Will Rogers 1879-1935
(Full name William Penn Adair Rogers) American humorist and journalist.
For additional discussion of Rogers's life and career, see TCLC, Volume 8.
Rogers was an American "cracker-barrel philosopher" and one of the most celebrated and beloved public figures of his day. Like his predecessor Artemus Ward, and to a certain degree Mark Twain, he offered dry, whimsical commentaries on numerous political, social, and economic issues. Rogers's aphoristic, satirical observations, which he voiced in magazine articles and nationally syndicated newspaper columns, revealed the foibles and injustices of society and earned him the role of the voice of the "average" American.
Born in Claremore, Oklahoma, into a wealthy ranching family, Rogers, who was one-quarter Cherokee Indian, never graduated from high school and ran away from the military school his father sent him to. After briefly managing his father's ranch, he sailed to South America and worked a variety of jobs that eventually took him to South Africa, where he joined Texas Jack's Wild West Show as a trick rider. After touring Australia and New Zealand, Rogers returned to the United States, where he began performing his roping tricks on vaudeville stages in New York City. From 1905 to 1916 he perfected his performance, adding jokes and stories to his repertoire, and became popular enough for Florenz Ziegfeld to hire him as part of the Ziegfeld Follies in 1916, which he stayed with for eleven years. In addition to his theatrical performances, Rogers appeared in the movie Laughing Bill Hyde (1918) and wrote articles for many newspapers and magazines. In 1930 he began a series of highly popular weekly radio broadcasts, which, like his columns and articles, consisted of witty comments on contemporary issues. Rogers died in a plane crash in 1935; killed with him was the pilot, his friend and famed aviator Wiley Post.
Rogers's first two books, The Cowboy Philosopher on the Peace Conference (1919) and The Cowboy Philosopher on Prohibition (1919), were drawn from his Ziegfeld Follies monologues. His subsequent works, such as The Illiterate Digest (1924), Letters of a Self-Made Diplomat to His President (1926), and There's Not a Bathing Suit in Russia (1927), were culled from the newspaper columns "Will Rogers Says," "The Worst Story I Ever Heard," "The Daily Telegram," as well as from his serialized correspondences from abroad that appeared in The Saturday Evening Post. In his writings, as on the stage, Rogers affected a pose of ignorance, emphasizing his simple, rural background and lack of formal education. In fact he was a shrewd, well-informed, and thoughtful commentator, skilled in the use of the pun, metaphor, and hyperbole. By assuming the stance of a good-natured and somewhat naive country boy, Rogers was able to lampoon Congress, presidents, and foreign heads of state without engendering offense or indignation. For example, in The Cowboy Philosopher on the Peace Conference he mocks the diplomatic machinations of the leaders involved in the Versailles talks that took place after the First World War; in The Cowboy Philosopher on Prohibition he skewers the futility and hypocrisy of the Volstead Act that outlawed the sale of alcohol. Rogers's canny and fundamentally pessimistic point of view has been compared to Twain's, as has his distrust of the motives and objectives of those in power. Unlike Twain, however, whose The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Tom Sawyer's Comrade) (1884) is one of the master-works of American literature, Rogers was incapable of sustaining an idea at length. Rogers's talent was for the pithy sentence—the short but highly suggestive statement calculated to effect an immediate response.
Today, Rogers's work is generally regarded as rather dated. His topical humor is no longer relevant, and the intentional misspellings and grammatical errors he employed to construct his literary persona seem excessive and forced. Nevertheless, his writings are valued for the insight they provide into the concerns and opinions of the country during the tumultuous decades of the 1920s and 1930s. Damon Runyon wrote: "Will Rogers was America's most complete human document. He reflected in many ways the heartbeat of America. In thought and manner of appearance and in his daily life he was probably our most typical native born, the closest living approach to what we like to call the true American."
The Cowboy Philosopher on the Peace Conference (aphorisms) 1919
The Cowboy Philosopher on Prohibition (aphorisms) 1919
The Illiterate Digest (sketches) 1924
Letters of a Self-Made Diplomat to His President (fictional letters) 1926
There's Not a Bathing Suit in Russia (sketches) 1927
Ether and Me (nonfiction) 1929
Twelve Radio Talks Delivered by Will Rogers during the Spring of 1930 (radio speeches) 1930
The Autobiography of Will Rogers (sketches and aphorisms) 1949
The Will Rogers Book (sketches and aphorisms) 1961
The Best of Will Rogers (sketches and aphorisms) 1979
Will Rogers at the Ziegfeld Follies (sketches and aphorisms) 1992
Henry Seidel Canby (essay date 1936)
SOURCE: "Estimates of the Dead," in Seven Years' Harvest: Notes on Contemporary Literature, Farrar & Rinehart, 1936, pp. 49-53.
[In the following essay, Canby discusses Rogers in the context of other "homespun philosophers."]
Will Rogers was a fellow of infinite jest, a true Shakespearian clown, who used clowning to savor his philosophy. Yet it was not what he said, or did, but what he stood for in the American scene that seems most interesting.
We Americans have had a long tradition of philosophers in homespun, so long considering the little age of the Republic, and so notable in their day and sometimes after it, as to ask for comment. Homespun in mind they have all been, which means, that whatever the source of their wisdom, its form and pressure were distinctively local to this continent, and many of them have been homely also in speech, self-made in knowledge, and blatantly provincial. Franklin's Poor Richard was our first of note, a small-town sage who repeated the commonplaces of the eighteenth century with a difference that came from shrewd experience in a struggling community. Irving, I have always believed, was satirizing the village wiseacre and know-it-all in his Dutchmen who puffed smoke instead of thinking. But it was Petroleum V. Naseby, Artemus Ward, Mark Twain, and "Hosea Biglow" in which the type finally realized itself, and took on an originality which must be credited to America.
Artemus Ward was certainly the Will Rogers of his day. He had not been a cowboy, was not semi-literate, could not use by nature a dialect so colloquial that the native American recognized in him the fellow who sat every Saturday night on the cracker barrel. And so Artemus hit upon the device of bad spelling to make himself homely. His spellings are often funny, but often absurd, with no possible relation to mispronounciation. Nevertheless they accomplished what he wished, which was to wrap up his quite serious political and social philosophy in wit and humor. If what he said was not funny, the way it was spelled made it seem to be, and so he got readers who never would have been trapped by an English above their own, or ideas that were not offered as a joke.
Mark Twain learned much from him, but did not change the principle, or when he did, lost his audience. "Huck-leberry Finn" is a masterpiece of irony in which a raga-muffin says things which the low-brow American audience would never have taken so readily if spoken with authority and by an educated man. He was addressing a nation with little intellectual self-confidence although a vast certainty in its own judgment. It was a practical nation that had succeeded by rule-of-thumb where every scholar had said that it would fail, and that was terribly shy of abstract ideas except...
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Walter Blair (essay date 1942)
SOURCE: "Abe Martin and Will Rogers," in Horse Sense in American Humor: From Benjamin Franklin to Ogden Nash, The University of Chicago Press, 1942, pp. 256-73.
[In the following essay, Blair surveys early humorists who influenced Rogers.]
Plenty of people in 1930 were ready to swear that, in Kin Hubbard and Will Rogers, the twentieth century had produced two figures the like of which America had not seen in the past. But anyone who looks back through the years at the scores of homespun philosophers who said things as Americans liked to have them said will see that the resemblances between these writers of our own day and the men who went...
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Norris W. Yates (essay date 1964)
SOURCE: "The Crackerbarrel Sage in the West and South: Will Rogers and Irvin S. Cobb," in The American Humorist: Conscience of the Twentieth Century, Iowa State University Press, 1964, pp. 113-33.
[In the following essay, Yates explains the ways in which Rogers adapted and modified the tradition of nineteenth-century American humorists.]
As a frontispiece to the revised edition (1960) of his book, Native American Humor, Walter Blair has drawn a circle of nineteenth-century humorists seated around a potbellied stove, evidently swapping yarns. If Professor Blair had added one of George Ade's self-made men, and portraits of Abe Martin, Will Rogers, Irvin S. Cobb,...
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William R. Brown (essay date 1970)
SOURCE: "Will Rogers, American Adam," in Imagemaker: Will Rogers and the American Dream, University of Missouri Press, 1970, pp. 70-87.
[In the following essay, Brown examines Rogers's use of the "rugged individualist" philosophy in his work.]
Will Rogers was dedicated to the vision of man as being intrinsically worthy. Growing up as he had in a new country in which there was no overcrowding to cheapen human life, living as the king of creatures in that new country, and being himself the unique product of the mixing of New and Old World cultures, he could reasonably be expected to value the unique individual. If such a dedication to the worth of the individual might be...
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Peter C. Rollins (essay date 1976)
SOURCE: "Will Rogers: Symbolic Man, Journalist, and Film Image," in Journal of Popular Culture, Vol. 9, No. 4, 1976, pp. 850-74.
[In the following essay, Rollins argues that Rogers used his image to calm many of the social anxieties common to Americans at the time.]
On August 15, 1935, Will Rogers and his pilot Wiley Post were killed in a plane crash at Point Barrow, Alaska. Exactly one week later, the offices of Twentieth Century Fox and Universal Studios closed at noon so that office workers could attend a special memorial service at the Hollywood Bowl "where over twenty thousand gathered to pay tribute to the memory of the beloved humorist." That evening, twelve...
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Peter C. Rollins (essay date 1991)
SOURCE: "Writing a Contemporary Column in 'The Spirit of Will Rogers': An Exercise in Practical Criticism," in Journal of American Culture, Vol. 14, No. 2, 1991, pp. 59-68.
[In the following essay, Rollins explains his attempt to revive the Will Rogers tradition in his own writing.]
Will Rogers had an enormous impact on the people of his time, but sometimes I wonder if he realized the tyranny he would have over the lives of a small group of scholars long after his death. The Will Rogers writing habit can become a sickness leading to otherwise unaccountable behavior! For example, in 1935, Tulsa lawyer David Milsten published a book entitled An Appreciation of Will...
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Ben Yagoda (essay date 1993)
SOURCE: "Reversible Figure: Will Rogers and Politics," in Will Rogers: A Biography, Alfred A. Knopf, 1993, pp. 285-303.
[In the following essay, Yagoda provides an explication of Rogers's political beliefs.]
Politically, Will was a little hard to pin down. What was one to make of a columnist who, as occasion demanded, would praise Calvin Coolidge and Al Smith, Dwight Morrow and Robert La Follette Jr., William Borah and Franklin D. Roosevelt? The inconsistency, however, was more apparent than real; certainly Will was not unaware of the sizable differences among these men of affairs. It was just that as he developed as a commentator through the 1920s and into the 1930s,...
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Joel Schechter (essay date 1994)
SOURCE: "David Crockett Goes to Washington, Will Rogers Stays Home," in Satiric Impersonations: From Aristophanes to the Guerrilla Girls, Southern Illinois University Press, 1994, pp. 34-45.
[In the following excerpt, Schechter examines Rogers's use of satire in his writings and performance.]
Long before a former Hollywood actor entered the White House, theater was inextricably linked to American politics by Congressman David Crockett. Crockett's collusion with his impersonators in the 1830s initially advanced his career and then harmed it. At the same time professional actor James Hackett popularized Crockett's persona in a stage play promoted by the Whig Party, the...
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Rollins, Peter C. Will Rogers: A Bio-Bibliography. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1984, 282 p.
Includes biographical, bibliographical, and critical essays on Rogers, in addition to numerous lists of works by and about him.
Cooke, Alistair. "Will Rogers." One Man's America, pp. 173-80. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1952.
Croy, Homer. Our Will Rogers. New York: Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1953, 377 p.
Account by a personal friend of Rogers's that attempts to present his life truthfully, "mole and all."
(The entire section is 292 words.)