Category Archives: Mark Twain

In the Archives: Mark Twain’s “A Presidential Candidate” (1879)

Tracy Wuster

To “celebrate” the Iowa Caucuses, we present Mark Twain’s “A Presidential Candidate.”  In light of the sometimes depressing spectacle of the primary season, it is nice to see Twain’s refreshing candor.  Here it is, from June 1879:

Mark Twain Samuel Langhorne Clemens politics president Obama RomneyI have pretty much rkde up my mind to run for president. What the country wants is a candidate who cannot be injured by investigation of his past history, so that the enemies of the party will be unable to rake up anything against him that nobody ever heard of before. If you know the worst about a candidate to begin with, every attempt to spring things on him will be checkmated. Now I am going to enter the field with an open record. I am going to own up in advance to all the wickedness I have done, and if any congressional committee is disposed to prowl around my biography in the hope of discovering any dark and deadly deed that I have secreted, why—let it prowl.

In the first place, I admit that I treed a rheumatic grandfather of mine in the winter of 1850. He was old and inexpert in climbing trees, but with the heartless brutality that is characteristic of me, I ran him out of the front door in his nightshirt at the point of a shotgun and caused him to bowl up a maple tree, where he remained all night, while I emptied shot into his legs. I did this because he snored. I will do it again if I ever have another grandfather. I am as inhuman now as I was in 1850. I candidly acknowledge that I ran away at the Battle of Gettysburg. My friends have tried to smooth over this fact by asserting that I did so for the purpose of imitating Washington, who went into the woods at Valley Forge for the purpose of saying his prayers. It was a miserable subterfuge. I struck out in a straight line for the Tropic of Cancer, because I was scared. I wanted my country saved, but I preferred to have somebody else save it. I entertain that preference yet. If the bubble reputation can be obtained only at the cannon’s mouth, I am willing to go there for it, provided the cannon is empty. If it is loaded, my immortal and inflexible purpose is to get over the fence and go home. My invariable practice in war has been to bring out of every fight two-thirds more men than when I went in. This seems to me to be Napoleonic in its grandeur.

My financial views are of the most decided character, but they are not likely, perhaps, to increase my popularity with the advocates of inflation. I do not insist upon the special supremacy of rag money or hard money. The great fundamental principle of my life is to take any kind I can get.

The rumor that I buried a dead aunt under my grapevine was correct. The vine needed fertilizing, my aunt had to be buried, and I dedicated her to this high purpose. Does that unfit me for the presidency? The Constitution of our country does not say so. No other citizen was ever considered unworthy of this office because he enriched his grapevines with his dead relatives. Why should I be selected as the first victim of an absurd prejudice?

I admit also that I am not a friend of the poor man. I regard the poor man, in his present condition, as so much wasted raw material. Cut up and properly canned, he might be made useful to fatten the natives of the cannibal islands and to improve our export trade with that region. I shall recommend legislation upon the subject in my first message. My campaign cry will be, “Desiccate the poor workingman; stuff him into sausages.”

These are about the worst parts of my record. On them I come before the country. If my country don’t want me, I will go back again. But I recommend myself as a safe man—a man who starts from the basis of total depravity and proposes to be fiendish to the last.

Engraving based on an 1879 photograph.

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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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Eddie Murphy Awarded Mark Twain Prize for American Humor

Tracy Wuster

 

Every year since 1998, the Kennedy Center has awarded the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor to some of the greats of American Humor–and also Lorne Michaels. The 18th Annual award will be presented to Eddie Murphy on Sunday, October 18th.  Tickets still available.  I would be happy to attend said gala with you should you have an extra ticket (and tuxedo).

Murphy’s importance for American humor is clear, despite some movies in the 1990s that weren’t so great.

“Eddie Murphy has kept us laughing for 30 years. He’s like Mark Twain. He gets to the heart of a provocative issue, and he’s damn funny while he’s doing it,” said Cappy McGarr, one of the show’s executive producers. “He has had incredible influence over so many comedians who have followed him.”

Growing up, for me Saturday Night Live was Eddie Murphy–Buckwheat, Gumby, Mr. Robinson’s Neighborhood, James Brown… only later did I see the original cast.  From that period, almost all the sketches I remember were Murphy.  And they were hilarious.Eddie Murphy Buckwheat

At school, we would quote lines from Murphy as part of our everyday patter.  But I also remember the satire of Murphy’s “White Like Me” video causing me to think about race and privilege in ways I hadn’t before.

I also watched Murphy’s stand-up specials when I was much too young for such language.  Here, I should thank my brother, who also let me watch Trading Places and 48 Hours.  

While some of Murphy’s work hasn’t held up, his brilliance as a comic is unquestionable, and his influence American comedy is clear.  Most years, the Mark Twain Forum has some grumbling when the Mark Twain Prize is announced–discussion of whether the recipient is worthy of Mark Twain’s legacy.  No such discussion this year.

Happy 90th Birthday Hal Holbrook!

Tracy Wuster

Today marks the 90th birthday of Hal Holbrook–the man who has been Mark Twain longer than Samuel Clemens was Mark Twain.  In his honor, I am rerunning a post from several years ago.  For more on Holbrook’s career, see Mark Dawidziak’s columns on Holbrook adding new material here and by the numbers here.  And information on a documentary well worth seeing here.

I did not mention in the original post my experience seeing Holbrook perform as Mark Twain.  As a scholar who studied Mark Twain’s performance, I was skeptical about seeing Holbrook–not because he is anything less than respected but because his version of Mark Twain is a different version than the one I studied.  Holbrook’s Mark Twain is the older, wiser, white-suited-er version.  The 1860s and 1870s version who lectured on platforms and lyceums across the country and in England was a different figure.  So I wanted to get a mental image of that man in my grasp before seeing Holbrook.

I can’t remember the exact circumstances of the evening–my wife suffers through enough Mark Twain in editing and reading and living with me, so she was not there.  And the tickets were more money than we had to spend easily, being end-stage Ph.D. candidates.  I sat in the beautiful Paramount Theater in Austin, notepad in hand, ready to be skeptical, thinking, “I know Mark Twain as a performer.  Let’s see what you got, Holbrook.”

He awed me.  In the end, my notes were mostly empty.  I laughed.  I was moved.  A passage of Huck Finn I had taught and read a dozen times unfurled in a whole new light.  He did pretty well.

If you have the chance, go see Hal Holbrook perform as Mark Twain–he is performing tonight, on his 90th birthday.

***

Hal has performed the character of Mark Twain longer than Samuel Clemens.  Much has been written and said about the importance of Mark Twain Tonight! and Hal’s performance as Mark Twain (not to mention his other wonderful acting work).

I want to offer my own story of meeting Mr. Holbrook in Elmira at the 6th International Conference on the State of Mark Twain Studies (which should be renamed, “Mark Twain Summer Camp,” in my humble opinion).  For a graduate student, Mark Twain Summer Camp already meant meeting top scholars in the field–rock stars, if you will (if you are a nerd, that is).  But Hal Holbrook is as big a star as you will find for Mark Twain fans, unless the man himself were to appear.

I was convinced that my panel would be empty, as it was scheduled opposite that panel at which Mark Dawidziak would be discussing “Mark Twain Tonight!” with Hal Holbrook in the audience.  I was thus shocked and delighted when Lou Budd walked into my panel just as I began to give my paper (causing me to lose my place for a moment).  For Twain scholars, you can’t get much more important than Lou Budd.

Hal Holbrook Speaking at Mark Twain Summer Camp

Photo Courtesy Patrick Ober

This video is the audio of Hal Holbrook’s brief remarks at the conference.  Recorded by Patrick Ober and combined with images from the beautiful campus of Elmira College.

I had witnessed first hand the star power of Hal Holbrook the night before.  After a full day of conferencing, I  meandered down toward the evening’s banquet a bit early.  In front of the building I found Shelley Fisher Fishkin and Hal Holbrook quietly talking.  Shelley introduced me to Hal and mentioned I lived in Austin.  As Hal began to say something, we were suddenly surrounded by a group of scholars who had been momentarily possessed by the spirit of teenagers at a concert when they spot the band backstage.  That is to say, I was elbowed out of the way by a gray-haired college professor who had been star struck.

Hal was now surrounded by a group of admirers jostling for his attention.  In my memory of the event, they are waving pictures for him to sign and taking photos with old-fashioned flash cameras.  My memory may not be exact.  As I stood there awkwardly outside of circle, a momentary gap opened and Hal said to me, as if our conversation had not interrupted:

“I was in Austin recently.”

I replied:  “I know.  I saw you perform.”

“When was that?”

I pondered a moment.  “Spring.”

“What is it now?”

“Summer.”

“Sounds about right.”

And then Hal was engulfed by the adoring crowd of academics-turned-teenager.

The following night, the conference ended with a party at Quarry Farm, the summer house of the Langdon and Clemens family.  I experienced another nerdy rockstar moment.  While talking with Tom Quirk–no slouch of a Twain scholar himself–Lou Budd walked up and mistook me for a waiter.  I will leave the story he told in explanation to his mistake out here, but it more than made up for any confusion.

After a wonderful dinner and a tour of the house, many people made the trek up the hill to the spot where Twain’s octagonal study sat.  There are moments in one’s life that you know you will tell stories about for years–maybe 5 or 10 or even 20–but there are few stories you know, at the time, that you will tell for the rest of your life.  For those of us who walked up the hill at Quarry Farm to the spot of Mark Twain’s study to smoke cigars, to sing songs, and to listen to Hal Holbrook tell stories, there is no doubt of the fact.

A heck of a time, then, to test out the video function of my new camera.  I wasn’t even sure it recorded in sound… but it did and in pretty good sound, too.  Since a number of people couldn’t hear Hal speak, or were on the porch playing music, I have posted the below clips of his story of meeting Clara (and Isabel Lyon).  I stopped recording as he described his heartbreaking meeting with Nina, which seems fitting in retrospect.  I hope you enjoy.
Click to see videos.
Joe Csicsilla lighting Hal Holbrook’s Cigar
Photo by Tracy Wuster
(c) Tracy Wuster, 2012, 2015

Risk vs. Reward: When are Jokes too Risky?

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?

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How Tom Sawyer Grew Up to be Hank Morgan

Jan McIntire-Strasburg

 

Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn are probably the most well known of Mark Twain’s characters. Bronze statues of the boys grace Schoolyard Hill in Hannibal.  Their images have been used for everything from selling paint to Norman Rockwell pictures that evoke the nostalgia of childhood. Each boy is the subject of his own novel, and although Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has stood the test of time better than Tom’s adventures, the character of Tom remains that of a charming if mischievous boy. While Huck is practical, and can improvise a workable solution to any problem, Tom’s forte is the grand effect—the spectacle. He has read all of the romance novels, and his dreams as a boy are populated by robbers, pirates, and steamboat captains who perform feats of derring-do, rescue, capture and ransom ladies and gentlemen, and ambuscade Arabs, carrying of piles off booty.

Mark Twain Tom Sawyer

Tom Sawyer, 1876 Frontispiece

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer ends with this “Conclusion”:

So endeth this chronicle. It being strictly the history of a boy, it must stop here; it could not go further without becoming the history of a man…Some day it may seem worth while to take up the story of the younger ones again and see what sort of men and women they turned out to be; therefore it will be wisest not to reveal any of that part of their lives at present. (TS 215)

Twain takes up the story of the boys yet again in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Tom’s part in this later novel is, of course, much smaller, as this is Huck’s story. Twain uses Tom to tie this second novel to the first, where Tom makes good on his plan to instigate Tom Sawyer’s Gang, and initiates the members with blood oaths. His imagination turns a Sunday School picnic into a caravan of Arabs, whom the gang intend to rout and rob. Tom then disappears from the narrative except for moments of decision in Huck’s adventures when he invokes Tom as his “authority” on how to do things with “style.” After setting up the elaborate ruse that fakes his death, Huck says: “I wished Tom Sawyer was there. I knowed he’d take an interest in this kind of business, and throw in the fancy touches. Nobody could spread himself like Tom Sawyer in such a thing as that” (HF 657). Huck’s appreciation of Tom’s “fancy touches” occurs in other parts of the novel as well, but Tom’s return in the Evasion chapters demonstrates a shift in Twain’s indulgent, “boys will be boys” attitude concerning Tom.

Those chapters show a Tom who creates an elaborate and dangerous (to Jim) plan for freeing the runaway slave from his imprisonment at Phelps’ farm. Huck’s plan is simple, straightforward, and to the point: “Here’s the ticket. This hole’s [window] big enough for Jim to get through if we wrench off the board” (HF 854). Tom’s reply offers the reader a glimpse of his romantic notions of escape from captivity: “It’s as simple as tit-tat-toe, three–in-a-row, and as easy as playing hooky. I should hope we can find a way that’s more complicated than that, Huck Finn” (657). Huck just “knows” that Tom’s plan will be “worth fifteen of mine for style” and “would make Jim just as free a man as mine would, and maybe get us all killed besides. So I was satisfied…” (HF 853). The difference between the two boys is clear—Tom is all style, and Huck substance. While Tom’s escape plan works out in the end, Tom is shot and Jim very nearly hung.

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American Humor Studies Association/Mark Twain Circle of America Quadrennial Conference 2014

American Humor Studies Association

Mark Twain Circle of America

Quadrennial Conference 2014

December 4-7, 2014

Four Points Sheraton French Quarter

 

The American Humor Studies Association, in conjunction with the Mark Twain Circle of America, sends out this general call for papers on American humor and Mark Twain. The topics below are suggestions for topics that we think will be of interest; other topics are welcome, and we welcome especially submissions of sessions of three papers or roundtables. The topics are broad in the hope that scholars will be able to find one that fits their current research. Submissions should be sent to Jan McIntire-Strasburg via email (mcintire@slu.edu). Please send your submissions by May 15, 2014.

Those sending in submissions for the Mark Twain Circle of America can email their proposals to Ann Ryan at ryanam@lemoyne.edu.

Topics include but are not limited to:

Early American Humor and its European Roots

Nineteenth Century Humor—from Southwest to Northeast to Far West

20th Century Humor and the American Novel

Regional and/or transnational humor

New Media Approaches to Humor

Humor in film, television, comics, and other visual media

Humor and Theatre

Stand-Up Comedy

Online humor

Humor and Ethnicity

Humor and Gender

Humor and Class

Humor and Sexuality

Humor and War

Contemporary Approaches to Irony, Satire, Wit, and other topics

Teaching Humor

New Directions in American Humor Studies

Mark Twain

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In the Archives: Mark Twain’s Infectious Jingle– “A Literary Nightmare” (1876)

Tracy Wuster

Mark Twain’s “Literary Nightmare” (1876), published in the Atlantic Monthly, represents an early example of a “viral” piece of popular culture.    The “Viral Text” project at Northeastern University is tracing 19th-century newspaper stories as they circulated, and “A Literary Nightmare” might be a unique example–being a story about a viral text–in this case, a poem–and its infectious effects, which in turn helped spread the original poem, Mark Twain’s story about it, and the very genre of poetry across the nation and, possibly, around the world.  The story even inspired a song.  And was being discussed as late as 1915.

The poem presented the key example of “horse-car poetry” that enjoyed a brief vogue as popular doggerel.  A discussion of the phenomenon of “horse-car poetry”  was printed in Record of the Year, A Reference Scrap Book: Being the Monthly Record of Important Events Worth Preserving, published by G. W. Carleton and Company in 1876.  The story, beginning on page 324, details how a New York rail line posted a placard on fares that became a poetic sensation, leading to Mark Twain’s use of the lines in his story.  The phenomenon of “horse-car poetry” then, according to the Record of the Year, spread to other cities and countries, causing an “epidemic” that aroused passions and even violence.  The Record of the Year contains one story of a woman literally possessed by the sketch, reading in part:

The danger of Mark Twain's viral text...

The danger of Mark Twain’s viral text…

The entire scene is worth reading at the link above.

Mark Twain’s  extended comic sketch details  the hypnotic, yet meaningless, power of humorous writing to infect one’s mind like a virus.  Entitled “A Literary Nightmare” (February 1876), Twain’s piece starts with a verse of poetry:

“Conductor, when you receive a fare,

Punch in the presence of the passenjare!

A blue trip slip for an eight-cent fare,

A buff trip slip for a six-cent fare,

A pink trip slip for a three-cent fare,

Punch in the presence of the passenjare

CHORUS

Punch, brothers punch with care!

Punch in the presence of the passenjare!”

These lines, the narrator “Mark” writes, “took instant and entire possession of me.”  For days, the only thing in his mind are the lines of verse—they keep him from his work, wreck his sleep, and turn him into a raving lunatic singing “punch brothers punch…” After several days of torture, he sets out on a walk with his friend, a Rev. Mr. ——- (presumably his good friend Rev. Joe Twichell).  After hours of silence, the Reverend asks the narrator what the trouble is, and Mark tells him the story, teaching him the lines of the jingle.  Instantly, the narrator puts the verse out of his mind. The Reverend, on the other hand, has “got it” now.

You can read the sketch in its entirety below.

 

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The Trouble Begins at Nine?: Mark Twain, “A Speech on Women,” and Blackface Minstrelsy

“Trouble,” as I may have said once or twice, was Twain’s trademark.

On 11 January 1868, Mark Twain was asked to give a speech (printed in full below) responding to a toast at the Washington Correspondents’ Club.  The toast: “Woman, the pride of the professions and the jewel of ours.” 

John F. Scott, ed. New York:  Dick & Fitzgerald, 1868.

John F. Scott, ed. New York: Dick & Fitzgerald, 1868. Collection of the author.

The speech was well received and widely re-published in newspapers — and also in an 1868 book called Brudder Bones Book of Stump Speeches, and Burlesque Orations, which contains a variety of humorous speeches and sketches from the blackface stage, variety houses and the lecture circuit, all indiscriminately mixed together.  Twain, though, is given special recognition in the text, being referred to as “the celebrated humorist.” 

While Twain was initially tickled both by his speech and its coverage in the press — and even sent a copy to his own mother, who apparently loved it — he later worried about whether the speech was too vulgar in places.  In the various reprints, it would seem that some editors agreed with him, as they omitted bits here and there.  Their choices are interesting.

The Washington Star version (13 January 1868), for example, mildly says that Twain “responded” to the toast.  It omits an off-color reference to wives cuckolding their husbands and bearing others’ children and an appreciative tribute to Eve in the pre-fig-leaf days.

Brudder Bones, on the other hand, offers that Twain “was called upon to respond to a toast complimentary to women, and he performed his duty in the following manner.”   The book changes that “manner” a bit, by striking the final, conciliatory paragraph that puts all “jesting aside” with a toast honoring each man’s mother.  Brudder Bones also omits Twain’s stated desire to “protect” women, apparently not seeing this as necessary or appropriate, or perhaps funny.  Like the Star, the minstrel show version omits the reference to women’s infidelity and the children that arise from it, but reprints in full the appreciation of Eve, which celebrates female beauty and sexuality.

TroubleAtNineBut for Twain enthusiasts and scholars, Brudder Bones also includes another item of interest.  It is well known that Twain advertised his lectures with various versions of the phrase “The Trouble Begins at Eight.”  And his favorite blackface minstrel troupe, the San Francisco Minstrels, also used variations of the same phrase to advertise their shows for almost two decades, an association Twain seemed to enjoy — and certainly never complained about.  Brudder Bones, though, confirms that both Twain and the San Francisco Minstrels likely had an earlier source for that particular phrasing.  The 1868 book includes a sketch written and performed by blackface minstrel, entrepreneur, and promoter Charley White —  De Trouble Begins at Nine, as played at the American Theatre, 444 Broadway.  This theatre burned to the ground on 15 February 1866, according to theatre historian George Odell (VIII.84).

So . . . the trouble actually began at nine — nine to ten months before Twain’s inspired first use of a variation of the phrase.

And now, let’s take a look at the mild trouble Twain stirred up about women at the Correspondents’ Club, trouble that he felt that “they had no business” reporting “so verbatimly.”  For those who appreciate Twain’s later 1601, this “trouble” will seem tame indeed, but it does have its charms:

**********************************************************

A Speech on Women by Mark Twain

Washington Correspondents’ Club, 11 February 1868

MR. PRESIDENT: I do not know why I should have been singled out to receive the greatest distinction of the evening — for so the office of replying to the toast to woman has been regarded in every age.  [Applause.]  I do not know why I have received this distinction, unless it be that I am a trifle less homely than the other members of the club.  But, be this as it may, Mr. President, I am proud of the position, and you could not have chosen any one who would have accepted it more gladly, or labored with a heartier good-will to do the subject justice, than I.  Because, sir, I love the sex. [Laughter.] I love all the women, sir, irrespective of age or color. [Laughter.]

Human intelligence cannot estimate what we owe to woman, sir. She sews on our buttons [laughter], she mends our clothes [laughter], she ropes us in at the church fairs — she confides in us; she tells us whatever she can find out about the little private affairs of the neighbors ; she gives us good advice — and plenty of it — she gives us a piece of her mind, sometimes — and sometimes all of it ; she soothes our aching brows; she bears our children — ours as a general thing.  In all the relations of life, sir, it is but just, and a graceful tribute to woman to say of her that she is a perfect brick.[Great laughter.]

Wheresoever you place woman, sir — in whatever position or estate — she is an ornament to that place she occupies, and a treasure to the world.  [Here Mr. Twain paused, looked inquiringly at his hearers and remarked that the applause should come in at this point. It came in. Mr. Twain resumed his eulogy. Look at the noble names of history!  Look at Cleopatra! — look at Desdemona! — look at Florence Nightingale! –look at Joan of Arc! –look at Lucretia Borgia! [Disapprobation expressed. “Well,” said Mr. Twain, scratching his head doubtfully, “suppose we let Lucretia slide.”] Continue reading →

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?

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