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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21). rn VOLUME XVII. Later National Literature, Part II.

IX. Minor Humorists

§ 3. New Tendencies after the Civil War

Besides its submission to the great American genius for commercialization, whatever national quality may be found in the humour of the last half century consists mainly in a tendency to regard fun-making as an end in itself rather than as an agent to criticism. Though no longer relying on the mechanical misspellings of Artemus Ward or Josh Billings, the next crop of humorists wrought effects in dialect rather than in character and preferred absurdities of their own invention to incongruities observed in the social scheme. Irony was alien to their minds, and satire, when they used it, took for its victims Mormons, mothers-in-law, undertakers, and other beings whose removal would in no way imperil the pillars of society. Jesters made it their function to tickle the sides of a nation content and prosperous, conscious of having made in the Civil War the great sacrifice of a generation, and confident after Grant’s election that the fruits of victory would be apportioned among the truly deserving. There may be significance in the fact that the two comic writers who deserted journalism for other professions became one a popular preacher the other a successful manufacturer and conspicuous advocate to high tariff. At any rate, the words prefixed to one of the most widely circulated humorous books of the time might well have served as a motto for them all: “Fun is the most conservative element of society, and it ought to be cherished and encouraged by all lawful means.”

Such being the case, the typical work of such humorists cannot stand high in comparison with the subtler manifestations of the Comic Spirit. That, at least, would be the conclusion if American humour were regarded as a mere stage in an inevitable progress from pioneer jocularity to urbane irony. But it is possible that the national preference for unreflective merriment is not thoughtless and immature, but deliberate, permanent, and full grown. While Americans can picture Lincoln deferring discussion of the Emancipation Proclamation to read aloud a chapter from Artemus Ward, the laughter of sheer full-throated relief may well seem to them more manly than the comedy that wakens thoughtful laughter. American humour, then, may claim to be of a different school from the comedy of the Old World, operating on human nature by the lenitives and tonics of mirth instead of by the scalpel of criticism.