A Plea for Seriousness

I READ lately, but not for the first time, a Plea for Humor which won for its advocate her degree of docteur ès lettres ; and while no less pleased than before by the pith and wit of the argument, I felt more than ever the greater need of a plea for seriousness. If the Plea for Humor were addressed to an English audience, it could not be debarred; and to judge by the names and quotations cited, it was England that the advocate had chiefly in mind. Lang, Dickens, Birrell, Radford, Butler, Shorthouse, Harrison, Charlotte Bronte, Miss Austen. Bagehot, Carlyle, Faber, Thackeray, Swinburne, Saintsbury, George Eliot, Peacock, Charles Lamb, Hazlitt, Mr. Gladstone, Pope, Goldsmith, Burnet, Fielding, Trollope, Disraeli, the Rev. Henry Martyn, are the examples and authorities ; only two Americans, Dr. Holmes and Mr. Howells, are named. If Miss Repplier wished to offer her sword to the wits and humorists of Great Britain against their standing army of dullards, she should have taken one of their periodicals as her field. Addressing an American audience, she attacks a nation whose worst vice is want of seriousness, if indeed that be not the universal shortcoming of the end of this century.

Leaving this issue for the present, let us survey the ground on which the charge of the decline of humor and the sense of humor is based. It is mainly the disfavor which has overtaken certain authors ; there is really little more than that. English writers of the eighteenth century who held the public ear by their jovial tones are summoned from limbo as witnesses to the dullness of our day; we are accused of being too grave to find these rollicking blades good company. There are other reasons for the neglect into which they have fallen which Miss Repplier does not wholly overlook, but there are some still more to the point to which she pays no heed. The novelists of a hundred and fifty years ago have lost their popularity, it is true, but do the poets, dramatists, essayists, and divines of the same period fare better ? There is a class of readers who affect the Elizabethan age, but there is none, though there may be here and there an individual, who delights in the literature of the last century. A few comedies of that period still hold the stage, and over the universal oblivion beetles the memory of Dr. Johnson, on which lightly perches Oliver Goldsmith. There was a time, not so long ago, when the whole society of London, including the clever set, were in transports of mirth over Miss Burney’s novels : have they still a public, however choice ? Does Miss Repplier herself think them very amusing? Putting the eighteenth century aside for a wider retrospect, where do we find the famous authors of bygone times, — the immortals apart, — on the tables of booklovers, or on their shelves ? To go no further back than the beginning of our century, who weeps nowadays over Thaddeus of Warsaw, or shudders at the Mysteries of Udolpho ? Is sensibility extinct, too ?1

So many renowned masters in every line of literature having grown dumb through age, it would be strange if the humorists should be an exception, — the more so that, by the nature of their genius, they are fated to become silent sooner than others. No quality is more evanescent and volatile than the essence of a joke ; it often evaporates while taking the form of words, and can be told only by a glance or gesture. Fun in literature depends for its being on the state of mind, and even the state of body, of the contemporary public, on social and political conditions which pass and are forgotten, on the moods and manners of conspicuous personages whose notoriety may be short-lived ; although their words and acts may survive, their idiosyncrasies fade out of mind. The humorists of all ages are, consequently, hard reading to most people. Æschylus, Euripides, and Aristophanes belonged to the same period ; they held equal places in Athenian favor. Is it the dull cast of the present day that makes ancient comedy drag heavily, while the tragedy hurries us along with its terrible march? It is not the tragic element only, however, which keeps classic authors alive. While the humorists fall flat, the wits hold their ground. Plautus moved the Romans to laughter through successive dynasties ; nobody laughs at him now, while Horace is as fresh and apt as in the days of Augustus. Humor, to outlive its generation, must have perennial vitality and vigor : people laugh at Mark Twain and Stockton who cannot laugh at Fielding, Smollett, and Sterne, not because the latter were less droll in their day, but because their day is not ours. Yet as long as men and women can laugh they will laugh at Malvolio’s love symptoms, and at the clowns’ interlude in the Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Nothing illustrates the ephemeral nature of humor better than a collection of old caricatures, and the fashions in facetiousness change as often as those of folly ; this century has seen many which are as much out of date as full-bottom wigs or snuff - taking. Balzac tells us that the first diorama exhibited in Paris gave rise to “ talking rama,” which was much cultivated on a certain social level. “ Eh, bien, monsieur, comment va cette petite santérama ? ” “ Il fait un fameux froidorama.” This was the same kind of wit as ordering a waiter to bring sham and hampagne sauce, or telling a coachman to take care of the pud muddles. The habit of quizzing had great vogue seventy or eighty years ago ; then came the practical joke, which few of us would enjoy in these dull days, though Theodore Hook were to rise from his grave to revive it; the hoax followed, and gave birth to the merry practice of “selling.” The sell consisted in telling as a true story some incident, more or less probable, that never took place, and when the listeners expressed surprise or gave other proof of credulity to shout “ Sold ! ” It never struck the seller that his hearers might merely be too civil to express their doubts. Of these various modes of fun this was perhaps the shallowest and most stupid, but it is the only one not entirely obsolete. Somewhere in the series should be mentioned the custom of adding “ Shakespeare ” to a commonplace remark, as if it were a quotation, a capital joke to those who saw the point.

And who were the humorists in literature who rejoiced the hearts of our country folk during the same period ? James Russell Lowell is not to be labeled like a jar of nitrous oxide. Dr. Holmes, the starred and ribboned grand master of the order, will ever be a pride to Americans and a joy to all English-speaking mortals in whom there is a spark of mirth, but he is, strictly speaking, a wit, — furthermore, poet, moralist, novelist; the springs of pathos and of tender, cheerful common sense answer his light touch as readily as those of laughter. But, marking him as easily first, second, third, what other names fill the roll ? After Saxe, and far below him, Philander Doesticks, John Phænix, Private Miles O’Reilly, the correspondent from Confederate Cross-roads, the Danbury Newsman, Josh Billings, Artemus Ward, and others more obscure; except the first, whom few remember, and the last, who is being forgotten, how many of these suggest a single line which would raise a smile now ? How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable for merriment are their jests! Alas, poor Yorick ! is their epitaph, one and all.

The most brilliant and delicate of our contemporaries who have worked the comic vein with effect are giving proof that the fate of their predecessors has not been thrown away upon them ; it is significant of this that they are turning in other directions. Mr. Howells always had a double mask of opposite expression, but it is curious to note how Aldrich, Stockton, Mark Twain himself, are carving their monuments in more enduring metal than that which they jingled so whimsically a few years ago ; the dramatic power, the tragic possibilities, in Huckleberry Finn attest the author’s intention to do something more than to amuse. These writers are potting their fun in substance which will preserve it from decay. Of course a man’s talent determines the nature of his work, &emdash;pas Amyot qui vent,” as Francis I. said of his accomplished pedagogue; and again, individual taste and temperament in the reader make an author’s peculiar gift more acceptable to some people than to others : but for these very reasons it is fortunate when his mental qualities are sufficiently versatile or ductile not to restrict him to one style. While Messrs. Birrell, Saintsbury, and their select few are reading Miss Austen with a smile of satisfaction and conscious superiority, there are other readers who, though they grant her humor, demur to its liveliness and class her with still champagne, yet turn her pages with quiet contentment in her faithful and pleasant portrayal of character and manners. The intellectual Pharisaism which exults in powers of appreciation denied to other men is not confined to those who flatter themselves on being the chosen of Thalia; votaries of æsthetic pleasure are not exempt from it, and Wordsworth was convinced that he and his sister alone of the whole world could see the beauties of Nature; but it is royal conceit to claim a monopoly of the ingredient with which, next to pain, life is most Strongly seasoned. Arrogance like this is hard to bear; all pretensions are offensive, the more so when there is no mathematical or logical process by which to refute them, and perhaps none is so trying as the assumption of a special grace to discern fun. It also confers upon the elect the privilege of holding fast their confidence under any shortcoming ; if their joke falls flat, they refer with pity to the hearer’s lack of humor. The only retort is Herr Klesmer’s, in Daniel Deronda : “ I see what you mean, but I do not see the witticism.”

George Eliot said truly that a difference of taste in jokes is a great strain on the affections, and unluckily there is great diversity in what provokes mirth in different people. Democritus of Abdera found matter for hilarity in everything ; his disciple Burton, the Anatomist of Melancholy, who enumerates among the causes of that complaint “ scoffs and bitter jests,” although accounted by his acquaintance “ very merry, facete, and juvenile,” took no diversion in anything but the ribaldry of bargemen, which threw him into fits of laughter. Louis XIII. of France, a melancholy monarch, was cheered by seeing people make faces ; at the siege of La Rochelle his pastime was to watch the dying agonies of his Protestant subjects in the trenches. “ What fine faces they make ! ” I knew an extremely intelligent, well-educated English family, friends of Macaulay, Spedding, and a whole circle of wellknownliterati, who read aloud Jules Bandeau’s Mariana, — a sombre picture of human passion and suffering, drawn with a strong touch, — and laughed over it from beginning to end.

There is a difference between a sense of the ridiculous and a sense of humor, and they do not always go together. The “ old-fashioned, coarse-minded person ” of Miss Repplier’s imagination asks, “ If we are not to laugh at Don Quixote, at whom are we, please, to laugh ? ” Some modern-minded person, deficient in humor, might suggest Sancho Panza. People whose brains have not enough specific gravity to resist the sight of a fellow-being slipping on a bit of orange peel are prompt to bring the charge of dullness against those whose first thought is that a leg may be broken. To persons of a more refined perception of the comic these perpetual laughers are the most tiresome of companions. Lord Chesterfield, who was not considered in his day to lack wit and vivacity (but who could not live to grow up in these days), counts among company to be avoided “ waggs, witlings, buffoons, mimicks, and merry fellows, who are all of them commonly the dullest fellows in the world.” Miss Repplier quotes Hazlitt as pronouncing ridicule the test of truth: there is more depth in the French saying “ Ridicule tue.” Ridicule kills sentiment; it kills romance and a hundred innocent impulses of the heart; it kills enthusiasm, reverence, and some of the noblest aspirations of the soul ; it kills affection, admiration, friendship, and loyalty. It has killed our enjoyment of many of the finest passages in mythology, history, and poetry ; the myth, the great deed, the poem, will revive because they are immortal, when the burlesque and parody are forgotten, but not for us whom the blight of ridicule has withered. Beside what it has destroyed, it has produced a constant craving for the ludicrous. An instance of this is the comment of a gentleman, by no means a fool, who went to see a great tragedian act Hamlet, not in total ignorance of the play, and pronounced it “dull, deadly dull, and heavy as lead ; not a laugh in it except one or two poor jokes in the grave-diggers’ scene.”

Most fun, at the present day, does not grow from a healthy root nor feed a healthy appetite; it creates a dyspeptic demand for coarse spice, which is met by an unfailing supply in the flippancy of our public speakers and the scurrility of the press. This brings me back to my starting-point. The counsel for humor deplores the dismal seriousness of the day, but its dismal jocosity is far more deplorable. Everybody feels bound to make a joke of everything, and thinks that when one has been made nothing more can be asked; in argument, he who raises a laugh at his opponent has won the day ; a shrug or a wink is answer enough to the most vital questions. Mr. H. M. Stanley’s jests on the fate of the rear column mark — at least so let us hope — the extreme to which the practice can be pushed as regards humanity; Senator Ingalls and Governor Ingersoll carry their ridicule into moral and spiritual regions. Now, how much better, happier, wiser, or even merrier is any one for all this ? Do ribaldry and blasphemy raise the spirits of the hearers ? Does the column of newspaper facetiæ add to the average of daily cheerfulness? Do the funny books on railway stalls lift the burden and heat of the day, or warm the cockles of the heart against its chill? If people take comfort in exchanging such pleasantries among themselves, well and good, but to see them in print recalls Macaulay’s outburst: “ A wise man might talk folly like this by his fireside, but that any human being, having made such a joke, should write it down, copy it out. transmit it to the printer, correct the proof, and send it forth to the world is enough to make us ashamed of our species.”

If the common disposition to take a humorous view, as it is complacently termed, has not on the whole made us jollier, let us ask what it has done. It has brought in slang which is depraving speech, and “chaff” which is driving out conversation ; in the incessant struggle to be amusing, it has fostered exaggeration to the damage of truthfulness, cynicism at the expense of kindliness, mockery to the sacrifice of veneration. I feel the extent of the mischief at this moment when I would urge my plea for seriousness. The basis of appreciation of the heroic and pathetic has been sapped in this generation; they have made the step from the sublime to the ridiculous once for all, and taken their stand on the latter ; there seems to be nothing to appeal to. Virtue, honor, public fidelity and purity, commercial probity, the dignity of office, the sanctity of home, have become subjects of jest; men and women who uphold them are called fogies, or, by a favorite locution of the day, are said to take themselves too seriously. Self-importance is ludicrous, no doubt, but I have not observed that it is wanting in people who take themselves lightly; the attitude appears to me unchanged, but it rests on less solid qualities. The absence of seriousness is seen in our country people to-day in the evasion of obligation : we give our children no training, but leave them to their own devices, and guess they ’ll turn out all right; ” we neglect our duties as citizens, and place them in the hands of men notoriously unfit for posts of trust, because “ the great American nation can take care of itself ; ” we forbear to raise a voice against practices in public and social life which we privately condemn, for “ our mission is not to be reformers.” We are loath to do our own thinking: hence we are overrun by a host of little books, native and foreign, witty and graceful as you please, to tell us how little there is in the big books on grave subjects which a few people still write, hut nobody reads. In poetry, fugitive pieces and vers de société are the order of the day ; in fiction, the short story is ousting the novel.

But if seriousness can be driven out as a motive, it comes back in the form of results. We are not the first people who have refused to be in earnest, and history might teach us a lesson on that text. It is but a hundred years since France expiated with her best blood the crime of frivolity ; the reaction had begun, but it came too late, and men and women who were taking life seriously had to pay the penalty for many who escaped by a timely, natural death. Their doctrine for generations was summed up in that formula which is the utmost expression of impious irresponsibility, “ Après nous le déluge.” Twenty years ago France was again paying the forfeit of having forgotten the terrible moral of the Revolution ; society had donned the fool’s cap and bells once more, and paid for it by the downfall of the empire, a cruel war, and a costly, humiliating peace. When Italy threw aside her epics and lyrics, and such treatises as Pico della Mirandola’s Oration on the Dignity of Man and Cornaro’s Discourse on the Serious Life, for mockheroic and macaronic poetry ; when the philosophical discussions of the Florentine Platonists gave place to the hairsplitting and hypercriticism and pedantry of the literary academies, and the love of beauty vanished before the grotesque, and the pursuit of greatness was swallowed up by the greed for oddity; then the reign of triflers had begun, and overthrow and anarchy followed in order. In Spain, though the retrospect of her history leaves an impression of ever-deepening gloom, autocracy and priestcraft were not the only agents in her decline from her splendid eminence in dominion, letters, and art. On the walls of her galleries, beside the glorious religious and historical pictures, among the portraits of her monarchs and illustrious men, hang the court dwarf and jester who presently usurp the first place, while the imbecilities of the plateresque and chiruguesque styles supplant the majesty of the Gothic; in literature, the tragedy, the epic, the grave history, the stirring ballad, drop into the picaresque narrative and the madrigal; painting, from the magnificent art of Murillo, Velasquez, Zurbaran, sinks to a mediocrity which does not perpetuate a single fame, and flares up finally in the diabolical cynicism of Goya ; the hero is found, not on the battlefield, but in the bullfight, and Spain scarcely counts among the powers of Europe.

I have not forgotten that a tendency to buffoonery belongs to an early and healthy period of national life which has left its mark on Gothic architecture and the great epics, in fabliaux, in the tradition of many jocund customs. In these instances, however, humor was an incident, a detail, and an insignificant one, in the whole scheme ; men whose life was one grim struggle could not forget themselves very long in horseplay ; the gargoyle drops from its place without changing the character of the cathedral. And if any one will take the trouble to compare the spirit of humor in a country at corresponding points on the ascending and descending scale, he will be able to note the difference between the mirth of a youthful people and of one in its second childhood; when a mature nation gives itself up to puerility it has entered the senile phase. The nations of the Old World were many centuries in their descent from the height of empire and culture to base obscurity, but the downward progress of our own from the moral altitudes of the Revolution and the Civil War has been rapid. Our standards have lowered, our principles have slackened.

This is a superficial view both of past and present, but it is comprehensive enough, there is no need of going deeper. Nobody would gain glory or do good by trying to hang a millstone round the neck of the Plea for Humor, to which I owe my title for a counter plea, but not for a rebutting argument. Moreover, I beg my readers not to suppose that I would arraign humor or any element which gladdens and brightens existence. Seriousness and light - heartedness are not at war ; there is no merit in austerity; on the contrary, more harm can be done by solemn triviality and ascetic futility than by arrant tomfoolery. But after all we are a joyless people. There are two types of American face on which the comic illustrated papers have fastened as representative : one is sharp, careworn, anxious ; the other is heavy, coarse, and stupid or cunning. Neither of them shows a gleam of the mirtlifulness which twinkles in the Irishman’s eye, or broadens the smile of John Bull, or sparkles from head to foot in the lively Frenchman or Italian. There is a modern fashion of loud and constant laughter in our society, as if noise were necessary to attest the pleasure of the occasion, but it vouches as little for our enjoyment as the cannon and shootingcrackers on the Fourth of July do for our patriotism. The absence of animal spirits among our well-to-do young people is in striking contrast to the exuberance of that quality in their contemporaries in most European countries. There is no division of time more weary and dreary than a public holiday in America except one in England; but with the English this comes mainly from the pressure of traditions and conditions of which we never felt the weight, while with us it is because we do not know how to amuse ourselves honestly and enjoy ourselves heartily. It is levity, not gayety, that is the matter with us. Here it is, and here only, that the counsel for humor misses her point ; we are dull indeed, I grant it, not from the disuse of humor, but from its abuse. Nor do I reckon lack of seriousness as the sole or prime cause of national and individual deterioration; but without its presence no man or country can thrive ; it is an evidence of essential qualities. Its absence means failure to meet the highest claims and issues of life, our debt to the present and to the inexorable liens of the future.

  1. This article was in print before the author saw Colonel T. W. Higginson’s Decline of the Sentimental and Miss Repplier’s Decay of Sentiment.