Contemporary Black Humor Essay - Critical Essays

Contemporary Black Humor


Contemporary Black Humor

The following entry presents an overview of black humor, a type of literature that uses darkly satirical comedy in order to ridicule and express the absurd reality of the world.

Black humor is a term primarily associated with a group of novelists from the 1960s and 1970s whose work was characterized by frenzied comic elements combined with a profound sense of alienation and despair. On the American literary scene, novelists typically considered as black humorists include John Barth, Thomas Pynchon, Joseph Heller, Ken Kesey, Kurt Vonnegut, and Bruce Jay Friedman. Writing during the postwar years, many of these authors sought to present a viewpoint in contrast with the sense of euphoria and victory that swept the nation during this time. Their works are characterized by feelings of alienation and emptiness, presented within a darkly comic setting. While works such as Heller's Catch-22 (1961), and Kesey's One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest (1962) are now counted among the best examples of black humor, at the time of their publication, these and other works were dismissed by mainstream intellectuals as subversive and offensive.

Although the term black humor has a long history among the literatures of the world, in the twentieth century it was given renewed importance when French surrealist André Breton used it in the introductory essay to his book Anthologie de l'humour noir (1939). Breton described black humor as “lampooning of social conventions and a profound disrespect for the nobility of literature” and traced its beginnings to the works of such satirists as Jonathan Swift and Charles Baudelaire. Breton felt that rather than it being defined as a literary genre, black humor should be regarded as an ironic and oppositional disposition, one that displaces social restrictions and norms. In the United States, the term became increasingly popular during the politically and socially turbulent 1960s and 1970s, and was used to describe writing that varied in context and subject but, in general, was a reaction against a homogenized postwar society. With the publication of several short story anthologies, including Nelson Algren's Own Book of Lonesome Monsters (1962) and Bruce Jay Friedman's Black Humor (1965), writers of this style received heightened critical attention. While both anthologies contained a variety of authors and writing styles, all the pieces in the collections were within a tradition of sharp social criticism and helped identify major authors who could be characterized as black humorists.

Although works of black humor share several characteristics, critics have had difficulty defining the style, and there has been ongoing argument about whether black humor is a genre or a writing style. Max F. Schulz, a renowned critic and author of Black Humor Fiction of the Sixties (1973), writes that the movement can be best described as a response by a group of writers who “share a viewpoint and an aesthetics for pacing off the boundaries of a nuclear-powered, war-saturated, chemically saturated world.” Similarly, Alan R. Pratt, whose Black Humor: Critical Essays (1993) provides a survey of a variety of contemporary assessments, also shies away from a specific definition of black humor. Instead, writes Pratt, black humor novels share two traits that surface in most texts: a humorous treatment of the absurd or morbid, and a refusal to offer any solutions to the institutions and reality being ridiculed in the texts. The difficulty in defining black humor is also addressed by Mathew Winston in an essay on the ethics of contemporary black humor. According to Winston, literature of black humor exists both within and beyond the bounds of traditional satire, largely because black humor does not “assume a set of norms, either implicit or explicit, against which one may contrast the absurd or grotesque world” depicted by the author.

Representative Works

Nelson Algren
Nelson Algren's Own Book of Lonesome Monsters (short stories) [editor] 1962

John Barth
The Sot-Weed Factor (novel) 1960
Giles Goat-Boy or, The Revised New Syllabus (novel) 1966
Lost in the Funhouse (novel) 1968
Chimera (novel) 1972

Donald Barthelme
Snow White (novel) 1967

André Breton
Anthologie de l'humour noir (short stories) 1939

J. P. Donleavy
The Ginger Man (novel) 1958

Bruce Jay Friedman
Stern (novel) 1962
Black Humor (short stories) [editor] 1965

William Gaddis
JR (novel) 1975

John Guare
Six Degrees of Separation (play) 1990

John Hawkes
The Cannibal (novel) 1949
The Lime Twig (novel) 1961
Second Skin (novel) 1964

Joseph Heller
Catch-22 (novel) 1961

Ken Kesey
One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest (novel) 1962
V. (novel) 1963
Sometimes a Great Notion (novel) 1964

Thomas Pynchon
The Crying of Lot 49 (novel) 1966
Gravity's Rainbow (novel) 1973

Philip Roth
Portnoy's Complaint (novel) 1967
*Zuckerman Bound (novels) [trilogy and epilogue] 1985
Sabbath's Theater (novel) 1995

Terry Southern
The Magic Christian (novel) 1959

Kurt Vonnegut
Mother Night (novel) 1961
Cat's Cradle (novel) 1963
Slaughterhouse-Five (novel) 1969
Breakfast of Champions (novel) 1973
Hocus Pocus (novel) 1991

*Zuckerman Bound collects The Ghost Writer (1979), Zuckerman Unbound (1981), and The Anatomy Lesson (1983), along with a previously unpublished novel, The Prague Orgy.

Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

Stanley Trachtenberg (essay date spring 1973)

SOURCE: Trachtenberg, Stanley. “Counterhumor: Comedy in Contemporary American Fiction.” Georgia Review 27, no. 1 (spring 1973): 33-48.

[In the following essay, Trachtenberg discusses the emergence of a dark comic mode in American fiction during the 1960s and 1970s, focusing on common themes in the works of Thomas Pynchon and Kurt Vonnegut.]

“Look,” an exasperated Ralph Ellison once demanded of an interviewer whose questions about Invisible Man concentrated on significance, “didn't you find the book at all funny?” Considering what happens in the novel, the question itself seems comic. Real or symbolic episodes of incest, murder, an attempted lobotomy,...

(The entire section is 6192 words.)

Mathew Winston (essay date winter 1976)

SOURCE: Winston, Mathew. “The Ethics of Contemporary Black Humor.” Colorado Quarterly 24, no. 3 (winter 1976): 275-88.

[In the following essay, Winston briefly defines black humor, identifies its major themes and techniques, and addresses charges by literary and cultural critics that works of black humor are “both an image and a cause of decadence and degeneration.”]

Philip Roth's novel The Breast features a professor of comparative literature, David Alan Kepesh, who wakes up one morning to find he has mysteriously metamorphosed into a female breast. Trying to find a rational explanation for this mammary phenomenon, he tentatively concludes that he has...

(The entire section is 5840 words.)

Steven Weisenburger (essay date summer 1990)

SOURCE: Weisenburger, Steven. “Barth and Black Humor.” Review of Contemporary Fiction 10, no. 2 (summer 1990): 50-5.

[In the following essay, Weisenburger provides a history of black humor, comparing it to and differentiating it from conventional satire.]

In his 1988 essay “Postmodernism Revisited,” John Barth assents to the critics' identification of his early work—or at least his second novel, The End of the Road—with Black Humor. To Barth, Black Humor was just an early phase of postmodernism as it convulsed aborning. So his real business lies further on, in attempting to define a literary postmodernism that might be more than just an omnium...

(The entire section is 2571 words.)

Criticism: Black Humor In American Fiction

Brom Weber (essay date 1973)

SOURCE: Weber, Brom. “The Mode of ‘Black Humor.’” In The Comic Imagination in American Literature, edited by Louis D. Rubin, Jr., pp. 361-71. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1973.

[In the following essay, Weber considers the development of black humor in American fiction during the 1960s, tracing its beginnings to social and political events from the past, including the French surrealist movement of the 1920s.]

The late Edmund Wilson was one of the most influential of American literary critics. Though generally sympathetic to humor and the unconventional in art, in 1954 he bitterly charged that the humorous writings of a virtually unknown...

(The entire section is 3842 words.)

Mathew Winston (essay date spring 1978)

SOURCE: Winston, Mathew. “Black Humor: To Weep with Laughing.” Comedy: New Perspectives 1 (spring 1978): 31-43.

[In the following essay, Winston offers an account of the development of black humor, from the first use of the phrase by André Breton to its definition in modern American literature. Winston examines historical approaches and the use of satire in literature as well as its relevance in modern writing.]

“Strange times, that weep with laughing, not with weeping.” We might well appropriate this observation by Shakespeare's Timon of Athens exclusively to our time, did its context not remind us that Jacobean England and Periclean Athens were also strange...

(The entire section is 6020 words.)

Criticism: Development And History

John D. Erickson (essay date fall 1988)

SOURCE: Erickson, John D. “Surrealist Black Humor as Oppositional Discourse.” Symposium 42, no. 3 (fall 1988): 198-215.

[In the following essay, Erickson analyzes black humor in the context of André Breton's model of a new literary discourse, as it was outlined in his Anthologie de l'humour noir, focusing on the circumstances that lead to the creation of black humor.]

Le problème de l'action sociale n'est … qu'une des formes d'un problème plus général que le surréalisme s'est mis en devoir de soulever et qui est celui de l'expression humaine sous toutes ses formes. Qui dit expression dit, pour commencer, langage,” wrote André Breton in his...

(The entire section is 8623 words.)

Steven Weisenburger (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: Weisenburger, Steven. “What Was Black Humor?” In Fables of Subversion: Satire and the American Novel, 1930-1980, pp. 80-121. Athens, Ga.: University of Georgia Press, 1995.

[In the following excerpt, Weisenburger explains that many intellectuals viewed black humorists as writers who had wasted the force of their words with overuse of the same banal sentiments they sought to satirize. Instead, Weisenburger feels it is important to reevaluate the place of black humor in the field of American literary studies, placing it in context with other postmodern movements.]

Not many years ago the Black Humorists were rogue talents trampling the conventions of narrative...

(The entire section is 21665 words.)

Criticism: Major Authors

Elaine B. Safer (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: Safer, Elaine B. “The Absurd Quest and Black Humor in Ken Kesey's Sometimes a Great Notion.” In The Contemporary American Comic Epic: The Novels of Barth, Pynchon, Gaddis, and Kesey, pp. 138-55. Detroit, Mich: Wayne State University Press, 1988.

[In the following essay, Safer characterizes Kesey's Sometimes a Great Notion as a work of epic vision and scope that derives its most poignant power from elements of black humor.]

Sometimes a Great Notion—more so than the novels of John Barth, Thomas Pynchon, and William Gaddis—focuses on traditional heroic subjects: the conflict between two brothers, the Oedipal bind, and the reaction to...

(The entire section is 8671 words.)

Daniel Green (essay date summer 1995)

SOURCE: Green, Daniel. “A World Worth Laughing At: Catch-22 and the Humor of Black Humor.” Studies in the Novel 27, no. 2 (summer 1995): 186-95.

[In the following essay, Green examines the lighter aspects of Heller's Catch-22, contending that because critics frequently focus on darker themes in black humor fiction, the comic aspects of these works are often neglected.]

One can't help but note that in the commentary about the fiction conventionally identified with the mode of “black humor” there is much discussion of what makes such fiction black, but little of its humor. The most famous expression of this tendency occurs in probably the most...

(The entire section is 4850 words.)

Robert M. Greenberg (essay date winter 1997)

SOURCE: Greenberg, Robert M. “Transgression in the Fiction of Philip Roth.” Twentieth Century Literature 43, no. 4 (winter 1997): 487-506.

[In the following essay, Greenberg examines the theme of transgression in Philip Roth's work, contending that the author's techniques are uniquely reflective of his relationship with mainstream American media and literary activity.]

In The Anatomy Lesson (1983) Philip Roth provides an explanation for Nathan Zuckerman's involvement with transgression as a man and a writer. Roth describes first-generation immigrant fathers as “pioneering Jewish fathers bursting with taboos” who produce second-generation sons “boiling...

(The entire section is 8402 words.)

Will Kaufman (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: Kaufman, Will. “Kurt Vonnegut: ‘I Had to Laugh Like Hell.’” In The Comedian as Confidence Man: Studies in Irony Fatigue, pp. 147-86. Detroit, Mich.: Wayne State University Press, 1997.

[In the following essay, Kaufman contends that the divide between Kurt Vonnegut's comic persona and his cultural aims is obvious in many of his works, including Slapstick, Mother Night, and Cat's Cradle.]

Who can have failed to notice a pattern emerging among those confronting the ethical problems of their own ironic practices—especially those for whom the practice becomes the identity? We have seen Herman Melville troubling over the more sinister implications of...

(The entire section is 17983 words.)

Gene A. Plunka (essay date 2002)

SOURCE: Plunka, Gene A. “Six Degrees of Separation.” In The Black Comedy of John Guare, pp. 186-202. Newark, Del: University of Delaware Press, 2002.

[In the following essay, Plunka provides a detailed analysis of Guare's Six Degrees of Separation, lauding it as one of the most effective examples of black comedy.]

Six Degrees of Separation marks Guare's finest theatrical achievement, in which the idea of a spiritually dysfunctional society in need of viable connections with self and others is best illustrated through farce and black comedy. Guare wrote the play relatively quickly in 1989 with the intent of staging it at Lincoln Center. He...

(The entire section is 8783 words.)

Criticism: Technique And Narrative

Linda Horvay Barnes (essay date 1978)

SOURCE: Barnes, Linda Horvay. “Literary Production and Reception of Black Humor Fiction and Kurt Vonnegut.” In The Dialectics of Black Humor: Process and Product. A Reorientation Toward Contemporary American and German Black Humor Fiction, pp. 93-100. Berne, Switzerland: Peter Lang, 1978.

[In the following essay, Barnes provides several definitions of black humor, placing it in social and historical context, with special emphasis on the work of Kurt Vonnegut.]

The product is labeled “Black Humor,” and below are examples of the term's usage:

None of these new writers has yet stamped a unique signature on the times. They are...

(The entire section is 4319 words.)

Terry Heller (essay date 1980)

SOURCE: Heller, Terry. “Notes on Technique in Black Humor.” In Black Humor: Critical Essays, edited by Alan R. Pratt, pp. 197-214. New York, N.Y.: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1993.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1980, Heller writes about the techniques and literary devices used by writers of black humor.]

While critical discussion of Black Humor has produced considerable insight into the attitudes of contemporary writers and the sources of those attitudes in contemporary cultures, there has been relatively little attention to the technical devices which make Black Humor possible. The technique of Black Humor poses special problems because it...

(The entire section is 6191 words.)

Further Reading


Charney, Maurice. “Stanley Elkin and Jewish Black Humor.” In Jewish Wry: Essays on Jewish Humor, edited by Sarah Blacher Cohen, pp. 178-95. Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 1987.

Discusses the work of Stanley Elkin as a Jewish writer as well as a black humorist.

Colletta, Lisa. “The Dark Domestic Vision of Ivy Compton-Burnett: A House and Its Head.” In Dark Humor and Social Satire in the Modern British Novel, pp. 59-80. New York, N.Y.: Palgrave, 2003.

Reviews the work of Ivy Compton-Burnett in the modern British satiric tradition, focusing specifically on A House and Its...

(The entire section is 341 words.)