“Ha! ha! ha! – he! he! – a very good joke indeed – an excellent jest. We will have many a rich laugh about it at the palazzo – he! he! he! – over our wine – he! he! he!”
These giggling words are among the last uttered by Fortunato, the rather unfortunate victim of a deadly practical joke in Edgar Allan Poe’s memorable tale, “The Cask of Amontillado.” In that short story, the narrator Montresor directly discloses neither the “thousand injuries” he’d received from Fortunato nor the final “insult” that led him to vow revenge, but he does present his plan as the solution to a puzzle: “I must punish, but punish with impunity. A wrong is unredressed when retribution overtakes its redresser. It is equally unredressed when the avenger fails to make himself felt as such to him who has done the wrong.” In other words, Montresor must take his revenge upon Fortunato in such a way that the victim knows all, while the perpetrator is in no danger of being caught. Montresor’s elaborate charade with the wine, the catacombs, the trowel, and the stones reveals his ingenious solution. As is well known, Poe himself took great pride in his analytical, puzzle-solving abilities, and Montresor’s plot reveals a certain gift for ratiocination that Poe valued. At the final moment, after Fortunato has been almost completely immured, Montresor calls his name. “There came forth in return only a jingling of the bells.” And thus is buried another “jingle man.”
In this series of posts, “Joker Poe,” I have argued that Poe is best viewed as a literary prankster, a practical joker who employed his prodigious intellect, his acute awareness of the marketplace, and his gifts for writing to satirize the culture and society of his era. In a sense, his own readers are suckered in by his tales, poems, and criticism, while Poe himself is likely having a chuckle at their expense. Poe was the great theorist of “Diddling,” which he considered as one of the exact sciences, and he insisted that no diddle—a swindle, confidence-game, or prank—is complete without a “grin,” but only one that the diddler himself wears, seen by no one else. Poe’s propensity for diddling extended to his literary career, which can be seen not only in those works which are clearly hoaxes, but also in his poetry, his tales, and his criticism. Not surprisingly, Poe made enemies, some of whom have not been so sanguine in accepting the thousand injuries and uncounted insults visited upon them by the grinning diddler.
After Rufus Griswold, whose calumnious portrait of Poe in an obituary caused outrage but likely led to Poe’s eventual enshrinement in a popular-cultural canon, perhaps the most famous of the fabled detractors of Poe during his lifetime was also America’s leading public intellectual, Ralph Waldo Emerson. The phrase “jingle man” is well known in American literary studies, not to mention infamous in Poe Studies, as Emerson’s dismissive appraisal of Poe. That the Sage of Concord might dislike Poe is not surprising, since Poe was probably as ardent an opponent of Emersonian transcendentalism as anyone other than Herman Melville, and Poe’s invectives were especially caustic when it came to the Boston literati, many of whom appeared to be well-nigh slavishly devoted to Emerson’s thought. Poe also criticized Emerson himself as belonging to “class of gentlemen with whom we have no patience whatever—the mystics for mysticism’s sake.” In a follow-up to Poe’s eccentric little series on “Autography,” in which he proposed to analyze the handwriting of famous authors, Poe humorously suggested that “[t]he best answer to his twaddle is cui bono? […] to whom is it a benefit? If not to Mr. Emerson individually, then surely to no man living.”
See our other posts in this series:
I have been writing about James Russell Lowell as a humorist and critic recently. So I thought I would share Lowell’s essay on “Humor, Wit, Fun, and Satire,” originally a lecture and first printed in the Century Magazine in November 1893 with a preface by Charles Eliot Norton. Reprinted from THE FUNCTION OF THE POET AND OTHER ESSAYS (1920) [Buy this book to support our site: The Function of the Poet and Other Essays]
In the style of the time, the piece takes awhile to get to its subject. But there is a lot of good material there–both on the general subject and on specific examples. I have posted the essay below, but here are a few morsels.
Men of one idea,—that is, who have one idea at a time,—men who accomplish great results, men of action, reformers, saints, martyrs, are inevitably destitute of humor; and if the idea that inspires them be great and noble, they are impervious to it. But through the perversity of human affairs it not infrequently happens that men are possessed by a single idea, and that a small and rickety one—some seven months’ child of thought—that maintains a querulous struggle for life, sometimes to the disquieting of a whole neighborhood. These last commonly need no satirist, but, to use a common phrase, make themselves absurd, as if Nature intended them for parodies on some of her graver productions. ….
In human nature, the sense of the comic seems to be implanted to keep man sane, and preserve a healthy balance between body and soul. But for this, the sorcerer Imagination or the witch Enthusiasm would lead us an endless dance.
The advantage of the humorist is that he cannot be a man of one idea—for the essence of humor lies in the contrast of two. He is the universal disenchanter. He makes himself quite as much the subject of ironical study as his neighbor. Is he inclined to fancy himself a great poet, or an original thinker, he remembers the man who dared not sit down because a certain part of him was made of glass, and muses smilingly, “There are many forms of hypochondria.” This duality in his mind which constitutes his intellectual advantage is the defect of his character. He is futile in action because in every path he is confronted by the horns of an eternal dilemma, and is apt to come to the conclusion that nothing is very much worth the while. If he be independent of exertion, his life commonly runs to waste. If he turn author, it is commonly from necessity; Fielding wrote for money, and “Don Quixote” was the fruit of a debtors’ prison. …
Humor, in its highest level, is the sense of comic contradiction which arises from the perpetual comment which the understanding makes upon the impressions received through the imagination. …
On E.B. White and the definition of humor.
For two follow-up posts on this question, see:
Born July 11, 1899. White is famous for children’s books, style guides, and his work at the New Yorker, but in humor studies, he is probably best known for his introduction to the 1941 book, A Subtreasury of American Humor, which he edited with Katherine White.
The beginning of White’s introduction is one of the most widely known statements about the study of humor, functioning as a witty injunction against the serious study of humor. It reads:
Analysts have had their go at humor, and I have read some of this interpretative literature, but without being greatly instructed. Humor can be dissected, as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the pure scientific…
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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.