(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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."