Home  »  The World’s Wit and Humor  »  Humor in America

The World’s Wit and Humor: An Encyclopedia in 15 Volumes. 1906.

Joel Chandler Harris (1848–1908)

Humor in America

ONCE upon a time, in the early beginnings of the Republic, when the thirteen colonies, by the force of arms, and the growth and pressure of public opinion, both at home and abroad, had begun to adjust their social and political organization to fit the demands of freedom and independence, it chanced that one of the circuit judges in Georgia was a man named Dooley. Now, there is nothing in a name, and there is everything. This Mr. Dooley was a native-born American, and there is every reason to believe that his nature was seized and possessed by the same gentle and genial shadow of melancholy that has spread its wings over the lives of so many great men. He had been an eye-witness to one of the most harrowing scenes enacted during the Revolution—he had seen his own father dragged from his home and foully murdered by the Tories in that part of the State where no quarter was asked or given. The scene must have made a lasting impression on the lad, but, if he ever referred to it in public or private, the fact has not been recorded by his contemporaries.

As a matter of fact, however, we know very little of his contemporaries. No doubt there were other judges on the bench in Georgia more distinguished, and other lawyers more famous in that day; but their names have been forgotten, and, save for the tax-rolls, or family and court records, would long ago have perished from the face of the earth. There is nothing to show that Judge Dooley was a great man in his profession, or that his intellectual equipment was such as to set him apart from his contemporaries; but he had the gift of humor in a surpassing degree, and this fact has brought his name down to this generation, and has flavored his memory with a peculiar and lasting fragrance.

For some reason or other, no doubt political—for the controversies of that day were far more strenuous than they are now—Judge Dooley was challenged to mortal combat by a contemporary who had the misfortune to have a wooden leg. The judge accepted the challenge with a condition attached. To insure perfect equality for both parties, he insisted that one of his legs should be encased in a bee-gum—the bee-gums of that day being fashioned from sections of a hollow tree. This, of course, added fury to the anger of the challenger, who declared that the condition proposed was a more outrageous insult than the original provocation; and he gave notice that he would post the judge in the public prints of the day. Judge Dooley, responding, announced that, so far as he was personally concerned, he would rather fill every newspaper in the land than one grave, which, in the then existing condition of mining and surveying might turn out to be a misfit.

On another occasion, when the sheriff of one of the counties in his circuit, by way of showing him a little extra attention, placed a small pitcher of toddy, instead of water, at his hand, the judge sampled the offering, smacked his lips loudly, and commanded the astonished official to fetch him some more water from the same spring. Once, when about to engage in personal combat with an assailant, who was armed with a knife, and while three or four friends were trying to restrain him, he turned to them, and remonstrated. “Gentlemen,” he cried, “any one of you can hold me; the rest of you go and hold the other fellow!” There was an instant explosion of laughter, in which the judge’s assailant joined as heartily as the rest, and good feeling was immediately restored.

These examples of American humor, which have been the means of relieving tradition of its heaviness, will serve excellently well as an introduction to this modest collection of American humor, which makes no pretension to completeness. For many reasons, completeness is out of the question, for, in a compilation of this kind when you have done your best, the best is still to be done, especially in a land where certain forms of humor have been discovered in the wild creatures of the wood, not to mention the inimitable drolleries that observers have found in the barn-yard. Moreover, as likely as not, your dearest friend has a volume of humor on the press; and you cannot overcome the belief that your neighbor, who, for reasons of health and economy, shingles his house by lamp-light, is about to add to the gaiety of nations by gathering up and committing to print the casual comments of the people whom his industry has disturbed. Under such circumstances, the sense of incompleteness must necessarily take possession of the average compiler.

And this sense of incompleteness is made all the keener by a knowledge of the fact that much that is best and most characteristic in American humor has never had the advantage of type and binding. Much has been lost, but much has been preserved in the oral literature of the common people, having been handed down from generation to generation; and such of it as still persists is perhaps the cream of the best. The pungent and racy anecdote, smelling of the soil, that is told to illustrate a moral, or to give point to an argument, the happy allusion to some memory or tradition, the dramatic manner giving an added perfection, are all a part and parcel of American humor and give piquancy to its peculiarities.

It may be said of us, with some degree of truth, that we have a way of living humorously, and are conscious of the fact; that our view of life and its responsibilities is, to say the least, droll and comfortable; and there seems never to have been a day in our history when the American view of things generally was not charged or trimmed with humor. This fact, unimportant and insignificant as it seems to be, has tided our statesmen, as well as the common people, over many rough experiences, and has seasoned many disasters that would otherwise have wrought ruin and despair. At least one humorist of world-wide renown has sat in the President’s chair, and it would not be going too far to say that American diplomacy has achieved its greatest victories since the chair of state has been occupied by a gentleman who was noted for his humor long before his statesmanship had been put to the test.

First and last, humor has played a very large part in our political campaigns; in fact, it may be said that it has played almost as large a part as principles—which is the name that politicians give to their theories. It is a fact that is common to the experience of those who embark in politics that the happy allusion, the humorous anecdote, dramatically told—especially if it have the added perfection of timeliness—will change the whole prospects of a political struggle, even on the most extensive field.

The forms of humor that are preserved in the oral literature of the people are very dear to them, and for the best of reasons. It is based on their unique experiences; it is a part of their personality; it belongs to their history; and it seems, in some ways, to be an assurance of independence and strength, of sanity and wisdom, of honesty and simplicity. It need not be said that the hold which the name of Abraham Lincoln has upon the people of the whole country is based largely on the exquisite tact with which he handled the homely humor that runs riot among the common people. Other nations have wonder-tales and the various forms of folk-lore as it is known to our friends the scientists; but the folk-lore of the Republic consists almost wholly of humor, and, as it happens, it is the one quality, apart from religion—and it fits in capitally with that—necessary to keep all things sound and sweet and wholesome. Moreover, the humor that is characteristic of the American mind—that seems, indeed, to be its most natural and inevitable product—can be found in no other nation under the sun, for it is possible only where many mixtures of many peoples have been worked into one homogeneous whole on the broad basis of Anglo-Saxon and Celtic thought.

The selections that are presented as in some degree representative of American humor body forth only that which has assumed the tangible shape of print, and, while they are sufficiently distinctive, while they are alive and palpitating with the peculiarities that belong to our national experience, our climate, and our form of government, they are neither so peculiar nor so distinctive as the humor that belongs to our oral literature. We speak the English language, or—to be perfectly fair to the genial beef-eaters to whom we are related by blood and finance—a form of English dialect called American, and, whether we will or no, we are all the time trying to conform to the standards of written English in form and expression, and to the general trend of English methods that are to be found in what are termed the British classics. This is inevitable, and no fault is to be found with it; but, at the same time, the fact must be recognized that these forms and methods give rise to a certain degree of artificiality when an effort is made to fit American humor to their measure. In this sense, it could be said that all forms of literary expression are artificial in their nature, but it is not necessary to go so far or to lay undue stress on a poignant truth. The fact remains that the vernacular, as distinct from literary form and finish, is the natural vehicle of the most persistent and most popular variety of American humor: hence the frequent employment of what is called dialect. This necessity has had its influence abroad, and the typical American—the man who represents the common people—is supposed to be a person indifferent to the ordinary refinements of life—a careless galoot, indifferent to the course of events and utterly reckless.

Mr. Kipling’s ballad of an American takes the measure of this typical person as he is thought of abroad, and presents him at full length. It must be admitted that the figure Mr. Kipling draws is neither a heroic nor a pretty one; but this is because the poet is inclined to take American humor too seriously. It is far from meaning all it says, and the various antics which it reports as taking place before high heaven are merely pleasing inventions. The poet preserves the unities by placing the American spirit on the witness-stand, and this spirit, after venturing to make a list of incredible faults and virtues, announces that it will save the reckless American at last. American humor is a temperamental quality, and belongs to the many instead of a few chosen ones; and yet, when it is taken as seriously as our foreign friends are inclined to take it, its whole effect is destroyed, and we have a view, not of the genuine American, but of a grinning loafer at the corner grocery, who is willing to match with destiny for beers.

Nevertheless, the insight of the poet is superior to the impression made on him by American humor as a whole, and, in spite of his scorn for the outward aspect of the American, there is something fine and large and free in the figure he draws, for it is not to be denied that there is a certain grimness about the home-made portraits of ourselves painted by our humorists—something suggestive of the soil, in spite of prosperity and in the face of a material and commercial progress without a parallel. There is nothing attractive about them save to those who know something of the motives and the interior workings of the American mind, which, in spite of its humorous idiosyncrasies, stands for business, for the aggressive commercialism that has alarmed the world—and also for the tolerance, the sympathy, and broad views and the generous conceptions that are the basis and groundwork of humor the world over.

To take a concrete example: there seems to be a good deal of truth in the statement that Abraham Lincoln was a typical American; and a number of biographies have been written to prove it. These volumes deal with the events, the troubles, the doubts, the difficulties, the confusion of conflicting interests, the perplexities of the hour, the passions and the prejudices that swarmed about him, and they are exceedingly interesting in and of themselves; but not one of them presents the man as he was, and as the people conceived him to be. They knew perfectly well that the melancholy of which he was said to be the victim was merely the exaggeration of spectators, and that, at its worst, it was but the shadow of a deep-seated purpose—the gentle abstraction that shed a beautiful light on his desires, and that served as an exquisite foil for his humor. They knew that the sorrows from which he suffered merely sweetened his nature and strengthened his soul. It was his humor that was typical. In its exuberance, and in its apparent untimeliness—if we are to believe the reports of stupefied and astonished dignity—it was essentially the humor of the common people, the people who have made the Republic what it is, and who will continue to mold its destiny.

It is well to believe in the social and commercial scheme of salvation which the American spirit has mapped out for itself; for, always and everywhere, it remains true to the ideals represented by the promoters and organizers of the Republic. The American whom it represents has had little time for the enjoyment of luxury, or for the cultivation of the extra trimmings and embroideries of refinement. He has always had much to do; business pursues him as he pursues business; and yet, after all is said, his salute and his “so-long” go as far as those of any man in the world. He has been compelled to reorganize his own social organization to meet the demands made possible and pressing by the results of a great civil war; he has been called on to refashion and, in some sort, extend the operation of his political affairs, in order that he may keep pace with a sort of world development that he has inaugurated. Not only has he been compelled to remold the hordes of refugees from old-world tyranny that have come to these shores, but it has been in the line of his trade and traffic to seize the crowns nearest at hand and deposit them in the trash-pile; and to-day he feels that he is but bending to the will of destiny in carrying liberty and ultimate self-government to new peoples in the far islands of the south seas.

There are those, of course, who enter bitter protest against the American’s commercialism, his devotion to the projects of trade and material development; but, so long as he carries his humor into his business, all will be well. There are those, too, who are inclined to criticize his recent adventures in alien and unfriendly seas, declaring that these later exploits come dangerously near to committing the country to imperialism—the imperialism of which Mr. Kipling is the laureate. But, if crowns can have their imperialism, with poets to back them, why may not freedom and independence, freedom and self-government, have their nobler imperialism? And why may not this imperialism of liberty reach out for new lands and new peoples on which to impose the blessings that we are fondly supposed to enjoy? Why may not the imperialism of self-government spread until it becomes not only epidemic and contagious but confluent? To venture the suggestion is not to get very far away from the Spirit that spoke so loudly in the poet’s unbelieving ear.

It is intended that the selections to be found in these volumes shall have more than a passing and a particular interest. Rightly interpreted, they will answer many questions that have perplexed foreigners. First and foremost, men who can see their own weak points, and laugh at them more heartily than disinterested spectators, can be depended on not to wander far from their own ideals. In the light of his own humor, the American stands forth as the conqueror of circumstance, who has created for himself the most appalling responsibilities, which he undertakes and carries out with a wink and a nod, whistling a hymn or a rag-time tune, to show that he is neither weary nor down-hearted.