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From Robert Benchley To Andrew Dice Clay
Is the kind of humor popular today another symptom of the general erosion of civil discourse? Maybe, says a man who has spent a good deal of his life being funny; but more likely it’s just a vigorous breeze from the American frontier.
October 1993 | Volume 44, Issue 6
I came to Mark Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson late in life and raced through it in two days, which is rare speed for me. I was totally engrossed. It is late Twain. He is edging toward contempt for the universe, but he’s not there yet. Hannibal, the town of glorious childhood, has become Dawson’s Landing, where a man of wit and intelligence is cast out as a fool.
It’s about slavery. The plot is jerrybuilt, creaky, and based on the old mixed-up-twins story. There are implausible Italian visitors, Luigi and Angelo, whom I took to be Italian rather than, say, Russian or Turkish, only because Mark Twain had probably traveled in Italy and fallen in love with it. They do, however, serve to make the silly dueling, which is essential to the plot, slightly plausible.
Implausibility and melodrama are rampant. There is a villain so despicable that he sells his own mother down the river. At the end Twain faces the exquisitely difficult problem of portraying the psychological and social adjustments that would have to be made by a man who has grown up as a black slave and suddenly learns that he is white and free. Twain deals with this problem by not dealing with it at all. He simply lets the whole matter slide, as though he can’t wait to be finished with the damned book.
It is by many definitions a bad book, yet it is marvelous. A couldn’t-put-it-down page turner. Mark Twain is the most readable of writers even when not in top form.
I set all this down with considerable amusement at my own presumption. It shows how wondrously a man’s self-esteem may increase after he has been forty or fifty years out of school. Here am I, overly full of years and self, taking the liberty of criticizing Mark Twain as though he were human.
Still, it has done my mind a world of good. Scowling at the imperfections of Pudd’nhead Wilson made me realize how consistently two very different strands run through American humor, and while I refuse to stoop to saying, “Never the twain shall meet,” the truth is that they ^^ usually don’t. Defining them to a graduate student’s satisfaction would produce ten yards of academic prose ponderous enough to buckle a mule’s knees, so I won’t try it. The distinctions may be easier to grasp if we keep in mind why Mark Twain and The New Yorker would not have made a happy marriage.
I am speaking now of Harold Ross’s New Yorker , the magazine of James Thurber, Robert Benchley, E. B. White, and S. J. Perelman with the elegant editing of Ross himself, Katherine S. White, and William Shawn. I think that if Mark Twain had submitted Pudd’nhead to that New Yorker , he would have got back one of those polite notes in which editors say that while there is much to admire in your manuscript, they are afraid it’s just not for them.
And there is the nub of the matter: Mark Twain was not for The New Yorker , and not simply because the magazine didn’t exist in Twain’s time. Mark Twain was not for The New Yorker for the same reason that James Thurber was not for National Lampoon .
Twain was Western, The New Yorker Eastern. Twain came out of nineteenth-century frontier culture, meaning a world with no memory older than last week. The New Yorker , though modern as skirts above the knee, represented an Atlantic-seaboard culture with a memory that reached back to a time when Americans were colonials and considered themselves English. With a little streamlining, Benjamin Franklin’s “Silence Dogood” humor columns of 1728 would have been right at home in The New Yorker . In the Spectator pieces of Joseph Addison and Richard Steele, Englishmen working in the early 170Os, you see a couple of embryonic New Yorker staff writers.
I don’t want to overstate the case. The New Yorker has conditioned me to eschew overstatement. If fancy Easterners of post-Civil War America considered Twain a rustic vulgarian, the quality folk of Europe adored him. Oxford gave him a degree. Distinguished English writers like Robert Browning, Lewis Carroll, and Anthony Trollope wanted to be introduced when he came to Britain.
The trouble at home was our long-cultivated sense of inferiority to everything European. In the overstuffed parlors of striving nineteenth-century America he was a potential embarrassment. You could never be sure he wouldn’t say something to embarrass the whole family when you had the preacher in for Sunday dinner.
Twain’s was the voice of the country’s frontier newness, brashness, vigor, disdain for the polite and genteel. It was a voice that enjoyed shocking the squeamish, mocking the piously upright, and laughing at the earnest fraudulence so deeply embed. ded in American life. The problern, of course, was that America was painfully insecure about frontier vigor and newness. Even Abraham Lincoln’s frontier humor seemed to embarrass more Americans than it entertained.