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The death of Mr. "Josh Billings" may have diminished the stock of harmless pleasures, but can hardly be said to have eclipsed the gaiety of nations. In this country, at least, however it may have been in the States, Josh Billings was by no means the favourite or leading American humorist. If phonetic spelling were universal, much of his fun would disappear. His place was nearer that of Orpheus C. Kerr than of Artemus Ward, or of Mark Twain. It has long been the English habit to look for most of our broad fun across the Atlantic. Americans say we are not a funny people. A chivalrous and mediaeval French writer, not unfrequently quoted, once made a kindred remark. We are not at present a boisterously comic lot of geniuses, and if you see the tears running down the eyes of a fellow-countryman reading in a railway carriage, if he be writhing with mirth too powerful for expression, the odds are that he has got hold of a Yankee book.
In American country newspapers there is usually one column entirely devoted to facetiae, which appear to have been clipped out of the columns of other country papers. They live on each other, just as the natives of the Scilly Islands are feigned to eke out a precarious livelihood by taking in each other's washing. It is averred that one American journal, the Danbury Newsman, contains nothing but merriment--a fearful idea! We have nothing like this at home, and as for writers who make a reader giggle almost indelicately often, where are they to be found? "Happy Thoughts" affect some of us in this way; others are convulsed by "Vice Versa;" but, as George Eliot says, nothing is such a strain on the affections as a difference of taste in jokes. It is unsafe to recommend any writer as very funny. No man can ever tell how his neighbour will take a joke. But it may safely be said that authors who really tickle their students are extremely rare in England, except as writers for the stage, and surely "The Great Pink Pearl" might have made Timon of Athens shake his sides, or might convert a Veddah to the belief that "there is something to laugh at." In literature, when we want to be even hysterically diverted, we must, as a rule, buy our fun from the American humorists. If we cannot make laughter ourselves, at least we can, and do, laugh with them.
A vast amount of American humour may be called local and middle-class. In the youth of Dickens, there was a regular set of home-made middle-class jokes about babies, about washing-day, about mothers-in-law, about dinner- parties that were not successes, about curtain lectures, about feminine extravagance in bonnet-buying, about drunken men, about beer, all of them jokes worn threadbare. A similar kind of fun, with local differences, prevails in the States, but is wonderfully mixed up with scriptural and religious jokes. To us sober Britons, whatever our opinions, these latter japes appear more or less ribald, though they are quite innocently made.
Aristophanes, a pious conservative, was always laughing consumedly at the Greek gods, and the Greek gods were supposed to be in the joke. The theatrical season was sacred to the deity of wine and fun, and he, with the other Olympians, was not scandalized by the merriment. In the ages of faith it is also notorious that saints, and even more sacred persons, were habitually buffooned in the Mystery Plays, and the Church saw no harm. The old leaven of American Puritanism has the same kind of familiarity with ideas and words which we approach more delicately, conscious that the place where we tread is holy ground. This consciousness appears to be less present in the States, which are peopled by descendants of the Puritans, and scores of good things are told in "family" American journals and magazines which are received without a grin in this country. "We are not amused," a great person is reported to have once observed when some wit had ventured on a hazardous anecdote. And we, meaning the people of England, are often not amused, but rather vexed, by gaieties which appear absolutely harmless on the other side of the ocean. These two kinds of humour, the middle-class jokes about courting between lovers seated on a snake fence, or about Sunday schools and quaint answers there given to Biblical questions, leave us cold.
But surely we appreciate as well as the Americans themselves the extraordinarily intellectual high spirits of Mark Twain, a writer whose genius goes on mellowing, ripening, widening, and improving at an age when another man would have written himself out. His gravity in narrating the most preposterous tale, his sympathy with every one of his absurdest characters, his microscopic imagination, his vein of seriousness, his contrasts of pathos, his bursts of indignant plain speaking about certain national errors, make Mark Twain an author of the highest merit, and far remote from the mere buffoon. Say the "Jumping Frog" is buffoonery; perhaps it is, but Louis Quinze could not have classed the author among the people he did not love, les buffons qui ne me font rire. The man is not to be envied who does not laugh over the ride on "The Genuine Mexican Plug" till he is almost as sore as the equestrian after that adventure. Again, while studying the narrative of how Mark edited an agricultural paper in a country district, a person with any sense of humour is scarcely a responsible being. He is quite unfit (so doth he revel in laughter uncontrollable) for the society of staid people, and he ought to be ejected from club libraries, where his shouts waken the bald-headed sleepers of these retreats. It is one example of what we have tried to urge, that "Mark's way" is not nearly so acceptable in "The Innocents Abroad," especially when the Innocents get to the Holy Land. We think it in bad taste, for example, to snigger over the Siege of Samaria, and the discomfiture of "shoddy speculators" in curious articles of food during that great leaguer. Recently Mark Twain has shown in his Mississippi sketches, in "Tom Sawyer," and in "Hucklebury Finn," that he can paint a landscape, that he can describe life, that he can tell a story as well as the very best, and all without losing the gift of laughter. His travel-books are his least excellent; he is happiest at home, in the country of his own Blue Jay.
The contrasts, the energy, the mixture of races in America, the overflowing young life of the continent, doubtless give its humorists the richness of its vein. All over the land men are eternally "swopping stories" at bars, and in the long, endless journeys by railway and steamer. How little, comparatively, the English "swop stories"! The Scotch are almost as much addicted as the Americans to this form of barter, so are the Irish. The Englishman has usually a dignified dread of dropping into his "anecdotage."
The stories thus collected in America are the subsoil of American literary humour, a rich soil in which the plant cultivated by Mark Twain and Mr. Frank Stockton grows with vigour and puts forth fruit and flowers. Mr. Stockton is very unlike Mark Twain: he is quiet, domesticated, the jester of the family circle. Yet he has shown in "Rudder Grange," and in "The Transferred Ghost," very great powers, and a pleasant, dry kind of Amontillado flavour in his fun, which somewhat reminds one of Thackeray--the Thackeray of the "Bedford-row Conspiracy" and of "A Little Dinner at Timmins." Mr. Stockton's vein is a little too connubial--a little too rich in the humours and experiences of young married people. But his fun is rarely strained or artificial, except in the later chapters of "Rudder Grange," and he has a certain kindliness and tenderness not to be always met with in the jester. His angling and hunting pieces are excellent, and so are those of Mr. Charles Dudley Warner. This humorist (like Alceste) was once "funnier than he had supposed," when he sat down with a certain classical author, to study the topography of Epipolae. But his talent is his own, and very agreeable, though he once so forgot himself as to jest on the Deceased Wife's Sister. When we think of those writers to whom we all owe so much, it would be sheer ingratitude to omit the name of the master of them all, Oliver Wendell Holmes. Here is a wit who is a scholar, and almost a poet, and whose humour is none the less precious for being accompanied by good humour, learning, a wide experience of the world. With Mr. Lowell, he belongs to an older generation, yet reigns among the present. May the reign be long!
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