A/The Pursuit of the House-Boat House-Boat on the Styx Analysis
by John Kendrick Bangs

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A/The Pursuit of the House-Boat House-Boat on the Styx Analysis

(Critical Survey of Science Fiction and Fantasy)

Bangs’s rollicking tale of the adventures of the departed appears on the surface to be merely that, an amusing what-if narrative. Beneath the veneer of diverting anecdotes and imagined conversations, however, are several layers of meaning. Closer examination reveals a rather serious study of relations between the sexes as well as a subtle plea for female equality. The characters Bangs chooses, as well as the dialogue and action that he assigns them, disclose much about his own personality and prejudices.

Although Bangs was a popular humorist at the end of the nineteenth century, his reputation has been eclipsed in later generations by the subtler command of comedy found in the works of authors such as Mark Twain. Bangs was a respected journalist, and during his career he served as editor of Harpers as well as supervising the humor desk at Harpers Bazaar. He was a master of the joke, and in later life he became a favorite on the lecture circuit, where his brand of vocal humor proved extremely successful. Among his published works, A House-Boat on the Styx and The Pursuit of the House-Boat, which appeared at the midpoint of his career, have retained their popularity because they contain a message than transcends the merely amusing, a quality contemporary critics missed completely. Although they recognized his intelligent use of language and his sometimes infectious wit, they regarded his novels and essays as merely diverting.

Speculation about the nature of the afterlife has intrigued authors from Homer to Thornton Wilder. Bangs’s two books are closer in spirit to the Topper novels of Thorne Smith, the ghost stories of Manning Coles, or Noël Cowards play Blithe Spirit (1941) than to the pathos of Virgil or Dante. Steve Allen, who is something of a modern Bangs, in a sense re-created the atmosphere of the stygian houseboat in his popular television series Meeting of Minds, a public television production that began airing in 1977. Those shows portrayed the great men and women of the past gathering for conversation and controversy. Bangs’s ghosts frighten nobody, and when they attempt to engage in mischief, they resemble Edwardian college students planning a harmless prank.

Bangs’s delineation of his characters is particularly fascinating. He obviously had his favorites among the men and women who peopled the past, and he does not hesitate to enjoy taking revenge on some others, such as Oliver Goldsmith, whose poetry must have bored him during his school days. The male characters often act and react to the various crises and situations in the novels like small boys. The females are more focused, facing their predicament with maturity and purpose. The reaction of the guests at George Washingtons birthday banquet to a serious discussion was to go haunt a vaudeville performance in London. Reacting to their kidnapping, the women organize themselves, examine several plans, work out a reasonable strategy, and then execute it with complete success, despite the inept interference of their would-be rescuers.

Those whom historians often condemn for their deeds are often forgiven by Bangs. Nero is discovered in the billiard room, happily playing a game with Shakespeare and Dr. Samuel Johnson. The women’s Committee on Treachery suggests that Lucretia Borgia prepare a dish of lobster Newburg to serve to their pirates captors. This mixture of the sacred and the prophane, of saint and sinner, enhances rather than detracts from the enjoyment of the novels. Only when preconceived notions about the deeds and misdeeds of the departed are discarded does the reader truly appreciate these works.

Bangs’s work was consistently underrated by critics in his own time and virtually is ignored by modern students of American humor. Devotees of fiction with a supernatural theme should find in these two books not only a new approach to their favorite literary genre but also fresh themes and departures in a form of literature that has been popular since antiquity.