancestors begin with my great-grandfather, his wife, and my grandfather, barely a toddler in 1920, leaving Köln after fighting Americans for the Kaiser in the Great War. He set up his own machine shop outside of Boston, and began a tradition of not passing on family history to the next generation, and so in turn we know very little but apocrypha.

But apocrypha is a start. While we seek a connection with our distant Vaterland, all of us—North and South American—still sit under the shadow of a later holocaust with greater ethical concerns than the mobilized imperial reaction to the assassination of Franz Ferdinand in June 1914. Thankfully, none of us bear any of the guilt, even if there’s always the cinematic suspicion. For those of you too young to remember, Zie Germans were fun adversaries in popular media long after World War II and despite the atrocities committed on their own citizens. Hollywood couldn’t quit them as antagonists until 9/11 made clandestine sleeper cell guerrilla terrorism all the rage. Islamic extremists make for good long-form television, but not epic two-hour cinema. Meanwhile the pomp and circumstance of Nazi regalia still seems a popular attraction. And if the uniform gets a little thread-bare, Hollywood’s costume designers can go back a score and break out the Kaiser’s pointy helmets and Red Baron pilot goggles.

War is Hell

War is Hell

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In the Archives: Mark Twain, “[Date, 1601.] CONVERSATION, AS IT WAS BY THE SOCIAL FIRESIDE, IN THE TIME OF THE TUDORS.”

Tracy Wuster

“[Date, 1601.] ‘Conversation, as it was by the Social Fireside, in the Time of the Tudors” or “1601” is one of the most fascinating works in all of the writing of Mark Twain.  The piece is written as a conversation between Queen Elizabeth, Shakespeare, Bacon, and others in the Queen’s closet, by the Queen’s cup-bearer.  As the company talks, the narrator relates:

In ye heat of ye talk it befel yt one did breake wind, yielding an exceding mightie and distresfull stink, whereat all did laugh full sore, and then—

Ye Queene.—Verily in mine eight and sixty yeres have I not heard the fellow to this fart. Meseemeth, by ye grete sound and clamour of it, it was male; yet ye belly it did lurk behinde shoulde now fall lean and flat against ye spine of him yt hath bene delivered of so stately and so waste a bulk, where as ye guts of them yt doe quiff-splitters bear, stand comely still and rounde. Prithee let ye author confess ye offspring.

Then follows each member of the company discussing the fart, followed by some ribald talk of sex, poetry, and religion.  Depending on your view of the matters at hand, the piece is either immensely hilarious or shocking… or maybe both.  And it is almost wholly without peer in Twain’s writings.

Written in 1876, the same summer he began Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the piece was originally meant for Samuel Clemens’s minister–the Reverend Joseph Twichell.  He later wrote:

“I took it to one of the greatest, best and most learned of Divines [Rev. Joseph H. Twichell] and read it to him. He came within an ace of killing himself with laughter (for between you and me the thing was dreadfully funny. I don’t often write anything that I laugh at myself, but I can hardly think of that thing without laughing). That old Divine said it was a piece of the finest kind of literary art—and David Gray of the Buffalo Courier said it ought to be printed privately and left behind me when I died, and then my fame as a literary artist would last.”

As you read the piece, think about Samuel Clemens writing the piece for his minister–the man who performed his wedding ceremony.

Mark Twain samuel clemens portrait painting 1877

Portrait by F.D. Millet (1877)

In 1880, John Hay–the humorist and statesman–had four copies printed, without a name attached (only one copy of this version is known to exist).  Amazingly, the first book edition was printed in 1882 at West Point, by a friend of Clemens and Twichell, in an edition of 50 copies on handmade paper soaked in coffee, with special punches for the Old English spelling required.  Truly, it may have have been the best use of military technology in the history of the Army. Further editions were printed during Twain’s lifetime, although Twain did not claim the piece until 1906 in a letter. (See Franklin J. Meine’s introduction for more information).

1601 represents the profane, vulgar side of Mark Twain that was seldom seen in his work, although it was well known that he had a passion for swearing.  Franklin Meine argues that:

Although 1601 was not matched by any similar sketch in his published works, it was representative of Mark Twain the man. He was no emaciated literary tea-tosser. Bronzed and weatherbeaten son of the West, Mark was a man’s man, and that significant fact is emphasized by the several phases of Mark’s rich life as steamboat pilot, printer, miner, and frontier journalist.

While I am not sure that it is so easy to say that this piece represents the manly man Mark Twain, it does point to a largely masculine culture of letters in which fugitive pieces, often of a rather profane or vulgar bent, were passed around amongst friends.  Benjamin Franklin’s “Fart Proudly,” (1871) was of a similar vein of American humor–one that blends folklore with the dirty joke while presenting the subject in a “respectable” form.  Twain and Franklin’s pieces are surely remembered because of their famous authors, and each is hilariously funny in its own way.  Are there other examples of this type of humor that might be put into the conversation?

In the meantime, enjoy 1601, although if you are at work, there are some truly dirty parts.  Be warned.

[Date, 1601.]

CONVERSATION, AS IT WAS BY THE SOCIAL FIRESIDE, IN THE TIME OF THE TUDORS.

     [Mem.—The following is supposed to be an extract from the
     diary of the Pepys of that day, the same being Queen
     Elizabeth's cup-bearer.  He is supposed to be of ancient and
     noble lineage; that he despises these literary canaille;
     that his soul consumes with wrath, to see the queen stooping
     to talk with such; and that the old man feels that his
     nobility is defiled by contact with Shakespeare, etc., and
     yet he has got to stay there till her Majesty chooses to
     dismiss him.]

YESTERNIGHT toke her maiste ye queene a fantasie such as she sometimes hath, and had to her closet certain that doe write playes, bokes, and such like, these being my lord Bacon, his worship Sir Walter Ralegh, Mr. Ben Jonson, and ye child Francis Beaumonte, which being but sixteen, hath yet turned his hand to ye doing of ye Lattin masters into our Englishe tong, with grete discretion and much applaus. Also came with these ye famous Shaxpur. A righte straunge mixing truly of mighty blode with mean, ye more in especial since ye queenes grace was present, as likewise these following, to wit: Ye Duchess of Bilgewater, twenty-six yeres of age; ye Countesse of Granby, thirty; her doter, ye Lady Helen, fifteen; as also these two maides of honor, to-wit, ye Lady Margery Boothy, sixty-five, and ye Lady Alice Dilberry, turned seventy, she being two yeres ye queenes graces elder.

I being her maites cup-bearer, had no choice but to remaine and beholde rank forgot, and ye high holde converse wh ye low as uppon equal termes, a grete scandal did ye world heare thereof.

In ye heat of ye talk it befel yt one did breake wind, yielding an exceding mightie and distresfull stink, whereat all did laugh full sore, and then—

Ye Queene.—Verily in mine eight and sixty yeres have I not heard the fellow to this fart. Meseemeth, by ye grete sound and clamour of it, it was male; yet ye belly it did lurk behinde shoulde now fall lean and flat against ye spine of him yt hath bene delivered of so stately and so waste a bulk, where as ye guts of them yt doe quiff-splitters bear, stand comely still and rounde. Prithee let ye author confess ye offspring. Will my Lady Alice testify?

Lady Alice.—Good your grace, an’ I had room for such a thunderbust within mine ancient bowels, ’tis not in reason I coulde discharge ye same and live to thank God for yt He did choose handmaid so humble whereby to shew his power. Nay, ’tis not I yt have broughte forth this rich o’ermastering fog, this fragrant gloom, so pray you seeke ye further.

Ye Queene.—Mayhap ye Lady Margery hath done ye companie this favor?

Lady Margery.—So please you madam, my limbs are feeble wh ye weighte and drouth of five and sixty winters, and it behoveth yt I be tender unto them. In ye good providence of God, an’ I had contained this wonder, forsoothe wolde I have gi’en ‘ye whole evening of my sinking life to ye dribbling of it forth, with trembling and uneasy soul, not launched it sudden in its matchless might, taking mine own life with violence, rending my weak frame like rotten rags. It was not I, your maisty.

Ye Queene.—O’ God’s name, who hath favored us? Hath it come to pass yt a fart shall fart itself? Not such a one as this, I trow. Young Master Beaumont—but no; ‘twould have wafted him to heaven like down of goose’s boddy. ‘Twas not ye little Lady Helen—nay, ne’er blush, my child; thoul’t tickle thy tender maidenhedde with many a mousie-squeak before thou learnest to blow a harricane like this. Wasn’t you, my learned and ingenious Jonson?

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In the Archives: An Easy Chair in an Uneasy World (1920)

It may be heresy to admit on a website dedicated to American humor that I find great relief in the British variant. Since I first learned of knights who say Ni! I’ve thoroughly appreciated heady concepts wrapped in silly nonsense. I have even found principles to incorporate in my general code of conduct, for instance, in Douglas Adams’s lesser known Dirk Gently detective series, Adams introduces the concept of zen navigation.

“I rarely end up where I was intending to go, but often I end up somewhere that I needed to be.” You’d be amazed the liberty one feels at discovering the correct destination when relieved of plotting the course. Such was the case for this week’s submission to the Archives.

Quite often we hear the careless expression “In the wake of…” and understand the causality of A on the outcome of B. But the idiom in this case homophonically reminds us of our vigil in a funeral while punning on the context of current events. When the broad scope of law enforcement pulled Boston Marathon suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev out of a boat in a Watertown backyard, neither the boat, the backyard, nor the town were near water. But the wake cast by that young man in the boat capsized Boston for the better part of a week.

I was fortunate to be at a Dairy Queen with a small child twenty miles from the finish line when the bombs went off Patriots’ Day. I plan to stay near that child as close as I can when I see the pictures of children whose parents can’t hold them again. It sends the mind looking for answers. I thought I might find them in precedent.

That's me on the left...

That’s me on the left…

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The Subtle (and a little-less-than-subtle) Humor of Charles Chesnutt

Tracy Wuster

June 20 is the birthday of Charles Waddell Chesnutt, one of the most important authors and humorists of the Gilded Age. Chesnutt (1858-19320) is often discussed in terms of the humor of his works, especially the short stories of his two collections The Conjure Woman and The Wife of His Youth, both published in 1899.  In a journal entry from 1879, Chesnutt wrote of the purposes of his fiction, which he viewed as elevating not the black race but the white.  He wrote:

But the subtle almost indefinable feeling of repulsion toward the negro, which is common to most Americans—and easily enough accounted for—, cannot be stormed and taken by assault; the garrison will not capitulate: so their position must be mined, and we will find ourselves in their midst before they think it.

So instead of the “assault of laughter,” Chesnutt saw his goal as using humor to subtly influence feeling, or as he put it: “while amusing them to lead them on imperceptibly, unconsciously step by step to the desired state of feeling.”  The entire journal entry is printed below.  But, first, I will discuss the ways in which I have taught Chesnutt as a figure in the plantation school of American literature.

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Poetry Corner–Paul Laurence Dunbar: Changing the Joke to Slip the Yoke

Editors’ note:  We are re-blogging this post from Sharon McCoy in honor of Paul Laurence Dunbar’s birthday: June 27th.  

Last year we  posted the poem “An Ante-bellum Sermon” from Paul Laurence Dunbar’s collection, Lyrics of Lowly Life. This week’s poetry entry discusses the historical, literary, and cultural context of that collection and its core humor.  The bold red titles below indicate live links to those songsheets, audio files, or websites.

Dunbar can be difficult in many ways.  His dialect can seem heavy or (to some ears) stereotypical, especially once you know that he wrote for performers who appeared in blackface.  We often resist humor in poetry, but blackface offers special challenges that make it difficult for many to want to take Dunbar seriously as a poet.  Songs such as Evah Darkey is a King and Who Dat Say Chicken in Dis Crowd can be hard to stomach in the twenty-first century, and even his serious, beautiful dialect pieces such as  On Emancipation Day are packaged with lurid period sheet-music covers that wrench credibility.

Paul Laurence Dunbar

None of this was news to Dunbar.  But the era he was writing in offered special challenges in any case.  He was born in Dayton, Ohio in 1872, the son of former slaves, just three years after his home state sent a resolution to Congress refusing to ratify the 15th Amendment (prohibiting denial of suffrage on racial grounds).  Ohio ultimately relented, withdrew the resolution, and ratified the Amendment, but only when it was clear that it would become law in any case.  Emotions still ran strong and tensions high in the state whose antebellum “black laws” had rivaled Louisiana’s for their severity, and it is not surprising that a President from this tension-filled state, Rutherford B. Hayes, facilitated the end of federal Reconstruction.  Growing up African American in Ohio required a sense of humor.

Even after publishing two books of poetry before the age of 25, Dunbar still had to work as an elevator operator in order to survive, but during that time of economic depression, any job was a blessing.  And his poetry had captured the attention of the “dean” of American literature, William Dean Howells.  When Howells agreed in 1896 to write the introduction to Dunbar’s Lyrics of Lowly Life, the young poet must have been ecstatic.

But his sense of humor also came in handy.  We’ll look at Howells’s introduction and Dunbar’s response in a moment, because Dunbar’s choices are as funny as they are full of chutzpah. But first, we need to talk a little about the particular climate of the U.S. at that time.  Continue reading →