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American Humour

One of the most popular of American humorists has elicited from a member of an English audience, who did not quite hear him lecture, a remark of an amusing sort. The aggrieved listener proclaimed that he "had a right to hear." This was one of the turbulent people who should read Mazzini, and learn that man has no rights worth mentioning--only duties, one of which is to hold his tongue in season. If Mr. Bret Harte's words did not reach all his audience, his writings at least have come home to most English readers. They suggest a consideration of the many points of difference which distinguish American from English humour. The Americans are of our own stock, yet in their treatment of the ludicrous how unlike us they are! As far as fun goes, the race has certainly become "differentiated," as the philosophers say, on the other side of the Atlantic. It does not seem probable that the infusion of alien blood has caused the difference. The native redskin can claim few descendants among the civilized Americans, and the native redskin had no sense of humour. We all remember Cooper's Hawk-eye or Leather Stocking, with his "peculiar silent laugh." He was obliged to laugh silently for fear of attracting the unfavourable notice of the Mingo, who might be hiding in the nearest bush. The red men found it simpler and safer not to laugh at all. No, it is not from the natives that the people of the States get their peculiar fun. As to the German emigrants--But why pursue the subject? The Abbe Bouhours told the bitter truth about German wit, though, in new conditions and on a fresh soil, the Teuton has helped to produce Hans Breitmann. We laugh at Hans, however, and with his creator. Hans does not make us laugh by conscious efforts of humour. Whence, then, come Artemus Ward, Mark Twain, and Mr. Bret Harte, who are probably the American humorists whose popularity is widest? Mr. Bret Harte's own fun is much more English and less thoroughly Yankee than that of his contemporaries. He is a disciple of Thackeray and Dickens. Of all the pupils of Dickens he is perhaps the only one who has continued to be himself, who has not fallen into a trick of aping his master's mannerisms. His mixture of the serious, the earnest, the pathetic, makes his humour not unlike the melancholy mirth of Thackeray and Sterne. He is almost the only American humorist with sentiment. It is only the air, not the spirit, that is changed--coelum non animus.

The changed atmosphere, the new conditions, do, however, make an immense superficial difference between the humour even of Mr. Bret Harte and that of English writers. His fun is derived from the vagaries of huge, rough people, with the comic cruelty of the old Danes, and with the unexpected tenderness of a sentimental time. The characters of the great Texan and Californian drama are like our hackneyed friends, the Vikings, with a touch, if we may use the term, of spooniness. Their humour is often nothing more than a disdainful trifling with death; they seize the comic side of manslaughter very promptly, and enjoy all the mirth that can be got out of revolvers and grizzly bears. In Mr. Bret Harte's poems of "The Spelling Bee" and of "The Break-up of the Society upon the Stanislaw," the fun is of this practical sort. The innate mirthfulness of a chunk of old red sandstone is illustrated, and you are introduced to people who not only take delight of battle with their peers, but think the said battle the most killing joke in the world. The incongruities of these revels of wild men in a new world; their confusion when civilization meets them in the shape of a respectable woman or of a baby; their grotesque way of clinging to religion, as they understand it, make up the transatlantic element in this American humour. The rest of it is "European quite," though none the worse for that. It is more humane, on the whole, than the laughable and amazing paradoxes of Mark Twain, or the naivetes of Artemus Ward.

Two remarkable features in American humour, as it is shown in the great body of comic writers who are represented by Mark Twain and the "Genial Showman," are its rusticity and its puritanism. The fun is the fun of rough villagers, who use quaint, straightforward words, and have developed, or carried over in the Mayflower, a slang of their own. They do not want anything too refined; they are not in the least like the farm- lad to whose shirt a serpent clung as he was dressing after bathing. Many people have read how he fled into the farm-yard, where the maidens were busy; how he did not dare to stop, and sought escape, not from woman's help--he was too modest--but in running so fast that, obedient to the laws of centrifugal motion, the snake waved out behind him like a flag. The village wits are not so shy. The young ladies, like Betsy Ward, say, "If you mean getting hitched, I'm on." The public is not above the most practical jokes, and a good deal of the amusement is derived from the extreme dryness, the countrified slowness of the narrative. The humorists are Puritans at bottom, as well as rustics. They have an amazing familiarity with certain religious ideas and certain Biblical terms. There is a kind of audacity in their use of the Scriptures, which reminds one of the freedom of mediaeval mystery-plays. Probably this boldness began, not in scepticism or in irreverence, but in honest familiar faith. It certainly seems very odd to us in England, and probably expressions often get a laugh which would pass unnoticed in America. An astounding coolness and freedom of manners probably go for something in the effect produced by American humour. There is nothing of the social flunkeyism in it which too often marks our own satirists. Artemus Ward's reports of his own conversations with the mighty of the earth were made highly ludicrous by the homely want of self-consciousness, displayed by the owner of the Kangaroo, that "amoosin' little cuss," and of the "two moral B'ars." But it is vain to attempt to analyze the fun of Artemus Ward. Why did he make some people laugh till they cried, while others were all untouched? His secret probably was almost entirely one of manner, a trick of almost idiotic naivete, like that of Lord Dundreary, covering real shrewdness. He had his rustic chaff, his Puritan profanity; his manner was the essence of his mirth. It was one of the ultimate constituents of the ludicrous, beyond which it is useless to inquire.

With Mark Twain we are on smoother ground. An almost Mephistophilean coolness, an unwearying search after the comic sides of serious subjects, after the mean possibilities of the sublime,--these, with a native sense of incongruities and a glorious vein of exaggeration, make up his stock- in-trade. The colossal exaggeration is, of course, natural to a land of ocean-like rivers and almighty tall pumpkins. No one has made such charming use of the trick as Mark Twain. The dryness of the story of a greenhorn's sufferings who had purchased "a genuine Mexican plug," is one of the funniest things in literature. The intense gravity and self-pity of the sufferer, the enormous and Gargantuan feats of his steed, the extreme distress of body thence resulting, make up a passage more moving than anything in Rabelais. The same contrast, between an innocent style of narrative and the huge palpable nonsense of the story told, marks the tale of the agricultural newspaper which Mr. Twain edited. To a joker of jokes of this sort, a tour through Palestine presented irresistible attractions. It is when we read of the "Innocents Abroad" that we discern the weak point of American humour when carried to its extreme. Here, indeed, is the place where the most peculiarly American fun has always failed. It has lacked reverence and sympathy, and so, when it was most itself, never approached the masterpieces of Thackeray and Dickens. To balance its defect by its merit, American humour has always dared to speak out, and Mark Twain especially has hit hard the errors of public opinion and the dishonest compromises of custom.


Andrew Lang