Study Guides on General Topics
Humor writing between 1865 and 1914 flourished under the general rubric of “The Literary Comedians.” The “Phunny Phellows” made vulgar dialect, misspelling, and local urban scenes their defining characteristics. Humor may thus have contributed to the drive for urban, realistic language and staging. At the same time, newspapers and national magazines published pieces from various regions, combining humor and local color in the manner of the American cracker-barrel philosophers such as Joel Chandler Harris’s Uncle Remus and Mark Twain, the American humorist who gained prominence as the most important humorist-Realist of the period.
A variety of regional humors, including the Southwestern, Northeastern, Yankee, Knickerbocker, and Western, led up to the era under discussion. From the Southwest came the raucous vulgarity of the fistfight, the bear hunt, and hard drinking. From the Northeast, urban dialect and settings combined with national and class perspectives; from the Yankees came pragmatism and practicality and a notable suspicion of claims to higher motives; from the Knickerbockers, a thorough sense of upper-class pretensions; and from the West, skepticism. As early as 1862, Charles G. Leland in Sunshine in Thought proclaimed that labor and industry were in a transition stage in art, and “Through their dusty, steam-engine whirling Realism, society will yet attain a Naturalism, or a living and working in nature, more direct, fresher and braver, than history has ever recorded.” William Dean Howells, a minor humorist himself at times, followed Leland’s direction. Humor and Realism in America interconnected on many levels.
Literary comedy of the period was represented across a wide spectrum of authors. Major literary comedians included Artemus Ward (aka Charles Farrar Browne), who died at thirty-three in 1867, and Twain (Samuel L. Clemens). Twain borrowed Ward’s casual deadpan manner as a humorous lecturer. Twain’s social-historical irony, ear for language, and eagle eye for detail, the most prominent features of his comedy, also benefited from the influence of the “old showman” persona exhibited in Ward’s letters and sketches. Max Adeler (aka Charles Heber Clark), author of Out of the Hurley-Burley (1874); Josh Billings (aka Henry W. Shaw), famous for his aphorisms and almanacs; James M. Bailey, widely known as “the Danbury News Man”; Robert J. Burdette, “the Burlington Hawkeye Man”; and Eli Perkins (aka Melville D. Landon) were oriented toward domestic comedy and thin jokes; longer fiction was outside their scope, and comic trivia sometimes replaced a feeling of narrative objectivity. Bill Nye of the Laramie, Wyoming, Boomerang and Finley Peter Dunne, writing as “Mr. Dooley,” a whimsically cynical Chicago bartender, put themselves forth as speakers on the topics of the day, and escaped didacticism by manifesting themselves as “real” commentators in commonplace style, thought, and speech, who remarked on American and international politics and a wide variety of social topics. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Sam Lawson, a Yankee cynic, offered a realistic perspective in stories of small-town experience, and “Josiah Allen’s Wife” (aka Marietta Holley), a spinster who lived almost reclusively in a small town in upstate New York, produced volume after volume of travel narratives providing tart commentary on the status of women, all in the ironic voice of a determined farm wife. The narrators themselves and their characters were not elevated or refined, and their moralizing was in persona and part of the objective scene. Poets writing with similar comic style included James Whitcomb Riley, William Carleton, and Sam Walter Foss, all of whom combined local color, sentiment, and humor. All used the narrative style localized by voice, dialect, and subject matter, even when addressing larger issues. A host of lesser and long-forgotten local reporters filled columns in papers across the nation with local descriptions of slapstick comic events, local and newspaper slang, and commonplace vernacular speech. Ambrose Bierce, the most bitter and cynical of the humorists of his age, stands in a category by himself for his acrid aphorisms concerning politics, society, and American life.
TOPICS FOR DISCUSSION AND RESEARCH
- 1. Can Realism as a genre coexist with humor, or are they mutually exclusive? Students might wish to compare passages of humorists and Realist authors to discover and discuss how viewpoints are expressed and whether or not the “voice” of the humorist creates a feeling that could be characterized as a realistic portrait of themselves in persona.
- 2. An allied topic is whether or not poetry can be realistic enough to fall within the genre of Realism. William Carleton’s Farm Ballads (1873) and City Ballads (1885) provide an array of poems to discuss in terms of style, sentimental-ity—as in Carleton’s famous “Over the Hill to the Poorhouse”—and imagery and other poetic devices.
- 3. Major comedians of the period, although paralleling the careers of Realist and Naturalist writers, are virtually unknown, though their writings were extremely popular and Ward and Leland were considered by English critics to be unique specimens of American pragmatic attitudes and irreverence. Would they have been remembered if they had written longer works? Is literary humor too localized on historical events to offer broader visions of humanity with the seeming objectivity of great Realist novels and short stories?
- 4. Henry James in the opening of The American (1877) describes the hero Christopher Newman as he seeks a trophy wife and shows him as grotesquely naive in his first visit to the home of the Bellegardes, his adversaries in his quest. Bellegarde, for example, only flinches as Newman innocently but vulgarly appraises the quality of the main hall, but suppresses all emotion as the unsophisticated Newman rattles on. Is this unrecognized realistic humor in a novel that is usually taken as serious? Is James’s depiction realistic?
- 5. Literary comedians of the Realist period usually write in persona as “real” persons, use popular language and style, and depend on local settings. Doesn’t it follow that their works would appear objective and reportorial, thus qualifying easily as Realism? Commentary in Jesse Bier’s The Rise and Fall of American Humor (1968) and Walter Blair and Hamlin Hill’s America’s Humor: From Poor Richard to Doonesbury (1978) may be helpful in addressing this question.
Walter Blair, Native American Humor (1937; reprinted, San Francisco: Chandler, 1960).
Hennig Cohen and William B. Dillingham, The Humor of the Old Southwest (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1964; reprinted, Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1994).
Mark Twain’s Library of Humor, edited by Mark Twain and William Dean Howells (New York: Webster, 1888).
Stanley Tractenberg, ed., Dictionary of Literary Biography, volume 11: American Humorists, 1800-1950, 2 volumes (Detroit: Bruccoli Clark Layman/Gale, 1982).
Kenneth S. Lynn, Mark Twain and Southwestern Humor (Boston: Little, Brown, 1960).
David E. E. Sloane, The Literary Humor of the Urban Northeast, 1830-1890 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1983).
PEOPLE OF INTEREST
Charles Farrar Browne (1834-1867)
Native of Maine, adopted the persona of Artemus Ward, a vulgar showman from Baldwinsville, Indiana, modeled on P. T. Barnum. His comic sketches of American life contributed to Mark Twain’s comic Realism and narrative voice. He died in London of consumption at the height of his popularity.
Finley Peter Dunne (1867-1936)
Used his persona as “Mr. Dooley,” a Chicago bartender, to express direct responses in Irish dialect to American experience.
Marietta Holley (1836-1926)
As “Josiah Allen’s Wife” took up major social issues in sketches, local humor narratives, and travel volumes directed at a popular readership. Her vernacular voice and persona carried feminist messages and social irony on race, children’s rights, feminism, and travel, as in My Opinions and Betsy Bobbet’s (1873) and other works.
Charles G. Leland (1824-1903)
Author of Hans Breitmann’s Party, With Other Ballads (1868) was recognized in England as a fresh American voice. Other volumes and collections followed, and his later studies of gypsies and the Algonquin legends of New England make him of importance as a sociologist and linguist. He also wrote extensively on arts and crafts. A Philadelphia native, most of his later life was spent abroad.
—David E. E. Sloane