B U R E A U   O F   P U B L I C   S E C R E T S


The Decline of
American Humor

“What, sir,” said Boswell, notebook in hand, “is the principal virtue?” “Whereas, sir,” said Sam, “you know, courage is reckoned the greatest of all virtues; because unless a man has that virtue, he has no security for preserving any other.”

When Bob Hatch wrote and suggested we have a piece on the decline of American humor for the Nation’s Spring Book Issue [1957], I said fine, we can use Columbia’s new collection of Vance Randolph and somebody else’s selection of Finley Peter Dunne as pegs to hang it on; few things are funnier and fewer things today are anything like them. Unfortunately, the books never came, so this story will have to be more general and sort of anticipatory.

I don’t know about the new selection of Mr. Dooley. Just recently I read some professor who said he was an Irish dialect comedian, so, since this editor is probably a professor too, it may be a pig in a poke. But there is no doubt about Vance Randolph. He has never published a book that wasn’t thoroughly satisfying, and he has done some five or six I know of: Who Blowed Up the Church House?, The Devil’s Pretty Daughter, We Always Lie to Strangers, Ozark Superstitions, all with Columbia, and Down in the Holler (with George P. Wilson), with the University of Oklahoma Press. Get them all, and the new one, too. This isn’t TV hillbilly humor, it isn’t even Al Capp or Erskine Caldwell. It is a last lingering contact with an older and better world, a thin red umbilicus still attached to what Sherwood Anderson would have called the American Earth. I am well aware that the reason for the popularity of the cultural survivals of the Southern Highlands on the New York stage is that barefoot girls and one-gallus, corncob-bearing males give the subway Neanderthals somebody to look down on — no mean accomplishment. The real thing is something else again. Vance Randolph is not a professor, but an uncorrupted amateur folklorist. This is a great tradition, all the best folklore we have has been collected by doctors (of medicine, not philosophy), clergymen, schoolmarms, and plain people. There is something about the methodology of scholarship that blights folkspeech.

Everybody knows that the Southern Highlands are the last refuge of the American frontier, and, from before our own, of the marches of England and Scotland and of the Scots and North Irish. But there is more to the Ozarks than Toynbee’s “external proletariat.” This is the home of the Green Corn Rebellion, the land where, in the evenings, around the stove in the crossroads store, one literate farmer read aloud the words of Oscar Ameringer and The Appeal to Reason, slowly and painfully, to the leg-slapping approval of a tobacco-chewing audience. Here, if anywhere in America, was the focus of a purely indigenous agrarian anarchist-socialism. I have run hounds, swapped lies, and drunk tiger piss with men who would have been happy fighting with Makhno. Unruly, utterly skeptical, absolutely fearless, bawdy free-thinkers — very different indeed from the originals of the term “square” — the square-headed agrarian Progressives of the northern Middlewest. These are the key words of great — classic — epic — Homeric — humor. A sense of the consistent principle of incongruity on which Nature, for all our science and philosophy, really operates. The realization that the accepted, official version of anything is most likely false and that all authority is based on fraud. The courage to face and act on these two conclusions. The appreciation of the wonderful hilarity of the processes of human procreation and elimination. The acceptance of the prime fact that nobody made it that way — it just happened. I find it hard to bust into roars of laughter over the long-winded racket of the majority of the old-time humorists Constance Rourke writes about. I am not a passionate devotee of Sut Lovingood. But from those days to Mencken — or even Westbrook Pegler, Damon Runyon, or Will Rogers at their best, these were the qualities that made American humor American. It was just plain lack of style that made it, in so many cases, tedious.

This, once, was the blood and meat and bone of our very own life. Out of it came our one epic hero, the only American who can walk with Ajax and Odysseus — Huck Finn. What happened to this heritage? I’ll tell you what happened to it. Not long ago, in the Vaticide Review, a college professor who, of all things, teaches the children of cowboys in a university in the mountains of the Wild West, wrote a “paper” conclusively demonstrating by patient, laborious research that Huckleberry Finn was a homosexual romance. This came about, not because the professor was himself a homosexual, but because he was moribund with the ultimate corruption of human self-alienation. He just didn’t know what the word “work” meant. He had never done any. He never knew anybody who had done any. Huckleberry Finn is our example of one of the three or four basic epic plots — maybe there are really only two. It is about the devoted comradeship of men at grips with a “morally neuter” — frivolous, the Greeks called their gods — environment, the inchoate and irresponsible flux of the universe, on which men, working in comradeship, impose the order of their virtues and their reason. And the first of these is courage.

Life is all a great joke — but only the brave ever get the point. When James, W. not H., said, “It is true if it works,” this very frontier, American sort of thing, is what he meant. He meant, “If you can do work with it.” Only truth can impose order on the environment of disorder. Our professor at a cowtown university undoubtedly thinks it means “if you can ‘work’ some kind of finagle with it.” The reason pragmatism got such a bad name is that it came to be taught by people who did not work their way through school at jobs, but as teaching assistants. Incongruity? Yes — but laughter comes with the mastery of incongruity, like handling logs in a spring river, tossing sacks of wheat into a box car, making babies, or cutting a cam that works right on your own machine. When August Kekule saw his benzene ring, he laughed. In the Lankavatara Sutra, Buddha laughed at the vision of compound infinitudes of universes. The great Turner picture is of “Ulysses Deriding Polyphemus.” The tiny figure on its gaily caparisoned boat is laughing at the bellowing man mountain. The Odyssey is a comedy.

Once these qualities go from humor it becomes sicklied o’er with the pale cast of effeminacy. Compare Dorothy Parker or Ogden Nash with Lear:

There was an old man who said, “Hush,
I think there’s a bird in this bush.”
When they said, “Is it small?”
He replied, “Not at all.
It’s three times the size of the bush.”

Whimsy, like black lace underwear, is all right in its place. Great humor has a savagery about it. This is why British humor stands up better than American in this century — particularly British bawdry. All the great dirty limericks, like detective stories, have English settings. It’s like English cooking, which is still that of Boadicea’s day. True conservatives, the English have yet to wash off all their woad. It is for this reason that, however subversive of the established order, so many great humorists, especially satirists, Roman or British, have been Tories. The revolutionary action of humor is a deeper thing than any current politics, and the humorist tends to adopt these social attitudes which at least claim to ensure him the strongest connections with the oldest, most fundamental, most human behavior.

In America, by and large, this has not been true. You can, or at least T.S. Eliot can, create a “myth of conservatism,” but it is pretty damn hard to work up any myth of the American business community. Henry Luce has spent billions trying and is still working at it, but all the progress reports are negative. We do not usually think of Damon Runyon as a radical, but go back and read the workingstiff dialect poetry he wrote when the century was young. “It pays to git a plenty while you’re gittin’.” And I will never forget the time I heard Will Rogers say, “I hear the Standard Oil Company has adopted the motto, ‘We Serve the Public.’ Havin’ growed up on a farm, I know jist what they’re a’ gittin’ at.” We forgive Mencken his beer-cellar Nietzscheism. We forget that years ago, Pegler was hired by Scripps-Howard for the same reason Heywood Broun was — he was a “fearless independent,” not a gutta-percha bottle of corrosive rancors. By and large, though, American humor until well into this century has been “radical.” All humor must be in the etymological sense. Ours was also in the political. Out of the Masses, old and New, came the major cartoonists of the period. Still unsurpassed, many of them are famous today. The whole lithograph crayon technique, so closely identified with Buck Ellis and Bob Minor, and originally developed for the IWW press, has about it the very essence of completely autonomous, completely autochthonous, American workingstiff defiance.

Finley Peter Dunne (Mr. Dooley) is the author of: “Wan iv th’ strangest things about life is that th’ poor, who need th’ money th’ most, ar-re th’ very wans that niver have it.” “Don’t ask f’r rights. Take thim. An’ don’t let anny wan give thim to ye. A right that is handed to ye fer nawthin’ has somethin’ the mather with it. It’s more thin likely it’s ony a wrrong turned inside out.” “’Tis a sthrange thing whin we come to think iv it that th’ less money a man gits f’r his wurruk, th’ more nicissary it ’tis to th’ wurruld that he shud go on wurrukin’. Yer boss kin go to Paris on a combination weddin’ and divorce thrip an’ no one bothers his head abouth him. But if ye shud go to Paris — excuse me laughin’ mesilf black in th’ face — th’ industhrees iv th’ country pine away.” “Mebbe ’tis as bad to take champagne out of wan man’s mouth as it ’tis to take rround shteak out of anather’s.” “It takes vice t’ hunt vice. That accounts f’r polismen.” “I care not who makes th’ laws iv a nation, if I can get out an injunction.” “Laws are made t’ throuble people, and th’ more throuble they make th’ longer they shtay on the shtachoo books.” “If me ancestors were not what Hogan calls regicides, ’twas not because they wan’t ready an’ willin’, ony a king niver came their way.” “A constitootional ixicative, Hinissey, is a ruler who does as he damn pleases an’ blames th’ people.”

What happened? Where did this kind of humor go? Don’t forget, Dunne wrote this stuff for what they call the capitalist press. It went the same place the manual spark lever and the choke went on cars. They were dangerous because women used them to hang their purses on. Think of the environment in which Mr. Dooley was appreciated. Who rushes the growler today? How many people chew Piper Heidsieck? How many smoke Five Brothers in a corncob pipe? Humor must be about the basic verities.

The distinguishing mark of our contemporary humor, what has come to be called “New Yorker humor,” is that it is of, for, and by the great bulk of our population who live in interminably busy idleness, who are never at grips with their environment, but who live by delegated powers and vicarious atonements. They are surrounded by the gadgets that appear in the advertising columns alongside; when they have to do something as elemental as driving a nail or mowing a lawn some whimsical disaster always takes place. Like the movies, nothing ever happens that would offend any conceivable group or section of the population, or in any way interfere with the sale of any commodity whatsoever. Nothing important must happen — it would be bad for business.

A few comic strips linger on, Moon Mullins, The Katzenjammer Kids, Williams’s Out Our Way. I wonder what the TV generation thinks of them? A few towns still permit emasculated burlesque shows, but the comics are not allowed to distract from the interminable parade of strippers. Chaplin is self-exiled. American radicalism lost its sense of humor long ago. And of course “the media” chew up everything, songs, jokes, “personalities” — 365 days times 24 hours — this is a forest fire which consumes all in its path. What is wrong with American humor is what is wrong with American life. It is commercialism. True humor is the most effective mode of courage.



This article originally appeared in The Nation (27 April 1957) and was reprinted in Bird in the Bush (1959) under the title “Would You Hit a Woman With a Child, or Who Was That Lady I Seen You With Last Night?” Copyright 1959. Reproduced by permission of the Kenneth Rexroth Trust.

Most of Vance Randolph’s books are out of print, but one of the best is still available: Pissing in the Snow and Other Ozark Folktales (University of Illinois, 1976).

Finley Peter Dunne’s original “Mr. Dooley” volumes, which date from around the turn of the century, are constantly going in and out of print. A good selection is Mr. Dooley on Ivrything and Ivrybody (Dover, 1963). Quite a few pieces can also be found online.

Rexroth’s first encounter with Ozarkians is amusingly recounted in his autobiography.

[Rexroth essay on Mark Twain

[Rexroth essay on Huckleberry Finn]

[Other Rexroth Essays]





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