The Literary Humor of the Urban Northeast, 1830-1890; Edited by David E. E. Sloane; Louisiana State University Press; Baton Rouge.

Chicago’s Public Wits; Edited by Kenny J. Williams and Bernard Duffey; Louisiana State University Press; Baton Rouge.

It is a commonplace that humor arises from the amused recognition of the dis­parity between the ideal and the real. Inherent in this conception is the idea of humor as a mediator of experience, something which literally puts us “in the middle” between extremes. From the sane, middle ground we can laugh at both the pretensions of idealism and the cynical attitude which goes under the name of realism. The vaudeville comedian who slips on a banana peel is funny because man is presumably an erect creature living in a world of uncertain surfaces. In Shakespeare the fool is “licensed” to prate and satirize, even at the king’s expense, because mental debility places him outside normal human discourse and allows him, like Touchstone, to use his “wit as a stalking horse.” True laughter is ultimately a form of ecstasy, in the sense that the Greek word ekstasis means “standing outside” of oneself. The 18th-century wit John Gay distilled the essence of humor in his own wry epitaph: “Life is a jest, and all things shew it/I thought so once, but now I know it.”


Humor mediates not only between real and ideal, but between past and present, the individual and the group, between different nations, ethnic communities, and social systems. Humor thus serves a crucial public function by defusing conflict and binding men together in a shared vision. When humor is put to private ends, or made to act as propaganda for an ideological mission, it loses its role as mediator, and community is fragmented.

The two volumes here are collections of American urban humor, primarily from the 19th century. Since early American comic writing was the child of the news­ paper and magazine, these books gain value simply by making such widely scattered material accessible. But more importantly, they provide a needed corrective to the conventional idea that American humor has been predominantly that of the frontier and the camp meeting. While the Southwestern comedians were joking about the horse swap, urban writers were anatomizing the railroad. As editor David Sloane points out, Mark Twain is indiscriminately lumped into the Southwestern school when in fact his technique (if not his setting) is largely shaped by urban values. Twain was in many ways a Connecticut Yankee.

In places like Chicago and the North­ east, the Jeffersonian vision of a decentralized democracy of yeoman farmers quickly gave way to Hamilton’s bustling commercial republic. The increasing role of economics as the mode in which men related to each other was taken up by humorists of both commercial and agrarian persuasion, so that the country bumpkin is ridiculed as much as the vulgar, urban nouveaux riches. The urban tradition of humor inherited the legacy of Congregational humanism and took religious truths for granted (unlike the more irreverent Western school), and they pursued a robust egalitarianism in which no classes or groups were exempt from attack. Above all, the urban humorists were characterized by a sophisticated sense of literary form which only a cosmopolitan, educated culture could support. Often their comic method was displayed in extravagant parody or burlesque, as in this version of ”Jack and Jill” in the manner of Whitman: ”Jack, broad-shouldered, deep-chested, and merry,/ Like the rocks prehistoric — gigantic….” Or Mike Royko’s modern version of Carl Sandburg’s poem about Chicago: “Chicago/ Hi-Rise for the World … Dapper, slender, filter-tipped/City of the Big Credit Card.” More usual was a subtle, Yankee understatement, in which a low-key irony, like a pistol with a silencer, was the main weapon.

The earlier humor, however, was rarely deadly. Except for a brief period surrounding the Civil War, American humor remained largely in the jovial, ribbing manner of Horace, rather than the bitter satire of Juvenal. The persistent myth of America as the New Eden and Chosen Nation fueled the optimism of a buoyant commercial republic. On one level this was expressed in the expansive mysticism of Whitman. Among the comic writers P. T. Barnum triumphed as a self-proclaimed humbug thanks to his inventiveness in making bogus entertainment and his gleeful lack of conscience in taking people’s money. Few American humorists possessed Barnum’s vulgarity, but many shared his confident individualism. Almost alone among American humor writers of this era stands Mark Twain, whose essentially Swiftian despair about the human condition gave a barely suppressed anarchic impulse to his fiction. What enabled Twain to avert nihilism and attain lasting art was the strength of his own federalist vision of order which, entwined with his Juvenalian bitterness, produced a highly creative tension.

In addition to the upheaval brought about by changing economic circumstances, the other pressing urban problem at the tum of the century was European immigration. This was the time of the xenophobic, unfunny ethnic joke, but the best humorists dissolved the growing paranoia. Perhaps the most impressive achievement of the American urban wits represented in these collections is their sheer linguistic energy, their ear for dialect and colloquial speech, and their ability to utilize dialect for seriocomic purposes. At a time when anti-immigrant feeling was high, comic writers created immensely popular ethnic characters, such as the German “Carl Pretzel” in Chicago, and his counterpart in New York, “Hans Breitmann.” To modem ears, this dialect is difficult, but for contemporaries it had an immediate relevance to common experience. BY creating dialectal characters, humorists could make immigrants appealing and human, while using their foreign background and naivete to help them satirize and comment on local and national issues.

The most enduring of the ethnic characters was Chicago’s “Mr. Dooley,” the Irish tavern proprietor from the South­ side community of Bridgeport, written by Finley Peter Dunne. Mr. Dooley, like his fellow Irish, was a great talker, and in the tavern setting Dunne provides an ambience of leisure and reflection in which Dooley can utter his hard-nosed, commonsense wisdom. Some critics have noted that the Irish community represented by Dunne (along with the other ethnic groups) was breaking apart under the pressure of economic mobility even as the first Dooley columns were appearing. Even if Dunne wrote about a world that no longer existed, Mr. Dooley spoke with the authority of a community in time. It is one of the continuing American paradoxes that the ethnic communities, which at one time were perceived as inimical, have become objects of celebration and nostalgia (a function of the diversity in unity which the social scientists rather dubiously call “pluralism”). At a time when community was breaking down, Mr. Dooley spoke with the voice of a shared heritage, one fully committed to the American experiment.

Unlike the collection of Northeastern humor, Chicago’s Public Wits continues through the 20th century. Unfortunately its editors do not adequately explain many of the social and intellectual changes which caused a metamorphosis in American urban humor. With the rise of trade unions, and later with the inception of the welfare state, the modern American city has become increasingly segmented. A growing alienation of the educated class (due to ideology) caused humorists to lose their confident “voice.” AB the editors of Chicago’s Public Wits admit, the 20th-century comic writers spoke with a “superior” voice, eschewing the perspective of the common man and criticizing any who did not live up to their standards. The flight of the middle class into the suburbs left the American city with the odd conjunction of welfare­ state poor and hedonistic rich; the humorists, already dulled by ideology, found little in the city to inspire them. The mild Horatian humor which had be­ come traditional, however, was abandoned not for sharp, Juvenalian satire, which depends on a strong moral vision, but for a bitter, directionless resentment, usually attributed to the machinations of “robber barons.”

Much of this early-20th-century urban humor simply hasn’t survived. The king of wits during this time was Will Rogers, a quintessential Midwesterner. In Chicago, the old mudslinging matches between the Times and the rumbustious Tribune gave way to the disputes of more isolated and self-important literary sets. Looking back on the squabble over James Joyce’s Ulysses which Ben Hecht pursued against various antagonists, it is clear that Hecht was inspired more by his own taste than by the literary worth of Joyce’s book A few lone voices continue to speak from this period with an astringent humor. H. L. Mencken’s acid wit was put to the defense of true culture, but he often mistook the enemies of civilization, as when he indiscriminately lumped the South into his “Sahara of the Bozart.” Chicago was the starting point for Langston Hughes, who spoke for the urban Negro through his ability to convey authentic experience in fictional characters like Jesse B. Simple. Ring Lardner escaped from the casual nihilism of his contemporaries by mastering a literary genre in which farce and the grotesque combined in a discomforting manner. Lardner influenced not only Hemingway but also Flannery O’Connor, who had her own ideas about the modem city.

What is the state of urban humor today? Since World War II, the development of new communications media makes comparison with the past problematic. Much of what was the demesne of the printed page has now become almost exclusively the possession of radio, television, and now the home video. The gains are obvious. Charles Kuralt can take his urban intellect “on the road” and cherish things like clotheslines and odd-looking mailboxes with a particularity that only a camera can provide. Heywood Hale Broun can fill the TV screen with his personality. But Broun and Kuralt are of an older school of journalism. The losses of the new media are considerable. For instance, there is nothing in Andy Rooney’s stints for 60 Minutes — where he good-naturedly fiddles with boxes of Wheaties and Cap’n Crunch to poke fun at commercial hype — that couldn’t be done more imaginatively in print. The screen lacks the subtlety of prose, which can dip in and out of parody or burlesque and wield the fragile weapon of irony. Television’s characteristic failing is its tendency toward spoon­ feeding, but a weekly dose of Andy Rooney is hardly a substitute for the craft of public humor.

In fact, it is difficult to speak of actual urban humor at present. The New Yorker was the heir apparent to the tradition, and John Updike’s silken (hence flimsy) urbanities have maintained it to some extent. The city today provides either evanescent fashions, which become tedious as satiric material, or raw sensuality and crime of lower- and upper-class varieties, which are too starkly decadent to laugh about. No wonder that the urban audience has turned out toward the so­ called American “heartland” for its jollies. Garrison Keillor’s radio show “Lake Woebegone” has served as an admirable vehicle for social and cultural commentary. What began as a local radio pro­ gram centered around rural Minnesota life is now listened to by an overwhelmingly liberal, eastern, urban audience. In their Volvos equipped with elaborate sound systems, the liberals listen contentedly as Keillor gently mocks them.

The current split between town and country is also evident in Tom Wolfe. In his white suit Wolfe poses as the urban aesthete, but, as with Evelyn Waugh’s loudly checked suits, Wolfe is really poking holes in the culture of his peers. It is the Wolfe of the highly artificial and sophisticated prose style who has gone out to the ‘shine runners of Appalachia and to the fighter pilots and astronauts to find the “stuff” of which America is made, and which it is bent on denying. Radical Chic stands out as one of the few really adroit examples of recent urban humor.

The frenetic energy that has in the last few years thrown up structures like Detroit’s Renaissance Center, which stands like a huge hypodermic needle vainly trying to inject life into the city, is not likely to bring about a lasting renewal. Those glass and concrete tubes and cones teeming with conventioneers, holiday shoppers, and suburban fun-seekers may be the stuff of light comedy, but without real community the modem city cannot support what can only be called serious comedy. When public humor is either shallow, because liberalism is blind to real moral crisis, or cynical, because ideology fosters resentment, it ceases to mediate, to come between us and our fallen condition with the saving grace of laughter.  cc