American Humor Writing Overviews - Essay


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

The London and Westminster Review

SOURCE: "Yankeeana: Slick, Crockett, Downing, Etc.," in The London and Westminster Review, Vol. XXXII, No. 1, December, 1838, pp. 136-45.

[In the following excerpt from a review of several volumes of American humor writing, a commentator from The London and Westminster Review makes the claim that the United States has begun to create a literature of its own.]

These books show that American literature has ceased to be exclusively imitative. A few writers have appeared in the United States, who, instead of being European and English in their styles of thought and diction, are American—who, therefore, produce original sounds instead of far-off echoes,—fresh and vigorous pictures instead of comparatively idealess copies. A portion of American literature has become national and original, and, naturally enough, this portion of it is that which in all countries is always most national and original—because made more than any other by the collective mind of the nation—the humorous.

We have many things to say on national humour, very few of which we can say on the present occasion. But two or three words we must pass on the heresies which abound in the present state of critical opinion on the subject of national humour: we say critical, and not public, opinion, for, thank God, the former has very little to do with the latter.

"Lord Byron,"—says William Hazlitt, in a very agreeable and suggestive volume of Sketches and Essays, now first collected by his son,—"was in the habit of railing at the spirit of our good old comedy, and of abusing Shakspeare's Clowns and Fools, which, he said, the refinement of the French and Italian stage would not endure, and which only our grossness and puerile taste could tolerate. In this I agree with him; and it is pat to my purpose. I flatter myself that we are almost the only people who understand and relish nonsense." This is the excuse for the humour of Shakspeare, his rich and genuine English humour!

In Lord Byron the taste which the above opinion expresses is easily accounted for; it was the consequences of his having early formed himself according to the Pope and Gifford school, which was the dominant one among the Cambridge students of his time. Scottish highland scenery, and European travel, aided by the influences of the revival of a more vigorous and natural taste in the public, made his poems much better than the taste of the narrow school to which he belonged could ever have made them; but above the dicta of this school his critical judgment never rose. We thought the matter more inexplicable as regards William Hazlitt, a man superior to Byron in force and acuteness of understanding—until we found the following declaration of his views:—"In fact, I am very much of the opinion of that old Scotch gentleman who owned that 'he preferred the dullest book he had ever read to the most brilliant conversation it had ever been his lot to hear.'" A man to whom the study of books was so much and the study of men so little as this, could not possibly understand the humour of Shakspeare's Clowns and Fools, or national humour of any sort. The characters of a Trinculo, a Bardolph, a Quickly, or a Silence, are matters beyond him. That man was never born whose genuine talk, let it be as dull as it may, and whose character, if studied aright, is not pregnant with thoughts, deep and immortal thoughts, enough to fill many books. A man is a volume stored all over with thoughts and meanings, as deep and great as God. A book, even when it contains the "life's blood of an immortal spirit," still is not an immortal spirit, nor a God-created form. Wofully fast will be his growth in ignorance who prefers reading books to reading men. But the time-honoured critical journals have critics—

"The earth hath bubbles as the waters hath"—

and William Hazlitt, with his eloquent vehemence, was one of the best of them.

The public have of late, by the appreciation of the genuine English humour of Mr Dickens, shown that the days when the refinement which revises Shakespeare and ascribes the toleration of his humour to grossness and puerility of taste, or a relish for nonsense, have long gone by. The next good sign is the appreciation of the humour of the Americans, in all its peculiar and unmitigated nationality. Humour is national when it is impregnated with the convictions, customs, and associations of a nation. What these, in the case of America, are, we thus indicated in a former number:—"The Americans are a democratic people; a people without poor; without rich; with a 'far-west' behind them; so situated as to be in no danger of aggression from without; sprung mostly from the Puritans; speaking the language of a foreign country; with no established church; with no endowments for the support of a learned class; with boundless facilities for 'raising themselves in the world;' and where a large family is a fortune. They are Englishmen who are all well off; who never were conquered; who never had feudalism on their soil; and who, instead of having the manners of society determined by a Royal court in all essentials imitative to the present hour of that of Louis the Fourteenth of France, had them formed, more or less, by the stern influences of Puritanism."

National American humour must be all this transformed into shapes which produce laughter. The humour of a people is their institutions, laws, customs, manners, habits, characters, convictions,—their scenery, whether of the sea, the city, or the hills,—expressed in the language of the ludicrous, uttering themselves in the tones of genuine and heartfelt mirth. Democracy and the 'far-west' made Colonel Crockett: he is a product of forests, freedom, universal suffrage, and bear-hunts. The Puritans and the American revolution, joined to the influence of the soil and the social manners of the time, have all contributed to the production of the character of Sam Slick. The institutions and scenery, the convictions and the habits of a people, become enwrought into their thoughts, and of course their merry as well as their serious thoughts. In America, at present, accidents of steamboats are extremely common, and have therefore a place in the mind of every American. Hence we are told that, when asked whether he was seriously injured by the explosion of the boiler of the St Leonard steamer, Major N. replied that he was so used to be blown-up by his wife that a mere steamer had no effect upon him. In another instance laughter is produced out of the very cataracts which form so noble a feature in American scenery. The Captain of a Kentucky steam-boat praises his vessel thus:—"She trots off like a horse—all boiler—full pressure—its hard work to hold her in at the wharfs and landings. I could run her up a cataract. She draws eight inches of water—goes at three knots a minute—and jumps all the snags and sand-banks." The Falls of Niagara themselves become redolent with humour.

Sam Patch was a great diver, and the last dive he took was off the Falls of Niagara, and he was never heard of agin till t'other day, when Captain Enoch Wentworth, of the Susy Ann whaler, saw him in the South Sea. 'Why,' says Captain Enoch to him—'why, Sam,' says he, 'how on airth did you get here, I thought you was drowned at the Canadian lines.'—'Why,' says Sam, 'I didn't get on earth here at all, but I came slap through it. In that are Niagara dive I went so everlasting deep, I thought it was just as short to come up t'other side, so out I came on these parts. If I don't take the shine off the sea-serpent, when I get back to Boston, then my name's not Sam Patch.'

The curiosity of the public regarding the peculiar nature of American humour seems to have been very easily satisfied with the application of the all-sufficing word exaggeration. We have, in a former number, sufficiently disposed of exaggeration, as an explanation of the ludicrous. Extravagance is a characteristic of American humour, though very far from being a peculiarity of it; and, when a New York paper, speaking of hot weather, says:—"We must go somewhere—we are dissolving daily—so are our neighbours.—It was rumoured yesterday that three large ridges of fat, found on the side-walk in Wall street, were caused by Thad. Phelps, Harry Ward, and Tom Van Pine, passing that way a short time before":—the humour does not consist in the exaggeration that the heat is actually dissolving people daily—a common-place at which no one would laugh—but in the representation of these respectable citizens as producing ridges of fat. It is humour, and not wit, on account of the infusion of character and locality into it. The man who put his umbrella into bed and himself stood up in the corner, and the man who was so tall that he required to go up a ladder to shave himself, with all their brethren, are not humorous and ludicrous because their peculiarities are exaggerated, but because the umbrella and the man change places, and because a man by reason of his tallness is supposed too short to reach himself.

The cause of laughter is the ascription to objects of qualities or the representations of objects or persons with qualities the opposite of their own:—Humour is this ascription or representation when impregnated with character, whether individual or national. . . .

Walter Blair

SOURCE: "The Popularity of Nineteenth-Century American Humorists," in Essays on American Humor: Blair Through the Ages, edited by Hamlin Hill, The University of Wisconsin Press, 1993, pp. 25-39.

[Blair is recognized as a prominent literary critic and has been identified by Hamlin Hill as "the foremost critic and analyst" of American humor writing. In this excerpt, which originally appeared in the May, 1931, issue of American Literature, Blair provides a comprehensive view of the genre as well as the argument that humor writing advanced the development of American literature.]

Just how popular were the writers of American humor in the years of the last century during which they were most active (c. 1830-c. 1896)? The question seems worth considering for at least three reasons. An answer will reveal just how true is the impression, fostered by hostile critics of the period, that the great reading public existed on a diet of nothing much except the sugary fare offered by ladies' books and popular romances. Further, an answer will, perhaps, help one understand why Innocents Abroad [1869] found thirty-one thousand buyers within six months of its appearance and thus launched Mark Twain's remarkable career. And finally, if—as historians have recently held—American humorists were important as predecessors of the realists, data on this subject of popularity will indicate to some extent how these heralds managed to make themselves heard. For these reasons, I have attempted to discover and record some of the facts which show how the nineteenth-century literary comedians recruited an audience.

Several factors, apparently, were important in giving American humor the prominence which it achieved. An early and lasting stimulus to a wide interest in native comic creations, it is probable, was the stage presentation by many actors of humorous American characters. When The Contrast was performed in 1787, the stage Yankee, Jonathan, stumbled into the theater for the first time, spouting slang, parading his rustic foibles. The play was a pronounced success, and as a natural result of its popularity, dozens of other dramas portraying similarly vulgar characters followed. Not only the Yankee but also other figures important in the new humor of America were portrayed. Ralph Stackpole, frontiersman in Nick of the Woods, was a successful stage figure. Davy Crockett, comedian of the canebrakes, Colonel Nimrod Wildfire, and other frontiersmen pleased audiences in New York and the provinces. Minstrel troupes offered boisterous blackface jokers who used typical American humor, including some of the jests of Artemus Ward. One play, Eli among the Cowboys, pictured Eli Perkins captured by plainsmen during a lecture tour in Wyoming. At least two newspaper paragraphers, J. Amroy Knox and Charles H. Hoyt, became playwrights whose dramas were successful. Thus, throughout the period, humor of the salty native type found its way to the stage.

Actors made reputations as portrayers of Yankees or kindred types. Ludlow, dressed in the picturesque costume of a Western boatman, roared out the words of "The Hunters of Kentucky" while rough audiences in showhouses along the Ohio and Mississippi applauded with "a prolonged whoop, or howl. . . ." J. H. Hackett was Nimrod Wildfire, Jonathan Ploughboy, and Solon Shingle. Yankee Hill won fame in England as well as America by portraying Yankee types. Joseph Jefferson was applauded as he played the role of Asa Trenchard. Chanfrau triumphed as Mose, the tough fireboy, and John T. Raymond as Mark Twain's Colonel Mulberry Sellers in The Gilded Age [1874]. Some actors, in addition to playing character parts, offered monologues—Dr. W. Valentine, Sol Smith, Sol Smith Russell, and Yankee Hill. These monologues, composed by the actors or perhaps in some cases by humorists, augmented the flood of humorous books, in which monologues were often an important feature. And when J. H. Hackett went to the New York Leader as a journalist, writing lines similar to those which he spoke on the stage, he gave printed humor an impetus his stage career had made possible.

Thus to the theater audiences of the period the new humor became familiar. An even vaster audience, the group interested in politics, found much material in native comic writings to interest it. As Joel Chandler Harris said [in The World's Wit and Humor]:

First and last, humor has played a very large part in our political campaigns; in fact, it may be said that it has played almost as large a part as principle—which is the name that politicians gave to their theories. It is a fact that . . . the happy allusion, the humorous anecdote . . . will change the whole prospects of a political struggle.

A large part of the humor between 1830 and the end of the century dealt with political themes. Major Jack Downing, from the start of his literary career, and the imitators of Jack Downing as well, constantly commented shrewdly upon political struggles. Davy Crockett, with whom Downing carried on some correspondence, was apparently exploited as a political figure; and his writings were necessarily tied up with current contests. The story of Simon Suggs was written in the guise of a campaign biography, and Major Jones's Travels and Bagby's Letters of Mozis Addums contain political comments. W. P. Trent notes [in the November 1901 issue of Century] the preoccupation of humorists with politics:

Lowell being put to one side, there are at least five political humorists of importance belonging to the eventful years 1830-70 . . . Seba Smith, Charles Augustus Davis (1795-1867), Robert Henry Newell (1836-1901), the "Orpheus C. Kerr" whose letters gave Lincoln needed relaxation . . ., Charles Henry Smith ("Bill Arp," born in 1826), and David R. Locke [Petroleum V. Nasby]. To these one is almost tempted to add Richard Grant White, whose New Gospel of Peace . . . [was] a clever and very popular parody of the style of the historical books of the Old Testament.

To the list also may be added Artemus Ward, whose political writings were, if not numerous, telling.

During the years when several of these political humorists were active, one of America's outstanding political figures did much to focus attention on contemporary humorous works. Lincoln, as Professor Pattee [A History of American Literature Since 1870] has pointed out, "stood in the limelight of the Presidency, transacting the nation's business with anecdotes from the frontier circuits, meeting hostile critics with shrewd border philosophy, and reading aloud with unction, while battles were raging or election returns were in doubt, from 'Artemus Ward,' or 'Petroleum Vesuvius Nasby,' or The Flush Times of Alabama and Mississippi—favorites of his because they too were genuine, excerpts not from books but from life itself."

Furthermore, there were few important comic journals which did not battle valiantly in the field of politics. The pages of John Donkey (1848), Vanity Fair (1859-63), Puck (1877-1907), and Judge (1888-) were full of political cartoons and satires. Newspaper comic men constantly carried on political conflicts in the period after the war as before the war: David Ross Locke, George W. Peck, Marcus M. "Brick" Pomeroy of the LaCrosse Democrat, James M. Bailey, Robert J. Burdette, and Eli Perkins. It was not a mere accident that one of the most vicious fictional attacks upon industrial control in politics was made by a humorist, Mark Twain, in The Gilded Age. The tradition of the use of political material for humorous purposes was extended through the whole period down to the jestings of Mr. Dooley and Will Rogers about statesmen and demagogues. The nation always has been interested in frank and amusing comments upon political events.

The newspapers were active in carrying this humorous material into every part of...

(The entire section is 8196 words.)