AMERICA'S HUMOR: From Poor Richard to Doonesbury by Walter & Hamlin Hill Blair

AMERICA'S HUMOR: From Poor Richard to Doonesbury

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Like the quality of America's humor, this ambitious and uneasily collaborative critical history has its ups and downs. Most of the ups come early on and are the work of senior partner Blair (Univ. of Chicago), whose vast erudition and boisterously anti-pedantic manner make him the ideal man to carve out the comic frontier: celebrating Ben Franklin as the dry-humored ancestor of all those sympathetic, horse-sensible American monologists (preachy Poor Richard was a persona, not a self-portrait); introducing John Wesley Jarvis (1780-1840), whose stories about French immigrants, Yankees, and frontiersmen ""set off a chain reaction that exploded American dialect comedy""; and placing American humor in literary perspective, with a reach back to Aristophanes for the prototypical eiron (ironic serf-deprecator) and alazon (boastful swaggerers from Davy Crockett to Richard Pryor's Oilwell). The more sociologically oriented Prof. Hill (Univ. of New Mexico), unfortunately, doesn't quite catch Blair's drift nor does he come close to catching Blair's flair: his breakdown of antebellum humor into subversive vs. reputable is anchored in term-paper-style academia. Blair returns in good form with the word-playing, half-disillusioned, post-war ""Phunny Phellows"" (Artemus Ward et al.), and each contributor has a go at Mark Twain: Blair eirons him out neatly, and Hill casts him as a foreshadower of contemporary fantastic and black humor. Solid contributions both, but then, with the 20th century looming, the authors find themselves with only 100 pages left, and, faced with The New Yorker and Lenny Bruce and Mary Hartman, rather at sea. They give far too much space to the Mencken-inspired Paul Bunyan, far too little to the less ratified worlds of vaudeville, film, and TV. And they show an ostrich-like inability to deal with the Jewishness of American humor from Perelman onward. So: this survey does not move smoothly and cannot be relied on after 1918. It does, however, successfully lean on the prominent comic motifs--anti-intellectualism, irreverence, exaggeration--and it does offer some happy excavations (like Eugene Field's gleefully grisly parodies of the New England Primer) as it alternately romps and stumbles through an apparently unmanageable body of high and low literature.

Pub Date: May 1st, 1978
Publisher: Oxford Univ. Press