Why These Three Men Are Part Of Your Soul

A reader expecting American Humor to be a light anthology, a compendium of native wit and wisdom, is in for a surprise. Rourke’s ambitions were far bigger than that.

It was easy for an East Coast Brahmin like Brooks to survey the heartlands and find them culturally barren. Rourke’s predisposition was different. Born (in 1885) and raised in the Midwest, she was the descendant of pioneers. A great-great-uncle, George Mayfield, had been kidnapped and raised by Creek Indians; he knew Davy Crockett and served as Andrew Jackson’s Creek interpreter. Perhaps afraid of being typecast, Rourke always downplayed her frontier heritage; still, the past had never been less than a living presence to her.

Brooks saw passionately but not very deeply. A usable past, Rourke showed, lay all around, but in corners previously considered beneath scholarly notice: almanacs, jokebooks, pioneer theatricals, minstrel shows, burlesques, handicrafts, carpentry, political speeches, Indian treaties, and religious revivals. These were the soil from which our finest artists and writers had sprung—the “rich traditional store,” she wrote, “from which consciously or unconsciously they have drawn.” The task of the critic was to unearth this buried heritage; the artist “will steep himself in the gathered light.”

Far from merely doing Brooks’s spadework, Rourke redrew the lines of his playing field. For her, culture was the entire spectrum of a people’s self-expressive products; Brooks, like most intellectuals of his day (and not a few in ours), saw culture as that spectrum’s upper frequencies only, as “the best that has been thought and known in the world,” in Matthew Arnold’s classic formulation —Culture, in other words, with a capital C. For Brooks, “culture” meant “high culture,” and between it and popular culture “there is no community,” he argued, “no genial middle ground.” No such abyss existed for Rourke. “The same character,” she emphasized in American Humor —the same few myths and collective images—“was at work on both levels.” A good part of her book’s power lies in the grand upward sweep of those myths and images from their bedrock of “songs and primitive ballads and a folk-theater and rude chronicles” through Hawthorne, Twain, and Whitman to the most ethereal of Emily Dickinson’s poems, the archest of Henry James’s musings.

For culture doesn’t trickle down from an elite, argued Rourke; it flows up from below: “American literature … has had roots in common soil.” In a memorable passage, she wrote of how our basic myths took shape in “the turbulent era of Jacksonian democracy, that stormy time when the whole mixed population of the United States seemed to pour into the streets of Washington.” The self-portraits Americans live by were painted by the many, not by the few. “These portraits,” wrote Rourke, “came up from below. They were the folk, they belonged to the mass of the people, and they belonged to the insurgent, the revolutionary class.”

Instead of focusing on solitary geniuses, Rourke, anticipating the much later work of social historians like England’s E. P. Thompson, Marc Bloch of the French Annales school and the American Herbert Gutman, was drawn to the crowd, the anonymous stream. If her first book, Trumpets of Jubilee , was a gallery of profiles, it was because its subjects—P. T. Barnum, Horace Greeley, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and a few others—had crystallized public longings. “The popular leader,” Rourke wrote in the foreword to Trumpets , “is nothing less than the vicarious crowd, registering … hopes and joys and conflicts and aspirations which may be crude and transitory, but none the less are the stuff out of which the foundations of social life are made.” The foreword to Trumpets reads like a manifesto. “In the expectancy of considerable rewards,” the new author said, “we shall fix our gaze upon success.” The same affirmative spirit launches American Humor . “This book has no quarrel with the American character,” announced Rourke; “one might as well dispute with some established feature in the natural landscape.” She wasn’t apologizing for the status quo; she was merely aware, and keenly so, that the treasure for which her contemporaries pined was already here, ripe for the harvest: a native tradition that was “various, subtle, sinewy, scant at times but not poor. …its makers had been the nation.” With that she left behind the representative individuals of Trumpets for her true subject: the throng, the populace, the protagonists of American Humor .


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