By the 1840s American literature tradition had become fascinated with the frontier. The rural folk humor of the “Devil’s Fork” letters that a young Charles Fenton Mercer Noland (1810–1858) of central Arkansas began writing in 1837 was something the country wanted. His pieces were published regularly in New York’s Spirit of the Times, and he quickly achieved a reputation as one of the southwest’s best humorists. His tall tales told in dialect reflected the peculiar characteristics of the people of a backwoods region.
Noland’s semiautobiographical “Letters” were built around the experiences of Pete Whetstone, who, along with his neighbors, devoted himself to hunting, fishing, and an outdoors lifestyle. Through his first-person narration readers were able to experience an ideal southwest frontier existence. Here was a land of natural beauty, with clear rivers, forested mountains, and abundant game, a place where a person could live a free and rustic lifestyle.
Here too were horse races and bear fights, politics and balls. Unfortunately for Noland, an early death cut short a promising career. Had he lived longer and written more, he could have become one of America’s great nineteenth-century humorists. Midcentury America was certainly looking for one.
What do Jon Stewart, Freddy Krueger, Patch Adams, and George W. Bush have in common? As Paul Lewis shows in Cracking Up, they are all among the ranks of joke tellers who aim to do much more than simply amuse. Exploring topics that range from the sadistic mockery of Abu Ghraib prison guards to New Age platitudes about the healing power of laughter, from jokes used to ridicule the possibility of global climate change to the heartwarming performances of hospital clowns, Lewis demonstrates that over the past thirty years American humor has become increasingly purposeful and embattled.
Navigating this contentious world of controversial, manipulative, and disturbing laughter, Cracking Up argues that the good news about American humor in our time—that it is delightful, relaxing, and distracting—is also the bad news. In a culture that both enjoys and quarrels about jokes, humor expresses our most nurturing and hurtful impulses, informs and misinforms us, and exposes as well as covers up the shortcomings of our leaders. Wondering what’s so funny about a culture determined to laugh at problems it prefers not to face, Lewis reveals connections between such seemingly unrelated jokers as Norman Cousins, Hannibal Lecter, Rush Limbaugh, Garry Trudeau, Jay Leno, Ronald Reagan, Beavis and Butt-Head, and Bill Clinton. The result is a surprising, alarming, and at times hilarious argument that will appeal to anyone interested in the ways humor is changing our cultural and political landscapes.
Joe Blundo began his writing career at the Columbus Dispatch in 1978 and has been writing about Columbus ever since. In 1997, Joe was given his own column titled “So to Speak,” which quickly became one of the most popular sections of the paper. Raccoon dinners, Abe Lincoln impersonators, and things in nature that aren’t fair are just a few of the topics Blundo explores in this collection of the best of his newspaper columns. The columns range from hilarious to poignant to indignant—but all contain his unique voice and somewhat tilted way of looking at life. He’s especially drawn to the quirks that make Columbus what it is, people with a passion they can’t stop talking about, and recording the milestones in his family’s life. Sometimes he spouts off on the big issues of the day but more often he looks for the little things that others might not notice.
When wielded by the white majority, ethnic humor can be used to ridicule and demean marginalized groups. In the hands of ethnic minorities themselves, ethnic humor can work as a site of community building and resistance. In nearly all cases, however, ethnic humor can serve as a window through which to examine the complexities of American race relations. In Ethnic Humor in Multiethnic America, David Gillota explores the ways in which contemporary comic works both reflect and participate in national conversations about race and ethnicity.
Gillota investigates the manner in which various humorists respond to multiculturalism and the increasing diversity of the American population. Rather than looking at one or two ethnic groups at a time—as is common scholarly practice—the book focuses on the interplay between humorists from different ethnic communities. While some comic texts project a fantasy world in which diverse ethnic characters coexist in a rarely disputed harmony, others genuinely engage with the complexities and contradictions of multiethnic America.
The first chapter focuses on African American comedy with a discussion of such humorists as Paul Mooney and Chris Rock, who tend to reinforce a black/white vision of American race relations. This approach is contrasted to the comedy of Dave Chappelle, who looks beyond black and white and uses his humor to place blackness within a much wider multiethnic context.
Chapter 2 concentrates primarily on the Jewish humorists Sarah Silverman, Larry David, and Sacha Baron Cohen—three artists who use their personas to explore the peculiar position of contemporary Jews who exist in a middle space between white and other.
In chapter 3, Gillota discusses different humorous constructions of whiteness, from a detailed analysis of South Park to “Blue Collar Comedy” and the blog Stuff White People Like.
Chapter 4 is focused on the manner in which animated children’s film and the network situation comedy often project simplified and harmonious visions of diversity. In contrast, chapter 5 considers how many recent works, such as Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle and the Showtime series Weeds, engage with diversity in more complex and productive ways.
For more than a quarter-century, despite the admirable excavations that have unearthed such humorists as John Gorman Barr and Marcus Lafayette, the most significant of the humorists from the Old Southwest have remained the same: Crockett, Longstreet, Thompson, Baldwin, Thorpe, Hooper, Robb, Harris, and Lewis. Forming a kind of shadow canon in American literature that led to Mark Twain’s early work, from 1834 to 1867 these authors produced a body of writing that continues to reward attentive readers.
James H. Justus’s Fetching the Old Southwest examines this writing in the context of other discourses contemporaneous with it: travel books, local histories, memoirs, and sports manuals, as well as unpublished private forms such as personal correspondence, daybooks, and journals. Like most writing, humor is a product of its place and time, and the works studied herein are no exception. The antebellum humorists provide an important look into the social and economic conditions that were prevalent in the southern “new country,” a place that would, in time, become the Deep South.
Justus’s study focuses mainly on the humor from the area categorized in the federal censuses of the mid-nineteenth century as the Southwest: Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Kentucky, Tennessee, and, eventually, Arkansas and Texas. Where it is pertinent, he also includes North Carolina and Missouri in this cultural map. Although some of these pieces may not precisely reflect their cultural setting, they are assuredly refractions of it.
While previous books about Old Southwest humor have focused on individual authors, Justus has produced the first critical study to encompass all of the humor from this time period. Teachers and students of literary history will appreciate the incredible range of documentation, both primary and secondary.
Huckleberry Finn dressing as a girl is a famously comic scene in Mark Twain’s novel but hardly out of character—for the author, that is. Twain “troubled gender” in much of his otherwise traditional fiction, depicting children whose sexual identities are switched at birth, tomboys, same-sex married couples, and even a male French painter who impersonates his own fictive sister and becomes engaged to another man.
This book explores Mark Twain’s extensive use of cross-dressing across his career by exposing the substantial cast of characters who masqueraded as members of the opposite sex or who otherwise defied gender expectations. Linda Morris grounds her study in an understanding of the era’s theatrical cross-dressing and changing mores and even events in the Clemens household. She examines and interprets Twain’s exploration of characters who transgress gendered conventions while tracing the degree to which themes of gender disruption interact with other themes, such as his critique of race, his concern with death in his classic “boys’ books,” and his career-long preoccupation with twins and twinning.
Approaching familiar texts in surprising new ways, Morris reexamines the relationship between Huck and Jim; discusses racial and gender crossing in Pudd’nhead Wilson; and sheds new light on Twain’s difficulty in depicting the most famous cross-dresser in history, Joan of Arc. She also considers a number of his later “transvestite tales” that feature transgressive figures such as Hellfire Hotchkiss, who is hampered by her “misplaced sex.”
Morris challenges views of Twain that see his work as reinforcing traditional notions of gender along sharply divided lines. She shows that Twain depicts cross-dressing sometimes as comic or absurd, other times as darkly tragic—but that even at his most playful, he contests traditional Victorian notions about the fixity of gender roles.
Analyzing such characteristics of Twain’s fiction as his fascination with details of clothing and the ever-present element of play, Morris shows us his understanding that gender, like race, is a social construction—and above all a performance. Gender Play in Mark Twain: Cross-Dressing and Transgression broadens our understanding of the writer as it lends rich insight into his works.
Hysterical!: Women in American Comedy
Edited by Linda Mizejewski and Victoria Sturtevant; foreword by Kathleen Rowe Karlyn University of Texas Press, 2017 Library of Congress PN1590.W64H97 2017 | Dewey Decimal 792.7028092
Ideal for classroom use, this anthology of original essays by the leading authorities on women’s comedy surveys the disorderly, subversive, and unruly performances of women comics from silent film to contemporary multimedia
Winner, Susan Koppleman Award for Best Anthology, Multi-Authored, or Edited Book in Feminist Studies, Popular and American Culture Associations (PACA), 2017
Amy Schumer, Samantha Bee, Mindy Kaling, Melissa McCarthy, Tig Notaro, Leslie Jones, and a host of hilarious peers are killing it nightly on American stages and screens large and small, smashing the tired stereotype that women aren’t funny. But today’s funny women aren’t a new phenomenon—they have generations of hysterically funny foremothers. Fay Tincher’s daredevil stunts, Mae West’s linebacker walk, Lucille Ball’s manic slapstick, Carol Burnett’s athletic pratfalls, Ellen DeGeneres’s tomboy pranks, Whoopi Goldberg’s sly twinkle, and Tina Fey’s acerbic wit all paved the way for contemporary unruly women, whose comedy upends the norms and ideals of women’s bodies and behaviors.
Hysterical! Women in American Comedy delivers a lively survey of women comics from the stars of the silent cinema up through the multimedia presences of Tina Fey and Lena Dunham. This anthology of original essays includes contributions by the field’s leading authorities, introducing a new framework for women’s comedy that analyzes the implications of hysterical laughter and hysterically funny performances. Expanding on previous studies of comedians such as Mae West, Moms Mabley, and Margaret Cho, and offering the first scholarly work on comedy pioneers Mabel Normand, Fay Tincher, and Carol Burnett, the contributors explore such topics as racial/ethnic/sexual identity, celebrity, stardom, censorship, auteurism, cuteness, and postfeminism across multiple media. Situated within the main currents of gender and queer studies, as well as American studies and feminist media scholarship, Hysterical! masterfully demonstrates that hysteria—women acting out and acting up—is a provocative, empowering model for women’s comedy.
Lincoln's Sense of Humor
Richard Carwardine Southern Illinois University Press, 2017 Library of Congress E457.2.C355 2017 | Dewey Decimal 973.7092
Winner, Abraham Lincoln Institute Book Prize, 2018
Winner, ISHS Annual Award for a Scholarly Publication, 2018
Abraham Lincoln was the first president to make storytelling, jokes, and laughter tools of the office, and his natural sense of humor has become legendary. Lincoln’s Sense of Humor registers the variety, complexity of purpose, and ethical dimension of Lincoln’s humor and pinpoints the political risks Lincoln ran in telling jokes while the nation was engaged in a bloody struggle for existence.
Complete with amusing anecdotes, this book shows how Lincoln’s uses of humor evolved as he matured and explores its versatility, range of expressions, and multiple sources: western tall tales, morality stories, bawdy jokes, linguistic tricks, absurdities, political satire, and sharp wit. While Lincoln excelled at self-mockery, nothing gave him greater pleasure than satirical work lampooning hypocrisy and ethical double standards. He particularly enjoyed David R. Locke’s satiric writings by Petroleum V. Nasby, a fictional bigoted secessionist preacher, and the book explores the nuances of Lincoln’s enthusiasm for what he called Locke’s genius, showing the moral springs of Lincoln’s humor.
Richard Carwardine methodically demonstrates that Lincoln’s funny stories were the means of securing political or personal advantage, sometimes by frontal assault on opponents but more often by depiction through parable, obfuscation through hilarity, refusal through wit, and diversion through cunning. Throughout his life Lincoln worked to develop the humorist’s craft and hone the art of storytelling. His jokes were valuable in advancing his careers as politician and lawyer and in navigating his course during a storm-tossed presidency. His merriness, however, coexisted with self-absorbed contemplation and melancholy. Humor was his lifeline; dark levity acted as a tonic, giving Lincoln strength to tackle the severe challenges he faced. At the same time, a reputation for unrestrained, uncontrollable humor gave welcome ammunition to his political foes. In fact, Lincoln’s jocularity elicited waves of criticism during his presidency. He was dismissed as a “smutty joker,” a “first rate second rate man,” and a “joke incarnated.”
Since his death, Lincoln’s anecdotes and jokes have become detached from the context that had given them their political and cultural bite, losing much of the ironic and satiric meaning that he had intended. With incisive analysis and laugh-inducing examples, Carwardine helps to recapture a strong component of Lincoln’s character and reanimates the good humor of our sixteenth president.
Of Huck and Alice was first published in 1983. Minnesota Archive Editions uses digital technology to make long-unavailable books once again accessible, and are published unaltered from the original University of Minnesota Press editions.
Huck Finn and Alice B. Toklas allow Mark Twain and Gertrude Stein to slip away from the cramped and smothery intentions of proper writing. Like Krazy Kat, who transforms the hurt of Ignatz Mouse's brick into humorous bliss, Huck and Alice brilliantly misrepresent painful authority. As exemplars of humorous skepticism, Mark Twain and Gertrude Stein are at the center of this far-ranging book that begins with an examination of Jacksonian dialect humor, ends with an account of the humorous style in post-modern American fiction, and considers along the way the sweet parlance of Krazy Kat, the meaning of Harpo Marx's silence, and the iconicity of Woody Allen's face. Schmitz's analysis of the humorous style explores the texture of its language, discusses its preferred forms, and shows how the humorist frames his or her question within the text.
From 1929 to the latest issue, American Literature has been the foremost journal expressing the findings of those who study our national literature. American Literature has published the best work of literary historians, critics, and bibliographers, ranging from the founders of discipline to the best current critics and researchers. The longevity of this excellence lends a special distinction to the articles in American Literature.
Presented in order of their first appearance, the articles in each volume constitute a revealing record of developing insights and important shifts of critical emphasis. Each article has opened a fresh line of inquiry, established a fresh perspective on a familiar topic, or settled a question that engaged the interest of experts.
The rollicking tales of Old Southwestern humor were a distinctive contribution to American folk culture provided by the frontiersmen of the South and Southwest, a tradition brought to its highest form in the work of Mark Twain. Among the precursors of Twain was John Gorman Barr of Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Like Twain, Barr grew up in a river town, worked in a printing office, and traveled widely; and again like Twain, Barr drew upon the people and places of his home region as the primary sources for his tales.
In addition to the pure entertainment Barr’s stories provide, they also furnish a comprehensive picture of Tuscaloosa and western Alabama in the 1850s—the roaring river town coexisting uneasily with the intellectual sophistication of the recently established University of Alabama.
“Seeing Mad” is an illustrated volume of scholarly essays about the popular and influential humor magazine Mad, with topics ranging across its 65-year history—up to last summer’s downsizing announcement that Mad will publish less new material and will be sold only in comic book shops.
Mad magazine stands near the heart of post-WWII American humor, but at the periphery in scholarly recognition from American cultural historians, including humor specialists. This book fills that gap, with perceptive, informed, engaging, but also funny essays by a variety of scholars. The chapters, written by experts on humor, comics, and popular culture, cover the genesis of Mad; its editors and prominent contributors; its regular features and departments and standout examples of their contents; perspectives on its cultural and political significance; and its enduring legacy in American culture.
What we have here is another mighty slim volume from Michael Feldman, best known (when known at all) for his public radio show "Whad'ya Know" (sic). Feldman, who spouts off about things he knows "not much" about weekly, here writes them down:
· how to get your own radio show and what you can do with it once you do
· marriage (or as Feldman likes to refer to it, "a long-term bad relationship")
· child-rearing (although it sounds like it's the author who is being reared)
· a number of short pieces on places he and his crew have visited for their "remote possibilities"
· more references to "gentiles" than absolutely necessary (seems to be an issue for Feldman, although he is tickled with the
notion that, to a Mormon, he is one)
· some attempts to misrepresent scientific or social research for humorous purposes
· many personal revelations that prove the examined life is not necessarily worth living either
· and pages and pages of fluff.
Mr. Feldman has not been compared, to our knowledge, to S. J. Perlman.
But here is some of what Michael Feldman says in Something I Said:
"The paranoid no longer is: paranoia has outlived its usefulness when everybody is out to get us."
"Take the phrase 'no problem': I can use it, although it is the very opposite of my two-word world view ('Nothing works')."
"Whatever latitude beauty may have in the eye of the beholder, funny is not readily apparent to all, and, who knows, they may be right. More importantly, they may be bigger."
Includes a music CD by Michael Feldman and John Sieger.
If, as some suggest, American literature began with Huckleberry Finn, then the humorists of the Old South surely helped us to shape that literature. Twain himself learned to write by reading the humorists’ work, and later writers were influenced by it. This book marks the first new collection of humor from that region published in fifteen years—and the first fresh selection of sketches and tales to appear in over forty years.
Thomas Inge and Ed Piacentino bring their knowledge of and fondness for this genre to a collection that reflects the considerable body of scholarship that has been published on its major figures and the place of the movement in American literary history. They breathe new life into the subject, gathering a new selection of texts and adding Twain—the only major American author to contribute to and emerge from the movement—as well as several recently identified humorists.
All of the major writers are represented, from Augustus Baldwin Longstreet to Thomas Bangs Thorpe, as well as a great many lesser-known figures like Hamilton C. Jones, Joseph M. Field, and John S. Robb. The anthology also includes several writers only recently discovered to be a part of the tradition, such as Joseph Gault, Christopher Mason Haile, James Edward Henry, and Marcus Lafayette Byrn, and features authors previously overlooked, such as William Gilmore Simms, Ham Jones, Orlando Benedict Mayer, and Adam Summer.
Selections are timely, reflecting recent trends in literary history and criticism sensitive to issues of gender, race, and ethnicity. The editors have also taken pains to seek out first printings to avoid the kinds of textual corruptions that often occur in later versions of these sketches. Southern Frontier Humor offers students and general readers alike a broad perspective and new appreciation of this singular form of writing from the Old South—and provides some chuckles along the way.
Following the most solemn moments in recent American history, comedians have tested the limits of how soon is “too soon” to joke about tragedy. Comics confront the horrifying events and shocking moments that capture national attention and probe the acceptable, or “sayable,” boundaries of expression that shape our cultural memory. In Tragedy Plus Time, Philip Scepanski examines the role of humor, particularly televised comedy, in constructing and policing group identity and memory in the wake of large-scale events.
Tragedy Plus Time is the first comprehensive work to investigate tragedy-driven comedy in the aftermaths of such traumas as the JFK assassination and 9/11, as well as during the administration of Donald Trump. Focusing on the mass publicization of television comedy, Scepanski considers issues of censorship and memory construction in the ways comedians negotiate emotions, politics, war, race, and Islamophobia. Amid the media frenzy and conflicting expressions of grief following a public tragedy, comedians provoke or risk controversy to grapple publicly with national traumas that all Americans are trying to understand for themselves.
Throughout the first half of the nineteenth century, America was captivated by a muddled notion of “etymology.” New England Transcendentalism was only one outcropping of a nationwide movement in which schoolmasters across small-town America taught students the roots of words in ways that dramatized religious issues and sparked wordplay.
Shaped by this ferment, our major romantic authors shared the sensibility that Friedrich Schlegel linked to punning and christened “romantic irony.” Notable punsters or etymologists all, they gleefully set up as sages, creating jocular masterpieces from their zest for oracular wordplay. Their search for a primal language lurking beneath all natural languages provided them with something like a secret language that encodes their meanings. To fathom their essentially comic masterpieces we must decipher it.
Interpreting Thoreau as an ironic moralist, satirist, and social critic rather than a nature-loving mystic, Transcendental Wordplay suggests that the major American Romantics shared a surprising conservatism. In this award-winning study, Professor West rescues the pun from critical contempt and allows readers to enjoy it as a serious form of American humor.
A Very Serious Thing was first published in 1988. Minnesota Archive Editions uses digital technology to make long-unavailable books once again accessible, and are published unaltered from the original University of Minnesota Press editions.
"It is a very serious thing to be a funny woman." –Frances Miriam Berry Whitcher
A Very Serious Thing is the first book-length study of a part of American literature that has been consistently neglected by scholars and underrepresented in anthologies—American women's humorous writing. Nancy Walker proposes that the American humorous tradition to be redefined to include women's humor as well as men's, because, contrary to popular opinion, women do have a sense of humor.
Her book draws on history, sociology, anthropology, literature, and psychology to posit that the reasons for neglect of women's humorous expression are rooted in a male-dominated culture that has officially denied women the freedom and self-confidence essential to the humorist. Rather than a study of individual writers, the book is an exploration of relationships between cultural realities—including expectations of "true womanhood"—and women's humorous response to those realities.
Humorous expression, Walker maintains, is at odds with the culturally sanctioned ideal of the "lady," and much of women's humor seems to accept, while actually denying, this ideal. In fact, most of American women's humorous writing has been a feminist critique of American culture and its attitudes toward women, according to the author.
In Wit’s End, Sean Zwagerman offers an original perspective on women’s use of humor as a performative strategy as seen in works of twentieth-century American literature. He argues that women whose direct, explicit performative speech has been traditionally denied, or not taken seriously, have often turned to humor as a means of communicating with men.
The book examines both the potential and limits of women’s humor as a rhetorical strategy in the writings of James Thurber, Zora Neale Hurston, Dorothy Parker, Edward Albee, Louise Erdrich, and others. For Zwagerman, these texts “talk back” to important arguments in humor studies and speech-act theory. He deconstructs the use of humor in select passages by employing the theories of J. L. Austin, John Searle, Jacques Derrida, Shoshana Felman, J. Hillis Miller, and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick. Zwagerman offers arguments both for and against these approaches while advancing new thinking on humor as the “end”—both the goal and limit—of performative strategy, and as a means of expressing a full range of serious purposes.
Zwagerman contends that women’s humor is not solely a subversive act, but instead it should be viewed in the total speech situation through context, motives, and intended audience. Not strictly a transgressive influence, women’s humor is seen as both a social corrective and a reinforcement of established ideologies. Humor has become an epistemology, an “attitude” or slant on one’s relation to society.
Zwagerman seeks to broaden the scope of performativity theory beyond the logical pragmatism of deconstruction and looks to the use of humor in literature as a deliberate stylization of experiences found in real-world social structures, and as a tool for change.