Why These Three Men Are Part Of Your Soul

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American Humor to be a light anthology, a compendium of native wit and wisdom, is in for a surprise. The book indeed teems with lore, but gathering it was only a first step. American Humor is a case study—a demonstration, using humor as a sample cultural trait, of Rourke’s central thesis: that a nation’s literature is an outgrowth of its folklore and popular culture, that “the strollers of the theater and of the cults and revivals, the innumerable comic storytellers and myth makers … made a groundwork for [American] literature.”

But Rourke’s ambitions were bigger still. The book’s subtitle, A Study of the National Character , reveals its scope. The title itself harbors a crucial pun. The book is, of course, about American humor—that is, our comic spirit—but it is also about the American humor: our national temperament. To talk about one is to talk about the other, for “there is scarcely an aspect of the American character,” wrote Rourke, “to which humor is not related, few which … it has not governed.” What allowed us to settle a vast and dangerous land, to create political structures that fostered an unprecedented degree of freedom, to inaugurate the machine age, was a deep resilience, an optimism, a sanguinity: a sense of humor.

In America the comic spirit took on its own, highly specific coloration. It was democratic, assaulting aristocracy and privilege. The values it fostered were flexibility and resilience, qualities essential in frontier life. Our humor, in other words, was improvisatory, our comic heroes capable of “sudden changes and adroit adaptations.” The popular theater, perhaps our emblematic early-nineteenth-century genre, was “full of experiment, finding its way to audiences by their quick responses and rejections.” Brougham and Burton, burlesque masters of the 1840s, could “improvise at random and at comical length, twisting a play to new effects offhand.” How could the American spirit have been other than improvisatory? By trial and error, fits and starts, we were inventing ourselves.

 

Whichever of its aspects one considers, American humor had a single, all-important function: “[It] created … a sense of unity among a people who were not yet a nation and who were seldom joined in stable communities.” Our tall tales and theatricals, said Rourke, “served the ends of communication among a people unacquainted with themselves, strange to the land, unshaped as a nation.” What Rourke tried to convey was nothing less than the collective, half-unconscious effort with which America willed itself into being.

Poring over her homely sources, Rourke sought what she called “ideal images, those symbols which peoples spontaneously adopt and by which in some measure they live.” American Humor ’s first three chapters—“Corn Cobs Twist Your Hair,” “The Gamecock of the Wilderness,” and “That Long-Tail’d Blue”—trace the emergence, between the Revolution and the mid-1820s, of three such symbols, her “comic trio”: the Yankee, the backwoodsman, and the Negro.

First to appear

was the bony-kneed Yankee, a swapper and a bargainer, protean, a master of disguise. Gestating in hidden colonial wellsprings, the Yankee sprang to life during the Revolution, as if created by the need for a rallying symbol. Born in New England, he soon became a national possession. In fact, American Humor ’s very first sentence shows him already at large, preparing to fleece a whole Southern village: “Toward evening of a midsummer day at the latter end of the eighteenth century a traveler was seen descending a steep red road into a fertile Carolina valley. He carried a staff and walked with a wide, fast, sprawling gait, his tall shadow cutting across the lengthening shadows….” Rourke’s semifictional style immediately marks hers as a singular brand of criticism. Not content merely to analyze myths, she wanted to reimagine them, to restore America’s living tradition to itself.

The “rhapsodic, leaping, crowing” backwoodsman vaulted onto the stage just after the War of 1812. Cheerfully indifferent to peril, he followed the bulging frontier, keeping a “comic oblivious tone” although “horror, terror, death were written large in the life of the rivers and forests.” The backwoodsman’s “heel-crackings and competitive matches,” wrote Rourke, “were like savage efforts to create strength for the tribe by exhibiting strength.” In one frontier tale an Ohio traveler in a dreadful swamp spies a beaver hat in the mud. It moves, and he gingerly lifts it with his whip. Beneath the hat is a man’s grinning head, which shouts, “Hello, stranger!” The traveler offers help, but the head refuses, saying he has a good horse under him.