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The perils of American humor

nothing strikes an American more, on his first visit to England, than the frequent discussion of American authors who are rarely quoted at home, except in stumpspeeches, and whose works hardly have a place as yet in our literary collections, and who still are taken seriously among educated persons in England. The astonishment increases when he finds the almanacs of ‘Josh Billings’ reprinted in ‘Libraries of American Humor,’ and given an equal place with the writings of Holmes and Lowell. Finally he is driven to the conclusion that there must be very little humor in England, where things are seriously published in book form which here would only create a passing smile in the corner of a newspaper. He finds that the whole department of American humor was created, so to speak, by the amazed curiosity of Englishmen. It is a phrase that one rarely hears in the United States; and [129] if we have such a thing among us, although it may cling to our garments, we are habitually as unconscious of it as are smokers of the perfume of their favorite weed. When attention is once called to it, however, we are compelled to perceive it, and may then look at it both from the desirable and undesirable sides, since both of these sides it has.

There is certainly no defence or water-proof garment against adverse fortune which is, on the whole, so effectual as an habitual sense of humor. The man who has it can rarely be cast down for a great while by external events; and it is much the same with a nation. For some reason or other, in the transplantation to this continent, certain traits were heightened and certain other qualities were diminished among the English-speaking race. Thus much may be safely assumed. Among the heightened attributes was the sense of humor; and to this, no doubt, some of our seeming virtues may be attributed.

The good-nature of an American crowd, the long-suffering of American travellers under detention or even fraud, the recoil of cheerfulness [130] after the tremendous excitement of a national election—all these things are partly due to the national habit of looking not so much at the bright side as at the amusing side of all occurrences. The day after election the most heated partisan, beaten or victorious, not only laughs at the other party, but he laughs at his own; he laughs at himself; and this attitude of mind, which carried Abraham Lincoln through the vast strain of civil war and emancipation, is an almost essential trait of life in a republic. Public men who have this quality are able to thrive on the very wear and tear of political life; public men who are without it, as the late Charles Sumner, find the path of duty hard, and are kept up by sheer conscience and will. And so in private life, the husband and wife who have no mutual enjoyment of this kind, the parents who derive no delight from the droll side of nursery life and the perpetual unconscious humor of childhood, must find daily existence monotonous and wearing. It was from this point of view that one of the cleverest and most useful women I have ever known, the late Mrs. Delano Goddard, of [131] Boston, when asked what quality on the whole best promoted one's usefulness in life, replied, ‘The sense of humor.’

But when this sense of humor is, as one may say, nationalized, it furnishes some occasional disadvantages to set against this merit. It may not only be turned against good causes, but against the whole attitude of earnest study or faithful action. Mr. Warner has lately pointed out how not merely the external reputation of Chicago has been injured, but its whole intellectual life retarded, by the determined habit of the newspapers of that city in treating all intellectual efforts coming from that quarter as a joke. ‘When Chicago makes up her mind to take hold of culture,’ said one of the local humorists, ‘she will just make culture hum.’ Of course it might seem that every word of this vigorous sentence must serve to put culture a little farther off. But, as a matter of fact, culture is already there, in Chicago. There is probably no city in the Union which publishes books of a higher grade, in proportion to their numbers. Looking on the fly-leaf of a new London edition of Sir [132] Philip Sidney's ‘Astrophel and Stella,’ the other day, I was not at all surprised to find that, of the thousand copies printed, one-quarter were for the American market, and that these were to be issued from Chicago. And yet so fixed is this habit of joking in the mind of our people that it will probably last an indefinite period into the future, and keep all the intellectual impulses of that particular city in the kind of uncomfortable self-consciousness which comes from being always on the defensive. In time such an attitude is outgrown, and people are left to enjoy what they like. I can remember when the disposition of Bostonians to take pleasure in Beethoven's symphonies was almost as much of a joke to Boston editors as is the ‘humming’ of culture in Chicago to-day; but there is fortunately a limit to human endurance in regard to certain particular witticisms, though some of them certainly die hard.

The same necessity for a joke invades other quiet enjoyments and harmless occupations, as the study of Shakespeare or Browning. It has happened to me to look in at several different [133] Browning clubs, first and last; but the club of the newspaper humorist I never have happened to encounter—that club which is as vague and misty and wordy as that other creation of the American imagination, the ‘Limekiln Club’ of colored philosophers. On the contrary, such Browning clubs as I have happened to look in upon have had the sobriety and reasonableness which are essential to the study of a poet who, although often recondite and difficult, is never vague. Yet you may go to the meeting of such a club and be struck with the good-sense and moderation of every word that is uttered; no matter; the report in the next day's newspaper —if reporters are admitted—will put in all the folly and adulation that the meeting wisely left out, and this because the reporter is expected to exhibit humor. It is worse yet when serious public discussions or the terrible details of police courts are burlesqued in this way. Few things, I should say, are more essentially demoralizing than the facetious police report of the enterprising daily newspaper. The moral of it all is that humor, like fire, is a good servant but a bad master; that it [134] refreshes and relieves the hard work of life, and is meant to do so in the order of nature; but when it becomes an end in itself it takes the real dignity from life, and actually makes its serious work harder.

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