Jean Kerr Elizabeth Janeway - Essay

Elizabeth Janeway

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Jean Kerr is] not writing about anything new or unusual. In fact, some of the pieces that go to make up [The Snake Has All the Lines] have a definite air of being written to order on a preselected subject. Another casual on being frightened of flying, one thinks, more than fifty years after the Wright brothers' adventure at Kitty Hawk? The heart sinks, the mind boggles. Then Mrs. Kerr remarks, "I feel about airplanes the way I feel about diets," and I defy you to stop reading.

Are you convinced that you've read all you ever want to read about try-outs of a new play in Philadelphia? So was I. And double it for a piece on getting the children off to school, the mere thought of which has a depressing effect. Well, if you don't read it, you will miss the implacable logic behind Mrs. Kerr's practice of putting up school lunches the night before: "Because in the early morning I can't remember how many children I have and naturally go wildly wrong on the number of sandwiches."

That logic, I guess, is one reason why Jean Kerr is so funny. It gives her the sort of battered, dogged, impregnability which distinguishes the really great clowns. (p. 10)

It is, as Freud or Max Eastman has remarked, the gap between the expected and the real which makes for humor (or, of course, for tragedy, which is why the above theory is so useful, like a pencil that's been sharpened at both ends). It's the surprise that's funny. Mrs. Kerr, living in the midst of a familiar and usual world, writing on conventional, even banal themes, is still surprising.

She is, in her way, as much of an expert on just where and how the American dream world wears thin as Mort Sahl is…. She sees the absurdity inherent in the taken-for-granted event or, conversely, how the event contradicts all that we've been led to believe. (p. 12)

Elizabeth Janeway, "The Surprise That's Funny," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1960 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 6, 1960, pp. 10, 12.