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...
(The entire section is 651 words.)