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From 1929 to the latest issue, American Literature has been the foremost journal expressing the findings of those who study our national literature. American Literature has published the best work of literary historians, critics, and bibliographers, ranging from the founders of discipline to the best current critics and researchers. The longevity of this excellence lends a special distinction to the articles in American Literature.
Presented in order of their first appearance, the articles in each volume constitute a revealing record of developing insights and important shifts of critical emphasis. Each article has opened a fresh line of inquiry, established a fresh perspective on a familiar topic, or settled a question that engaged the interest of experts.
About the Author
Louis J. Budd is James B. Duke Professor of English, Emeritus at Duke University.
Edwin H. Cady is Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities, Emeritus, at Duke University.
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The Best from American Literature
By Louis J. Budd, Edwin H. Cady
Duke University PressCopyright © 1992 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
Burlesques in Nineteenth-Century American Humor
DURING recent years, several writers on American humor have pointed out the important fact that America's boisterous nineteenth-century literary comedians, writing honestly of the life about them, were significant pioneers in the development of realism in American fiction. It has not, however, been made sufficiently clear that these humorists attacked the ruling romanticism in still another fashion—by magnifying its absurdities in a flood of burlesques and parodies which swept into print during the latter part of the century. The number and the methods of the attacks deserve consideration, for a study of the work of the parodists not only indicates the methods of the humorists but also adds a significant detail to the story of the beginnings of American realism.
Most of the major humorists employed burlesques frequently. The first book, for example, of George Horatio Derby, Phoenixiana (1855), had as its subtitle, or Sketches and Burlesques, and twelve of the thirty-three sections of the book were burlesques. The proportion of burlesques in Derby's Squibob Papers was only slightly smaller. Artemus Ward wrote a series of burlesque novels, some published inVanity Fair, nine of which are included in his complete works, and two of which have been salvaged by Mr. Seitz; and his works are studded with briefer bits of burlesque writing. Mark Twain, beginning his career as a humorist for The Californian, wrote seven burlesques for that paper, taking off orations, historical writings, answers to correspondents, and the Sunday School story. And burlesques are to be found in Clemens's later works. He parodied the playbill and dramatic criticism, for example, inInnocents Abroad, the Sunday School speech in The Gilded Age and Tom Sawyer; and the obituary poem furnished a target for his shafts on at least three occasions. And when Bill Nye, the last important funny man of the old school, published his first book in 1881, he parodied the ode, the fictional romance, the campaign song, the oration, the political speech, the biblical parable, the lyric, and the newspaper "answers to correspondents" department; and most of his later books were also sprinkled with burlesques.
Most of the comic papers printed burlesques by leading humorists and by minor figures as well. The first volume of Vanity Fair, to cite one of many publications which might serve equally as well, contained no less than eighteen burlesques, some of them continued through several issues. Somewhat later, a writer in Vanity Fair hardly exaggerated when he said:
To burlesque is now deemed sublime; to be serious is to be ridiculous.... We are engaged in a noble work. We are doing for literature what the actors are doing for the stage—we are simplifying matters—stripping them of their excrescences, and proving that everything is susceptible of being burlesqued.
These facts indicate, in a general way, the eminence of the parody as a humorous form. A more complete understanding of the extensive use of the form, and of its chief devices, may be arrived at by tracing three important and prevalent types of burlesque through the period during which the native school of humorists was most active (c. 1830–c. 1896). A study of the burlesques of oratory, of history, and of fiction shows how the comic writers tilted at fine writing and pseudo-romanticism.
The oratorical style of the period was thus criticized by a hostile critic in 1889:
To beautify "elegant" sentiment with "elegant" if elephantine rhetorical frilligigs, is the highest delight of the "elegant" orator, who despises "plain" English. His interest in simple words becomes compound when he can use three syllables instead of one.... He thinks it more blessed to "donate" than to give, and more refreshing to bathe in a "natatorium" than in a bath.
Naturally such a style was a red flag to men blessed with humor, and the artificialities which the critic denounced were frequently sprinkled over pages intended not to inspire but to amuse.
Whole books by minor humorists were filled with hilarious apings of the popular orator. Even sermons were parodied extensively. Joseph F. Paige, writing under the pseudonym of "Dow, Jr.," published one volume of "short patent sermons" in 1841, and reissued them, with many additions, sixteen years later. Two unidentified humorists put the high-flown words of ministers into Dutch and negro dialect. One of William Penn Brannen's parody sermons, frequently reprinted, gave a title to a famous collection of humor in 1858. Works other than sermons furnished inspirations for other parodists. The popular publishers of dime novels, Beadle & Co., issued, in 1863, a Comic Speaker which contains nothing but burlesque oratory—"A Texan Eulogium," supposedly delivered by a pompous orator in the state legislature, and testifying to the greatness of the late "Solomon Dill"; "The United States," in which it is remarked, with flourishes, that ours is a fine country; the spiel of "The Mountebank" with testimonials; "Sermon on the Feet"; "Political Stump Speech"; and others. So popular was the oratorical burlesque that two examples crept into Beadle's Exhibition Speaker (New York, 1881), where they rubbed shoulders with specimens of the style they parodied. Dr. W. Valentine issued two volumes largely made up of burlesque speeches.
Echoes of the oratorical style found their way into writings of authors who were not primarily interested in parody. Colonel Crockett's speeches, intentionally or unintentionally, resort to grandiloquence. Major Jack Downing recorded some of the flights of political spellbinders with whom he had contacts. The Biglow Papers, in the "Debate in the Sennit," which caricatures the bombastic oratory of the Southern Calhoun, also offers amusing parodies elsewhere. Longstreet's Georgia Scenes (1835), Hooper's Simon Suggs (1845), Baldwin's "Flush Times (1853), the Orpheus C. Kerr Papers (1861–2), and Harris's Sut Lovingood (1867) contain brief passages in the conventional style. Artemus Ward's "The Crisis" and "A War Meeting" quote typically ornate speeches, and one is hardly surprised to hear the illiterate Petroleum V. Nasby roar: "Fellow whites, arowz! The inemy is onto us! Our harths is in danger! ... Rally agin Conway! Rally agin Higler! Rally agin the porter at the Reed House!" Later Max Adeler, Robert Burdette, and Bill Nye frequently used the oration as humorous material.
One particular variety of the oration was more prevalent and more pretentious, perhaps, than any other during the period—the Fourth of July Address of the type commented on in Cooper's Home as Found in 1838. The Independence Day orator, a necessary part of every celebration of the Fourth, felt, as James Bryce said, "bound to talk his very tallest" in order that the eagle might scream while the perspiring audience applauded. Famous orators such as Webster, Everett, and Sumner, and orators famed only in their own villages summoned all their artistry to praise their country. And after the speaker's thunder had died, the committee, with his permission, embalmed his words in little pamphlets destined to grow dusty on library shelves.
As early as 1856, George H. Derby ("Phoenix") parodied all the elements of the printed pamphlet of this type in his "Fourth of July Oration in Oregon," which contains the request by the local committee that John Phoenix appear and orate, John's condescending compliance, and, finally, the highly embroidered speech. The same day, according to Artemus Ward, the genial showman spoke in Weathersfield, Connecticut, famous "for her onyins and patritism the world over." In 1875, Mose Skinner's Centennial preserved an oration which began, auspiciously, "One hundred years ago the spot where we now stand was located elsewhere...." and in 1881, Beadle'sExhibition Speaker recorded the remarks of "The Orator of the Day."
Typical as an example of these parodies was the address included in Bill Nye's "How the Fourth Was Celebrated at Whalen's Grove Last Year," delivered by "a self-made man from Hickory township" and embodied in a burlesque country newspaper account. The opening words remind one of the beginning of an actual address given July 4, 1824, in New York, in which Dr. Hooper Cumming, the orator, said:
Auspicious Morn! which witnesses the noblest declaration that ever issued from the lips of patriotism. Auspicious morn! which gilded the manly brows, and dilated the benevolent bosoms ... of ... Jefferson, and Adams, and Franklin ... which heard three millions of freemen exclaim, "The sword of the Lord and of Washington."
Said Nye's Hickory township orator:
Fellow Citizens: This is the anniversary of the day when freedom towards all and malice towards none first got a foothold in this country. And we are now to celebrate that day. I say that on that day Tireny and uzurpation got a set-back they will never recover from. We then paved the way for the poor, oppressed foreigner, so that he could come to our shores and take liberties with our form of government....
A moment later, Nye's orator asked why the country had been blessed as it was:
Why are we today a free people, with a surplus in the treasury that nobody can get at? ... Why are our resources so great that they almost equal our liabilities? Why is everything done to make it pleasant for the rich man and every inducement held out for the poor man to accumulate more and more poverty? Why is it that so much is said about the tariff by men who do not support their own families?
Years before, on July 4, 1814, similarly puzzled, Robert Y. Hayne had asked a Charleston audience:
In what then, my countrymen, does your superior lot consist? Does the verdure of your field delight the eye? The vineyards of France ... display equal beauty. Are your mountains the objects of your admiration? ... in the glaciers of Switzerland you will behold nature in her grandeur and simplicity....
He answered his perplexing question as follows: "The United States ... is the only free country on earth." Nye's orator was less considerate; he did not get around to a reply to his question, being, perhaps, too eager to conclude on the note that "whatever may be said about our refinement and our pork, our style of freedom is sought for everywhere. It is a freedom that will stand any climate...."
Nye's system of parody is similar to that employed by others who burlesqued oratory. With the grand style he mingled homely words and phrases, and for the picture book version of contemporary conditions he substituted the realist's knowledge of facts. Then he ended the speech, not with a hair-raising peroration, but with an absurd anti-climax.
The treatment of history by the humorists presented as much of a contrast to the ornate romantic historical works of the period. Comic treatments were numerous after "A Comic History of the United States" ran through several issues of Volume II of Yankee Doodle (1847–48). At least six books published between 1861 and 1894 were occupied with a recounting of the nation's story by burlesque historians. Furthermore, many humorists made briefer excursions into historical writing—Mark Twain, Orpheus C. Kerr, Artemus Ward, George H. Derby, and Max Adeler among them.
The humorous historians were consistently irreverent; they made historical events comical by stressing foibles of honored leaders; they constantly mingled the realistic with the romantic, the colloquial with the elegant. Washington's appearance, asserted Derby, might be discovered by looking at "a portrait by Gilbert Stuart, of this great soldier and statesman ... taken when the general was in the act of chewing tobacco, the left cheek distended...." Hopkins noted that "Washington crossing the Delaware furnished a very good subject for a very bad painting, which may be seen among other bad paintings in the Rotunda of the Capitol at Washington ... at first sight ... mistaken for an advertising dodge of some ice company...." Artemus Ward, his "bossum" heaving "with sollum emotions" as he views the spot "where our revolutionary forefathers asserted their independence and spilt their Blud," is reminded that the sacred ground is "good for white beans and potatoes, but as regards raisin' wheat, 't'aint worth a dam." Mark Twain, writing in about 1870, of "The Late Benjamin Franklin," remembers with rancor Franklin's industry, his maxims which "were full of animosity toward boys," his stove "that would smoke your head off in four hours by the clock." The parodists were most joyous when they found a chance to tie up homely material with glamorous figures or romantic moments of history.
Often the grandiloquent style affected by popular historians was travestied in anticlimaxes. Gazing upon the figure of Garibaldi, Orpheus C. Kerr passionately told his reader: "Behold him, then, at his tasks"—and then he added a few details—"in a red shirt amputated at the neck, and two yellow patches ... flaming from the background of his seat of learning." Bricktop painted a beautiful picture of Washington at Valley Forge, "his army reduced by sickness and desertion.... Add to this the terrors of one of the severest winters ever known, and understand that his army was half naked and had hardly any shelter from the winter, and you have only a portion of the picture, for starvation threatened them...." Then the tone changes as the writer adds: "Strip a man's back and pinch his belly, and you have a very good test of his patriotism if he stands without kicking. The men at Valley Forge didn't kick—they lacked the strength to." And Nye found a part of a Fourth of July address fitted quite nicely into a history:
All over that little republic, so begun in sorrow and travail, there came in after-years the dimples and the smiles of the prosperous child who would one day rise in the lap of the mother-country, and, asserting its rights ... place a large and disagreeable fire-cracker under the nose of royalty, that, busting the awful stillness, should jar the empires of the earth, and blow the unblown noses of future kings and princes. (This is taken bodily from a speech made by me July 4, 1777, when I was young.–THE AUTHOR.)
Certainly, if attitude and manner are considered, these playful chroniclers were, in their way, predecessors of modern realistic writers on history. In a period when most American histories were written in the romantic tradition and the grandiloquent style, the humorists worked for realism by looking at the past through worldly eyes and by poking fun at the gilded mannerisms and heightened materials of serious historians.
But if the humorists found affectations and impossible romanticism in the orations and the histories of the century, they found even more absurdities in the popular novels of the time. Many an impassioned writer of romance in the period, after a few moralizing paragraphs, began his story in something like the following fashion:
... Surrounded as he (the hero) was by hills on every side, naked rocks dared the efforts of his energies. Soon the sky became overcast, the sun buried itself in the clouds, and the fair day gave place to gloomy twilight, which lay heavily on the Indian Plains.... The mountain air breathed fragrance—a rosy tinge rested on the glassy waters that murmured.... Beside the shore of the brook sat a young man about eighteen or twenty, who seemed to be reading some favorite book, and who had a remarkably noble countenance—eyes which betrayed more than a common mind.
Nye, perceiving the excellence of such an opening, thus started his burlesque novel, "Pumpkin Jim; or the Tale of a Busted Jackass Rabbit:"
It was evening in the mountains. The golden god of day was gliding slowly adown the crimson west. Here and there the cerulean dome was flecked with snowy clouds.
The flecks were visible to the naked eye.
Meanwhile the golden god of day, hereinbefore referred to, continued to glide adown the crimson west, with about the same symmetrical glide. It had done so on several occasions previous to the opening of this story.
Nye, too, showed a partiality for heroes with noble countenances: a little later,
All at once, like a flash of dazzling light, a noble youth came slowly down the mountain side, riding an ambling palfrey of the narrow gauge variety.
The palfrey unfortunately stumbled and sat down upon the young man.
"Curses upon thee, thou base and treacherous mule!" he muttered, brokenly. "By my beard, thou hast poorly repaid me for my unremitting kindness to thee. Ah, alack, alack, alack—"
This was the proper sort of language for a hero to use. The hero here had another idiosyncrasy: he was Jesse James in disguise. He was therefore good heroic material. In 1861, Orpheus C. Kerr had pointed out that writers of popular fiction had a genius—
... a power of creating an unnatural and unmitigated ruffian for a hero, my boy, at whose shrine all created crinoline and immense delegations of inferior broadcloth are impelled to bow. Such a one was that old humbug, Rochester, the beloved of "Jane Eyre." The character has been done-over scores of times since poor Charlotte Bronte gave her novel to the world, and is still "much used in respectable families."
Excerpted from On Humor by Louis J. Budd, Edwin H. Cady. Copyright © 1992 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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Table of ContentsSeries Introduction vii
Burlesques in Nineteenth-Century American Humor (1930 ) / Walter Blair 1
The Popularity of Nineteenth-Century American Humorists (1931) / Walter Blair 13
"The Gentleman from Pike" in Early California (1936) / G.R. MacMinn 33
Tragedy and Irony in Knickerbocker's History (1940) / Charlton G. Laird 43
Hank Monk and Horace Greeley (1942) / Richard G. Lilliard 59
The Humorous Works of George W. Harris (1943) / Donald Day 68
Myth and Humor in the Uncle Remus Fables (1948) / Louise Dauner 84
The Birth and Death of a Satirist: Eugene Field and Chicago's Growing Pains (1951) / Robert A. Day 99
"Mr. Spirit" and The Big Bear of Arkansas (1955) / Eugene Current-Garcia 112
The Imagery of George Washington Harris (1959) / Milton Rickels 127
The Meaning of Ring Lardner's Fiction (1960) / Howard W. Webb, Jr. 142
Aeolism in Knickerbocker's A History of New York (1970) / David Durant 154
The Text, Tradition, and Themes of "The Big Bear of Arkansas" (1975) / J.A. Leo Lemay 168
Tall Tale, Tall Talk: Pursuing the Lie in Jacksonian Literature (1977) / Neil Schmitz 190
Cable's The Grandissimes and the Comedy of Manners (1980) / Robert O. Stephens 211
The Comic Voice in Dreiser's Cowperwood Narrative (1981) / Jack E. Wallace 224
Colonel Noland of the Spirit: The Voices of a Gentleman in Southwest Humor (1981) / Lorne Fienberg 240
From Whom the Bull Flows: Hemingway in Parody (1989) / James C. McKelly 254
Notes on Contributors 275