Tag Archives: archives

In the Archives: Washington Irving, “The Art of Book-Making” (1819)

Tracy Wuster

Having recently emerged from a long-winter’s haze (which, here in Texas, involves lounging around in seventy-degree weather), I am now ready to resume the full duties of editor of this humor publication.  Granted, I never really left per se, but I have been absent to a degree, owing to various events both personal and professional, both grand and tragic.  Never mind the details.

One detail: I sent my book off to the publisher.  And while the satisfying thud of a 400-page manuscript in a mailbox would have been nice, the click of the mouse and the electronic thud of the manuscript landing in the publisher’s inbox was rewarding, if a bit anti-climactic.  Now that I have written the definitive tome on the reputation of Mark Twain as a humorist (1865-1882)–or at least a tome that hopefully will come out sometime in 2014–I can resume my full duties as editor of this fine publication, which I had already been doing, but in something of a distracted manner.

So, I apologize for the lack of a post this past Monday.  April Fool’s Day would either require a hoax post or something equally worthwhile of the day.  I thought of writing about the imminent closure of this site but did not get around to it.  See above re: book being due.

Washington Irving sketch book geoffrey crayon

Washington Irving

So, for today, April 3, we have a selection from Washington Irving, born on this day in 1783.  The piece is from his Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, published serially in 1819 and 1820.  The subject is fittingly the making of books, the natural predatory nature (and flatulence) of the author, and the inappropriateness of napping and/or laughing in the archive. Here is “The Art of Book-Making”:

If that severe doom of Synesius be true,–“It is a greater offence to steal dead men’s labor, than their clothes,”–what shall become of most writers?

BURTON’S ANATOMY OF MELANCHOLY.

I HAVE often wondered at the extreme fecundity of the press, and how it comes to pass that so many heads, on which Nature seems to have inflicted the curse of barrenness, should teem with voluminous productions. As a man travels on, however, in the journey of life, his objects of wonder daily diminish, and he is continually finding out some very simple cause for some great matter of marvel. Thus have I chanced, in my peregrinations about this great metropolis, to blunder upon a scene which unfolded to me some of the mysteries of the book-making craft, and at once put an end to my astonishment.

I was one summer’s day loitering through the great saloons of the British Museum, with that listlessness with which one is apt to saunter about a museum in warm weather; sometimes lolling over the glass cases of minerals, sometimes studying the hieroglyphics on an Egyptian mummy, and some times trying, with nearly equal success, to comprehend the allegorical paintings on the lofty ceilings. Whilst I was gazing about in this idle way, my attention was attracted to a distant door, at the end of a suite of apartments. It was closed, but every now and then it would open, and some strange-favored being, generally clothed in black, would steal forth, and glide through the rooms, without noticing any of the surrounding objects. There was an air of mystery about this that piqued my languid curiosity, and I determined to attempt the passage of that strait, and to explore the unknown regions beyond. The door yielded to my hand, with all that facility with which the portals of enchanted castles yield to the adventurous knight-errant. I found myself in a spacious chamber, surrounded with great cases of venerable books. Above the cases, and just under the cornice, were arranged a great number of black-looking portraits of ancient authors. About the room were placed long tables, with stands for reading and writing, at which sat many pale, studious personages, poring intently over dusty volumes, rummaging among mouldy manuscripts, and taking copious notes of their contents. A hushed stillness reigned through this mysterious apartment, excepting that you might hear the racing of pens over sheets of paper, and occasionally the deep sigh of one of these sages, as he shifted his position to turn over the page of an old folio; doubtless arising from that hollowness and flatulency incident to learned research.

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In the Archives: Abraham Lincoln and the Emancipation Diversion (1862)

"So a priest, a rabbi, and a Zulu walk into a bar..."

“So a priest, a rabbi, and a Zulu walk into a bar…”

All history is a reconstruction. “Strictly speaking,” to quote Oxford, “a history is a work in which each movement, action, or chain of events is dealt with as a whole and pursued to its natural termination or to a convenient stopping place, as distinct from annals, in which events are simply recorded in divisions of a year or other limited period, or a chronicle, in which events are presented as a straightforward continuous narrative.”

But what naturally terminates? To quote another reputable source: “Even Old New York was once New Amsterdam…” But if people just liked it better that way, they did not feel any need to change the rest of their amoral den of lewdinous vice and narcotic idolatry. Give it a new name to please King Chuck 2 and leave us to our Wall Street whoremongering.

But I digress. If we construct natural terminations then history is made. Fingo, fingĕre, finxī, fictum: Latin “to form.” We fashion a consensus of what happened, why it happened, and (when necessary) how it had to happen thus. A fiction, but one we all agree upon. Once upon a time, the great Bruce Campbell replied to an email of mine railing against the liberties Xena: Warrior Princess took upon the Homeric Canon: “Yes, but aren’t stories the greatest teachers of mankind?” was his Aristotelian reply.

Homer would agree. Again I digress. I had wanted to call this piece “Abraham Lincoln and the Emancipation Digression,” but given Mr. Lincoln’s important place in history and the cinema, I think it matters more that it ends in “Diversion.” All diversions are digressions, but not all digressions are diversions. I’ll spare you the definitions if you spare me your time and complete attention. I’ve reconstructed the following from several sources, but the primary anecdote belongs to Edwin Stanton (Lincoln’s Secretary of War), and comes from Wayne Whipple’s “The Story-Life of Lincoln” (1908), who found it some place else. I’ll come back at the end in distinguishing CAPS.

"An instant classic that will leave you weeping with laughter." Andrew O'Hehir, Salon...on another movie.

“One of the funniest %@!# movies I’ve ever seen!” Richard Roeper …on another movie.

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In the Archives: Thomas Nast and Santa Claus (1862-1890)

Ho! Ho! Ho!

Ho! Ho! Ho!

I can remember my first scholarly thought. Well, I should say that I can visualize the context of my first scholarly thought. Like a Polaroid of a younger me looking through a View-Master: I know that I saw something, and how, but can’t remember what.

I can almost replicate the place from memory, but will never replicate the time. Heraclitus, who was smarter than the average Greek, once wrote fragmentedly, “You cannot step into the same river, for other waters and yet others go ever flowing on.” True, but the Greeks widely preached the maxim to “Know Thyself,” and I remember helping my grandfather once, and being rewarded with a copy of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

To be precise it was The Annotated Huckleberry Finn, edited by Michael Patrick Hearn, copyright 1981 by Clarkson N. Potter, republished by Norton & Company. When my grandfather gave me the book it was still new scholarship, and I was no scholar, but the text fascinated me. Densely illustrated, the Potter edition uses marginalia to communicate the context of both the novel and Hearn’s Introduction like an analogue prototype for the internet. I was a babe in the woods, looking through the first book I ever owned that did not involve talking animals or a young sleuth by the name of Encyclopedia Brown. I was proud that someone thought me ready for such an impressive text, but make no mistake, the pictures helped. As a child I was not a strong reader, but I was wildly artistic. And the first page I opened had a caricature of two men, in nightgowns, with nineteenth-century facial hair, collecting clocks.

I don’t think I can reproduce it here for legal purposes, but Roman numeral lvi (56) of the Norton edition will show you the two figures identified as the authors George W. Cable and Mark Twain, drawn by Thomas Nast, on Thanksgiving, 1884.

There was no other description behind the cause of their act, collecting clocks at five before midnight, besides: “The two spent Thanksgiving at Thomas Nast’s home in Morristown, New Jersey.” I cannot fault Hearn’s lack of insight, because it sparked the first real academic inquiry in my young mind: What the hell is going on?

I can tell you that later I learned:

On Thanksgiving Eve the readers were in Morristown, New Jersey, where they were entertained by Thomas Nast. The cartoonist prepared a quiet supper for them and they remained overnight in the Nast home. They were to leave next morning by an early train, and Mrs. Nast had agreed to see that they were up in due season. When she woke next morning there seemed a strange silence in the house and she grew suspicious. Going to the servants’ room, she found them sleeping soundly. The alarm-clock in the back hall had stopped at about the hour the guests retired. The studio clock was also found stopped; in fact, every timepiece on the premises had retired from business. Clemens had found that the clocks interfered with his getting to sleep, and he had quieted them regardless of early trains and reading engagements. On being accused of duplicity he said: “Well, those clocks were all overworked, anyway. They will feel much better for a night’s rest.” A few days later Nast sent him a caricature drawing—a picture which showed Mark Twain getting rid of the offending clocks. (Mark Twain, a Biography, vol. II, part 1, 188)

But all this postdates my first academic thought. Before I knew Huck, Jim, the Mississippi River, or the author who sent them down it. I saw a picture and knew the name of the man who drew it. Thomas Nast. I remember I wanted to know more, and now I can share some of it with you, in context.

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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: Artemus Ward’s Panorama (1869)

I hate word games. I suffer Scrabble, abhor Boggle, and you’ll never catch me cross words. I prefer etymology, and catch myself wondering about the subtleties of language the way you might answer, “I’ll take New York Times crossword for $200, __”. Consider an example: in English the first ordinal number might also serve as the numerical superlative. Given the ordinal role shows rank, or position, and the “-st” ending it shares with the hyperbolic “most” or “best,” I am comfortable maintaining that while “first” may be subject to the same controversies and debates the application of any superlative generates, it inspires the same level of awe upon discovery.

Artemus Ward

I felt this sense of awe when reading E. P. Hingston’s Prefatory Note, “Artemus Ward as Lecturer,” at the beginning of Ward’s posthumous publication Artemus Ward’s Panorama (1869). You may know the name Artemus Ward as the pseudonym of Charles Farrar Browne (April 26, 1834–March 6, 1867), the printed humorist and lecturer whose career influenced that of a young Samuel Clemens when he first wrote under the name Mark Twain. Thirty years after Ward’s death, when describing the American art of telling a story, Mark Twain would commend Ward as one of the best representatives at telling it humorously:

The humorous story is told gravely; the teller does his best to conceal the fact that he even dimly suspects that there is anything funny about it…the rambling and disjointed humorous story finishes with a nub, point, snapper, or whatever you like to call it. Then the listener must be alert, for in many cases the teller will divert attention from that nub by dropping it in a carefully casual and indifferent way, with the pretence that he does not know it is a nub…Artemus Ward used that trick a good deal; then when the belated audience presently caught the joke he would look up with innocent surprise, as if wondering what they had found to laugh at.

Later Twain summarized:

To string incongruities and absurdities together in a wandering and sometimes purpose-less way, and seem innocently unaware that they are absurdities, is the basis of the American art, if my position is correct. Another feature is the slurring of the point. A third is the dropping of a studied remark apparently without knowing it, as if one were thinking aloud. The fourth and last is the pause. Artemus Ward dealt in numbers three and four a good deal. He would begin to tell with great animation something which he seemed to think was wonderful; then lose confidence, and after an apparently absent-minded pause add an incongruous remark in a soliloquizing way; and that was the remark intended to explode the mine—and it did (How to Tell a Story, 1897).

Young Mark Twain followed Ward’s professional footsteps when the Sacramento Union sent him to report on the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii) in 1866, and he returned with enough anecdotes to fill lecture halls out West.

Mark Twain, “Lecture on the Sandwich Islands,” from Daily Alta California (by way of PBS)

Twain’s now famous use of language in the advertisement could be described in his own, later, language of dropping studied remarks with the printed effect of a pause by contrasting font size. Contemporary programs studying Mark Twain still rely upon advertising “The Trouble to begin at 8 o’clock”, but where would Twain be without Ward?

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

Tracy Wuster

William Hazlitt wit and HumourFor this month’s installment of “In the Archives,” we are featuring “On Wit and Humour,” the printed version of a lecture by William Hazlitt, the influential essayist and critic of the nineteenth century.  Hazlitt’s essay was often cited in discussions of humor throughout the century by English and American scholars and humorists.


I have excerpted a few selections below.  For the whole essay, please see the version at the site of Maarten Maartensz, a Dutch philosopher and psychologist, who prepared a corrected version of the text.  His critiques of GoogleBooks and their preparations of texts raises relevant questions about the preparation and use of digital archives.

The first two paragraphs of the essay seem especially important:

On Wit and Humour.

Man is the only animal that laughs and weeps; for he is the
only animal that is struck with the difference between what
things are, and what they ought to be. We weep at what
thwarts or exceeds our desires in serious matters: we laugh at
what only disappoints our expectations in trifles. We shed tears
from sympathy with real and necessary distress; as we burst
into laughter from want of sympathy with that which is unrea-
sonable and unnecessary, the absurdity of which provokes our
spleen or mirth, rather than any serious reflections on it.

To explain the nature of laughter and tears, is to account for
the condition of human life; for it is in a manner compounded
of these two! It is a tragedy or a comedy — sad or merry, as it
happens. The crimes and misfortunes that are inseparable from
it, shock and wound the mind when they once seize upon it,
and when the pressure can no longer be borne, seek relief in
tears : the follies and absurdities that men commit, or the odd
accidents that befal them, afford us amusement from the very
rejection of these false claims upon our sympathy, and end in
laughter. If everything that went wrong, if every vanity or

– 2 –

weakness in another gave us a sensible pang, it would be hard
indeed : but as long as the disagreeableness of the consequences
of a sudden disaster is kept out of sight by the immediate oddity
of the circumstances, and the absurdity or unaccountableness
of a foolish action is the most striking thing in it, the ludicrous
prevails over the pathetic, and we receive pleasure instead of
pain from the farce of life which is played before us, and which
discomposes our gravity as often as it fails to move our anger or
our pity !

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