Posting without political intent or comment. For your consideration as you prepare for the third and final debate.
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:
I 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…
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Sardonic, startling, dark and direct. This accessible, yet often existential poet writes incisive, meaningful poems. His cutting wit, dark humor and haunting irony are his trademarks.
With the debates in full swing, I thought it apt to share two of his protest poems. Enjoy!
The People of the Other Village
hate the people of this village
and would nail our hats
to our heads for refusing in their presence to remove them
or staple our hands to our foreheads
for refusing to salute them
if we did not hurt them first: mail them packages of rats,
mix their flour at night with broken glass.
We do this, they do that.
They peel the larynx from one of our brothers’ throats.
We devein one of their sisters.
The quicksand pits they built were good.
Our amputation teams were better.
We trained some birds to steal their wheat.
They sent to us exploding ambassadors of peace.
They do this, we do that.
We canceled our sheep imports.
They no longer bought our blankets.
We mocked their greatest poet
and when that had no effect
we parodied the way they dance
which did cause pain, so they, in turn, said our God
was leprous, hairless.
We do this, they do that.
Ten thousand (10,000) years, ten thousand
(10,000) brutal, beautiful years.
— Thomas Lux, 1994
Plague Victims Catapulted Over Walls into Besieged City
warfare. The dead
hurled this way look like wheels
in the sky. Look: there goes
Larry the Shoemaker, barefoot, over the wall,
and Mary Sausage Stuffer, see how she flies,
and the Hatter twins, both at once, soar
over the parapet, little Tommy’s elbow bent
as if in a salute,
and his sister, Mathilde, she follows him,
arms outstretched, through the air,
just as she did
— Thomas Lux, 1999
When Charles Schulz first devised his running holiday gags involving an eager child’s confused blending of Halloween and Christmas in October 1959, he never dreamed that the myth of the Great Pumpkin would become one of the most beloved and amusing elements of the Fall holidays. Like so many landmark Peanuts routines, what began as a simple joke about a seemingly quaint misunderstanding would eventually grow to sizable proportions throughout the decades, producing a number of memorable antics as well as some particularly pointed commentary on the values and risks of personal perseverance and popular scorn.
Five of the first seven “Great Pumpkin” strips reveal Linus Van Pelt spreading the joyful gospel that will eventually leave him humiliated as “a victim of false doctrine.”
From then on, Schulz deftly milked the joke every season, focusing mainly on Linus’ unsinkable faith in his own personal legend of a charitable pumpkin-claus who brings toys and treats to good little kiddos awaiting his arrival in the truest, most earnest, and sincere pumpkin patch nestled somewhere in the Great American breadbasket. Playing harbinger to his Halloween hero, Linus’ tone could shift from zealous and prophetic to desperate and dejected, but still he spoke his truth and believed always in his misfit vision of the holiday. Now his legend is ours as well.
Of course the 1966 TV special, one of many award-winning adaptations that launched Schulz’s Peanuts gang to worldwide fame, would provide the most resonant and popular of all Great Pumpkin routines. Culled largely from the comic strips, and lovingly tweaked for television by Schulz himself and long-time producer, Bill Melendez, the CBS special, like its Christmas, Thanksgiving, and Easter counterparts, became a seminal element of American holiday media, and its yearly broadcast remains a beloved tradition shared by generations of viewers and fans. It’s safe to say that, ironically, much of the media-driven world now sits eagerly each year with Linus in his pumpkin patch.
Like Schulz’s tree-eating kite, Charlie Brown and Lucy’s perennial football foibles, and the poor Peanuts kids’ eternal inability to win baseball games – Linus’ yearly disappointment after the Great Pumpkin’s failure to appear makes grand, operatic comedy of frustration and regret. Linus’ agony over another year wasted, his sister’s disgust at her little brother’s unshakable delusion, Snoopy’s perpetual knack for appearing at just the right time to give the poor languishing martyr some hope, and especially smitten Sally’s endless threats of litigation and restitution for a night’s worth of lost candy all frame the Great Pumpkin as a fairly piquant allegory of the complexities of faith, fun, and friendship in America.
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.
It’s here. The event of the century. The one we’ve all been waiting for with dread.
Trump Planning To Throw Lie About Immigrant Crime Rate Out There Early In Debate To Gauge How Much He Can Get Away With
HEMPSTEAD, NY—Saying he would probably introduce the falsehood in his opening statement or perhaps during his response to the night’s first question, Republican nominee Donald Trump reported Monday he was planning to throw out a blatant lie about the level of crime committed by immigrants early in the first presidential debate to gauge how much he’d be allowed to get away with. More…
With over a hundred million people projected to watch the debate, roughly sixty million of them will be barely sentient after ingesting what they deem to be the necessary dose of intoxicants. More…
Standing slightly crouched with her fists raised up in front of her in the middle of her campaign office’s mock stage, a blindfolded Hillary Clinton reportedly implored her high-level staffers to attack her with talking points from all sides Wednesday in preparation for next week’s first presidential debate. More…
“You just watch, folks,” Trump told supporters in Toledo, Ohio. “Crooked Hillary is going to slip in little facts all night long, and that’s how she’s going to try to rig the thing.” More…
Stay safe out there.
“Of the 2,000 individuals surveyed, we found that nearly nine in 10 said they would be watching tonight’s debate on the off-chance that they might get to witness the roof of Hofstra University’s Hagedorn Hall suddenly cave in and crush the nominees for president,” said Quinnipiac spokesman Michael Jovan.
“So, just as a recap: You had numerous options and a full year to decide on the candidates you wanted to be your next president, and these were the two you picked. These two. Right here. All right, now let’s begin.”
“You should change into a suit.”
Joel and Ethan Coen’s previous film won four of its eight Oscar nominations. They followed the most acclaimed – and bleakest – film of their career with a return to what they do better than anyone – a screwball black comedy based on an original story.
In fact, Burn After Reading (2008) was the first film based on an original story by Joel and Ethan Coen since 2001’s The Man Who Wasn’t There.
Part of Burn After Reading’s genius is in casting the A-list ensemble as total idiots. George Clooney, Frances McDormand, Brad Pitt, John Malkovich, Tilda Swinton and Richard Jenkins all excel as earnest people with small, insignificant lives.
The film is a playful homage to the genre of Cold War spy movies.
Civilians Brad Pitt and Frances McDormand accidently find a copy of what they believe to be top-secret information belonging to a high level CIA agent. In fact, their find is merely the inconsequential memoirs of a disgruntled analyst with a drinking problem and an abusive, philandering, wife.
The characters are all idiots, on an idiotic mission. But they believe they are in real danger, involved in high-level espionage. Continue reading →
First thing this morning, I received the following security alert sent by campus police:
“the UA campus is NOT on lockdown. Reports of clowns or any immediate credible threats on the UA campus are not true. These are unsubstantiated rumors. UAPD is patrolling campus.” Clowns roaming a college campus–who knew?
The fact is that numerous stories in varied media outlets have appeared concerning sittings of clowns in a variety of settings. These stories have tapped into a cultural phenomenon concerning our bizarre relationship with clowns. So, it seems logical to repost an earlier piece on the fear of clowns and comedy. Perhaps, it may help calm our fears, but in the meantime, please follow this basic bit of advice: do not follow a clown into the woods. OK?
Clowns are terrifying.
I am convinced that the very concept induces anxiety. While on the surface, the “clown” seems to be an innocuous effort to play on simple comedic principles of exaggeration–big facial expressions; big hair; big noses; big shoes, all capped by physical buffoonery–it really taps into our most perverse fears. This is not a new idea, of course. Having a character in a comedy who is deathly afraid of clowns is a staple of American humor. The best example that comes to mind is Kramer from Seinfeld. Using Kramer’s always over the top responses to otherwise normal social contexts is comedic gold (“Gold, Jerry, Gold.”), but his rather restrained response to coming face to face with a dangerous clown is instructive. We should keep in mind that Kramer’s fear was a point of rational thought within the context of the plot-line of the episode that featured Crazy…
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An Exceptional War Cartoon
Over the last fourteen years I have seen hundreds of war cartoons depicting the various situations that reflect America’s involvement in international conflict. After a while, it seems like I am seeing the same satire reflected in nearly the same way but with a different picture. However, now and then I get a pleasant surprise. Someone publishes a cartoon that suggests a different angle of a conflict. The following cartoon does just that.
Tom Toles, “You’re Here to Help, Right?” Washington Post, 4 September 2016.
Vultures circling or, as they are doing in this drawing, assembled in a tree is as common a theme in cartoons about death as the Grim Reaper. However, the way the vultures are used, representing more than the idea that something is dead or dying, but representing the victim’s potential rescuers, is a trope that is not often used.
Toles suggests that Syria’s neighbors are merely waiting for Syria, under the leadership of Bashar al-Assad, to kill itself so that neighboring countries can take over what is left. The vultures are the nations surrounding Syria. The Islamic State, Bashar al-Assad, and The Syrian National Coalition are not among the vultures, they could be best described as the cancers within that are slowly causing Syria’s demise. However, the estate of the cancer victim is up for grabs when Syria becomes a corpse. That is what the vultures are after.
Syria’s neighboring countries have done nearly nothing to help end the war in Syria (and it is no coincidence that there are five vultures in the tree). Iraq has its own problems. Israel, Jordan, and Lebanon have had a see-no-evil, hear-no-evil, speak-no-evil policy toward al-Assad and his nation (if he, indeed, has a nation). Taking sides will rankle someone and those three nations do not want any more enemies than they have now. Turkey has had to defend itself from the confrontations between the three cancers in Syria in order to prevent itself from getting infected. Turkey is doing nothing to help the victim, but is doing its best not to harm the victim either. Those are the vultures in the neighborhood tree.
Russia and the United States are also principals in the Syrian conflict. Their interests are merely implied in this cartoon. The United States would like al-Assad to abdicate. Russia would like for him to remain in power. What’s the reward, for any of this? Even though Syria is the 68th largest oil producing nation in the world, they both want the oil. Now that the price of oil is under $50.00 per barrel, why should anyone care about Syria’s oil. The conflict began when the price of oil was much higher and, historically, once a country is in a conflict, it is difficult to get out without paying a high price. And while energy is always an issue with Russia and the U. S, there is also a matter of reputation at stake. As it was during the cold war, neither Russia nor America will back down.
Tom Toles uses an embedded panel to make a secondary comment in his own cartoon. In the lower right corner, Toles depicts himself at his drawing board watching the scene in front of him. The practice is similar to Pat Oliphant’s Punk the Penguin who gets the final say in his drawings. Toles says of the vultures, “They know how to pick their friends.” He is suggesting that when Syria finally dies, and the cancers (combatants) die with it, the surrounding nations will get their slice of Syria. Let’s hope that when the time comes there is something worth taking because few people believe that there is anything of Syrian leadership that is worth saving.
This cartoon is among the few that cannot be copied in a few decades, change the labels, and have a cartoon that reflects the times. This cartoon stands out as one that depicts the uniqueness of the Syrian conflict and only the Syrian conflict.
In earlier posts, I have mentioned that when we think about Southwestern humor, three or four authors come to mind out of the thirty or forty who were actively writing at the time. Johnson J. Hooper is one of these three or four, classified as “The Big Bear School” of sketch writers from the 1830s-40s. In classifying Hooper this way, scholars such as M. Thomas Inge, Walter Blair, and Franklin J. Meine defined the school as authors who used the regional vernacular speech, letting the characters speak for themselves. In addition, the authors used a content set of tales that included the fact that they were con men of sorts, and the stories often described horse races and swaps, camp meetings, swindles, and generally bilking both the common people and the politicians alike. Often the tales deflate the egos of those who believe themselves smarter or more moral than the less educated back country population. They receive their comeuppance in the tales by being outsmarted by the main character. Hooper’s recurring character is Captain Simon Suggs, late of Tallapoosa County.
Although Hooper fits this definition in the content of most of his sketches, in other important stylistic ways his differ from the “standard” Southwestern sketch—specifically, he uses much more exposition and much less dialog than other authors from this “school” like George Washington Harris (the Sut Lovingood tales) and Thomas Bangs Thorpe (“The Big Bear of Arkansas”). I would like to suggest that Hooper does so based upon his own personal understanding of what good writing ought to be for a Southern gentleman.
That Hooper was such a gentleman is evidenced by his upbringing in pre-Civil War Georgia. He is one of the earliest of this type of yarnspinning along with Augustus Baldwin Longstreet (Georgia Scenes) and William Tappan Thompson (the Major Jones stories). His great grand uncle was a Boston minister and one of the original signers of the Declaration of Independence. His family were early emigrants to Georgia territory; His father brought the family to Georgia, where Johnson was born and raised. His father was a literary man, but not, unfortunately, a businessman; thus Hooper, as the third in a line of sons, grew up in more straightened circumstances than his older brothers. He inherited his father’s love of literature and writing, but not much else. In his lifetime, Hooper was an author, an editor for several newspapers, and a historian of the politics of the Southern cause before and during the Civil War. His Simon Suggs stories were early writings in his career, used as fillers for his newspaper editions, but became very popular, and were later published in both the Spirit of the times and as a collection of short tales.
Like many of the Southwestern humorists, Hooper first published his work in William T. Porter’s Spirit of the Times. Porter was instrumental in helping Southwestern humorists like Thorpe, Harris, and Hooper gain national attention both through the magazine and through his two collections of work from the Spirit in The Big Bear of Arkansas and Other Stories and A Quarter Race in Kentucky. In this capacity, Porter was instrumental in negotiating the collected works, Some Adventures of Captain Simon Suggs, Late of the Tallapoosa Volunteers: Together with “Taking the Census” and Other Alabama Sketches, for Hooper, which was published in 1845.
Generally, those authors most closely associated with the Big Bear School follow Wayne C. Booth’s (much later) description in The Rhetoric of Fiction. They “show” rather than “tell”—that is, they contain much more dialog than description. The characters do the talking, and the reader is left to interpret what the characters say. For example, in the tales of Sut Lovingood penned by George Washington Harris, a reader will find one or two short paragraphs at the beginning of the sketches by a narrator (Sut’s friend, George), setting up for the oral story then told by Sut himself in dialect. The sketches may also contain a final sentence or two by that narrator, thus framing the tale on both ends.
By contrast, Hooper’s stories and sketches contain much more description of place, time and situation, with correspondingly less dialect, primarily in the form of quotations of Simon’s speech. Harris’s choice to let Sut tell his story creates the effect of a raconteur, a good storyteller, presenting an oral tale. Hooper’s choice to tell most of the story as an unnamed narrator creates a very different effect—that of a well-educated gentleman telling a story he has heard, occasionally letting Simon speak so that the reader gets the “flavor” of Suggs’s speech. This separates the author from the speech of the sketch, demonstrating for the reader the difference between author and character. This would be important to an educated Southern author from a “good” family, who would have been expected to write erudite prose.
A sample taken from “Simon Fights ‘the Tiger’ and Gets Whipped—But Comes Out Not Much the ‘Worse for Wear’” should demonstrate this stylistic difference and its effect. The reader will notice that “the tiger” (in this case, referring to games of chance) and “the worse for wear” are both offset by quotation marks, by which the author indicates that they are slang. Simon himself uses slang terms more often than not, but does not bother indicating that the words are such, as that is his natural form of speech and he does not distinguish them from “proper” English.
In setting the stage for the story, the author begins with two long paragraphs showing where Simon is and what he is doing:
“As a matter of course, the first thing that engaged the attention of Captain Suggs upon his arrival in Tuskaloosa, was his proposed attack upon his enemy. Indeed, he scarcely allowed himself time to bolt, without mastication, the excellent supper served to him at Duffie’s, ere he outsallied to engage the adversary.”
Word and phrase choices such as “engaged the attention”, “mastication”, and “outsallied” are choices that would be foreign to Simon himself, but demonstrate that the author’s vocabulary is an elevated and educated one. The description takes up two paragraphs. Anywhere within it necessitating slang always sees it appear in quotation marks:
“As he hurried along, however, hardly turning his head, and to all appearance, oblivious altogether of things external, he held occasional “confabs” with himself in regard to the unusual objects which surrounded him…”
When Simon does speak, the contrast between himself and the narrator is striking:
“Well, thar’s the most deffrunt sperrets in that grocery ever I seed! Thar’s koniac, and old peach, and rectified, and lots I can’t tell thar names! That light yaller bottle tho’, in the corner thar, that’s Tennessee! I’d know that any whar!” (italics Hooper’s)
The sketch goes on to detail Simon’s encounter at a tavern in which he is soundly beaten at cards, loses all of his money, and manages to get one of the spectators to bankroll him—in the process gaining back more cash than he started out the evening with.
Is some ways, the contrast itself between Hooper’s narrator and Simon Suggs creates its own brand of humor. Readers, more educated than Simon, find his manner of speech alone funny. However, the more interesting question for scholars is why Hooper was not content to allow Suggs to speak entirely for himself as did many other authors from this School, in this time and place. I argue that this inability to leave Simon to his own devices, which would be much more realistic, derives from Hooper’s desire to be known as an educated author. For a Southern gentleman, writing was a major part of demonstrating one’s erudition to the public. Joseph Glover Baldwin, another Southwestern humorist less well known today, sums this philosophy up in a letter to his son, Sandy in 1855 :
“Write in a clear, vigorous, pointed style, natural and easy; always say common things in a common way: study to be clear—have a definite meaning in your mind and represent it in your words….Avoid all exaggeration. Rise to the subject—but don’t go beyond it. Overstatement very generally is worse than understatement. Don’t strain after wit. Quiet is best. Uproarious bizarre humor is not quite the style of a gentleman or a scholar. The best speaking and writing is strung sense with the point of wit on it: Like an axe made of iron with the edge steeled. “
While it might be fine for Hooper’s country bumpkin storyteller to use slang, over-exaggeration, and belaboring of a point, the author himself, as a gentleman, should never do so. The fact that Hooper was mindful of his reputation is made clear later in his life. His fame, much like Baldwin’s own fame for Flush Times in Alabama and Mississippi, was based upon his Simon Suggs sketches, while his essays, political opinions, and journalistic writing were less popular then, and relatively unheard of today. So much so, in fact, that when Hooper made appearances anywhere, he was often referred to as “alias Simon Suggs.” At the 1860 June Democratic Convention, which Hooper attended both as journalist and as a Southern Rights Democrat, word went around on the floor that the author of Simon Suggs was present, and the call went out for “Suggs” to come forward. Hooper refused to acknowledge this call. Much like Mark Twain, who in later years was embarrassed by his early story, “The Notorious Jumping Frog of Calavaras County,” Hooper preferred to be known for his non-humorous writing.
The moral of the story, for Southern gentlemen of the nineteenth century, at least, appears to be that it is all well and good for a man to write humorous sketches and stories for the entertainment of other refined Southern gentlemen; however, the “proper” texts for a gentleman are history, essays, and hard-nosed journalism—not humor.*Quotations from the sketch, “Simon Fights ‘The Tiger’” are taken from Adventures of Captain Simon Suggs, M.E. Bradford, ed. Nashville, TN: J.S. Sanders and Co., 1993. The original edition was published in 1845 by Carey and Hart.
Saint Louis University
*Quotations from the sketch, “Simon Fights ‘The Tiger’” are taken from Adventures of Captain Simon Suggs, M.E. Bradford, ed. Nashville, TN: J.S. Sanders and Co., 1993. The original edition was published in 1845 by Carey and Hart.
*Baldwin’s advice on good writing to his son, Sandy, is taken from a letter Baldwin wrote to him on 22 February, 1855
*The biographical information given here is summarized from Alias Simon Suggs: A Biography of Johnson Jones Hooper, Hoole, Stanley, Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, Publishers, 1970.
This is the second installment in a three-part series. Read part one here.
“The law? Law is a human institution.”
The Invocation of the Muse, swinging picks building into rhythm, human voices chanting in song – the sound of the men working on the chain gang. Black men in black and white stripes, washed out color film.
And so the Coen Brothers begin the new millennium with a retelling of Homer’s The Odyssey, set in Depression-era Mississippi – as a musical comedy.
Smooth talking Ulysses Everett McGill escapes from the chain gang (for practicing law without a license), shackled to two dimwitted fellow convicts. He is set on a journey home to see his estranged wife, Penny, and their daughters.
Along the way they encounter a blind prophet on the railroad, real-life delta bluesman Tommy Johnson (who, like his better-known namefellow Robert, allegedly sold his soul to the devil), Lotus-eaters in the form of a mass baptism in the river (the Coens continuously mash up Homer’s Greek traditions with the Christian themes of the film’s Southern setting) washerwomen Sirens, a Cyclops Bible salesman and the Ku Klux Klan (robed as white sheep) all while being pursued by the empty-eyed Poseidon devil, in the form of a relentless Sherriff in shades.
They even manage to record an unlikely hit record.
Like all the music in O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), “I Am A Man of Constant Sorrow” is a traditional folk song of the American South. The song dates back to the turn of the last century, but was popularized in the 1950s by the Stanley Brothers. In the early 1960s it became a folk staple. Bob Dylan included a version on his debut album.