The Essence of American Humor

WRITING a few months ago of The American Spirit in Literature, I tried to solve a problem which had been haunting me for years: to give myself an account of the peculiar and wonderful quality which distinguishes the best thathas been written on this continent from all other writing whatsoever, from the days of gray-headed Chaldea and Mother India down to the latest fantasies of Maurice Maeterlinck and Gabriel d’ Annunzio.

To lay a ghost, the magicians of the East always have to evoke a demon. I find myself in much the same case. In settling to my own satisfaction that first haunting problem, I find I have called up half a dozen more, just as difficult and just as clamorous for solution. It happened in this way : To show the visible presence and sunlit transparence of the best American writing, I instanced chiefly four story-tellers, — Bret Harte, Mark Twain, G. W. Cable, and Mary Wilkins. But all four of them, and especially the first two, irresistibly suggest another quality besides the American spirit, — namely, the quality of humor. And so up springs the new demon, the infinitely tantalizing problem, What is American humor ? And if it differs from the humor of other lands, from Aristophanes to Rabelais, from Chaucer to Dickens, from the Ecclesiast to Hitopadesha, wherein does the difference lie ? Here, again, to lay one ghost, we must raise another. Supposing we have settled the question of humor : just as we are folding our hands in placid satisfaction, we suddenly remember that there is such a thing as wit, and we are called on either to try a fall with this new adversary, or to admit ourselves disgracefully vanquished.

I hope I have some humanity in my breast, for I have already raised a whole army of sprites, and in imagination see myself confronted with a host of visionary readers, with haggard eyes and drawn countenances, desperately asking: “ What is a joke ? And how are you to know one if you see it ? ” My justification for this wanton malice is, that I think I have discovered the charm to lay these haunting presences to rest; that I have in some sort discovered the true inwardness of humor, and even been able to draw the shadowy line dividing it from wit.

Here is a story which seems to me to come close to the heart of the secret. The scene is laid in the Wild and Woolly West. A mustang has been stolen, a claim jumped, or a euchre pack found to contain more right and left bowers than an Arctic brig ; and swift Nemesis has descended in the form of Manila hemp. The time has come to break the news to the family of the deceased. A deputation goes ahead, and the leader knocks at the door of the bereaved homestead, asking, “ Does Widow Smith live here ? ”

A stout and cheerful person replies, “I’m Mrs. Smith, but I ain’t no widow ! ”

The deputation answers : “ Bet you a dollar you are ! But you’ve got the laugh on us, just the same, for we’ve lynched the wrong man.”

That story is irresistible. It is as full of sardonic fire as anything in all literature, but you would hardly call it humor. It seems to me to lie so directly on the border line that we may use it as a landmark.

The moral is this : humor consists in laughing with the other man; wit, in laughing at him. There is all the difference in the world. But in both there must be laughter. And laughter is always the fruit of a certain excess of power, of animal or vital magnetism, drawn forth by a sense of contrast or discrepancy. This story illustrates each of these points. The discrepancy or contrast lies in the chasm between the terrible bereavement of widowhood and the jest that announces it. Even the Widow Smith must have smiled. But after the first spasms of laughter have passed, there remains the yawning gulf before her, in all its blackness. The story is really infinitely bitter, and the laughter it calls up something of a snarl.

To laugh at the other man is invariably a tribute to one’s own egotism, a burning of incense to one’s self. It widens the chasm between the two personalities, and sharpens the natural opposition between man and man. In this way wit is essentially demoralizing. It is also essentially self-conscious. Watch the efforts of the conscientiously funny man, and you will see both elements manifest themselves, — the self-consciousness and the demoralization. The final result of his efforts is contempt instead of admiration, and a universal sadness overcasting the company he has tried to move to mirth. Wit, therefore, differs from humor in this : that while both are expressed in laughter, arising from excess of animal magnetism, and called forth by a feeling of discrepancy or contrast, wit is self-conscious and egotistical, while humor is natural and humane.

One may call humane whatever recognizes our common humanity, or, still more broadly, whatever recognizes our common life. For there is a humanity toward animals. But if we look deep enough, we shall find that behind our conscious intention we do perpetually recognize a common life, a common soul ; that we do this by hating no less than by loving, by hostility as well as by acts of gentlest charity. Behind all our dramas of emotion, — grave or gay, passionate, tragic, or mirthful, — behind avarice, ambition, vanity, lies the deep intuition of our common soul, and to this we in all things ultimately appeal. We seek the envy of human beings, not of stones or trees ; we covet and lust for human ends ; and in even the blackest elements of our human lives, we are still paying tribute to our humanity, to the common soul. Even murderers would not conspire together but for the sense of the common soul in both.

But pity and compassion recognize the common life, the common human soul; the very name of sympathy means a suffering with some other. The classic story of sympathy, the Good Samaritan, owes its immortal power to this sense. First there is the sympathy of the narrator with the afflicted man and with his rescuer; and then the second and communicated sympathy which all hearers are compelled to feel with both, thus being brought into the humane mood of the narrator, and recognizing the common soul in themselves, in him, in the sufferer, and in the Samaritan who relieved his pain. This irresistible quality of sympathy, this potent assertion of the common soul, has made the story immortal, erecting the name of an obscure Semitic clan into a synonym for humanity and kindness.

Sympathy, compassion, the suffering with another, are recognitions of the common soul in the face of sorrow, in the face of suffering, in the face of fate. The whole cycle of Greek tragedy is full of this sense of universal man bearing in common the mountainous burden of adverse and invincible law. That line of Homer might characterize it all: “ Purple Death took him, and mighty Fate.” The bereavements of Hecuba, the madness and death of Ajax, owe their undying power, not to any quality of art or beauty, though they are saturated and sultry with beauty, but to something greater still: to the sense of the common soul, called up in us by sorrow, by danger, by affliction, by death.

Consider the message of Galilee as an orderly sequence to this. We have the same recognition of the common soul, not so much in resignation and submission to fate as in a certain warm and subtle quality which outruns fate and makes it powerless, — a quality of sympathy, of compassion, of suffering with another, in virtue of which the very shadows of Greek tragedy, sickness, sorrow, affliction, become the lights of the picture, for they testify to and evoke the common soul. Rightly understood, this is the message of the Evangel of Sorrow. When our complacence and self-satisfied egotism are beaten down, this other side of our nature arises ; when we are less full of ourselves, we have more room for others, or, deeper still, more room for that which we recognize in others, the one soul common to all humanity. All emotion, not compassion only, is contagious. All emotion testifies to the common soul. We come to this result: that humor is emotion expressing itself in laughter, and called forth by a contrast or discrepancy. But laughter is always the fruit of an excess of vital magnetism, of power. Therefore, rightly understood, humor is a contagion or sharing of the sense of excess power, of abundant vitality, of animal magnetism.

You can see now why we laid such stress upon the Greek tragedy and its message. Sophocles unites us through the sense of our common danger and common pain. That is the darker side of sympathy, the deep shadow of the picture. The Galilean unites us through sympathy, the feeling of kindness drawn forth by pain. But, if my definition comes near the truth, real humor unites us in a sense of our excess vitality, a sense of mastery over fate ; an intuition that the common soul in us can easily conquer and outlast the longest night of sorrow, the deepest shadow of pain. Humor thus becomes a very serious matter. It becomes nothing less than the herald of our final victory, the dawn of the golden age.

To go back a little to a point we raised before. Wit is a sense of scoring off the other man, a triumph over him, a sense of our excess vitality as contrasted with his weakness, a mentally pushing him into the mud and gloating over him. Now it is essentially unpleasant to be pushed into the mud and laughed at, whether mentally or bodily ; and the successful wit’s tribute to his own egotism, so far from cementing the bonds of man, really widens the chasm, and sets up that hostility between one personality and another which is always the demoniac element in human life. It follows that whatever separates persons in feeling, though it may be the fodder of wit, is fatal to humor, just as it is fatal to sympathy or to gentle charity. Therefore, to have true humor, we must first hold in abeyance the elements of hostility, difference of race or rank, difference of faith or hope. If the common soul be, as we have seen it is, the last and highest reality behind all our dramas of feeling and ambition, behind hate as well as love, behind envy as well as kindliness, then all these things which separate persons and set them at variance, the dreams of different race and rank, of different faiths and ideals, are but shadows cast by our fancies in the light of the common soul: that is the reality, while these are dreams.

Humor, then, can know no difference of race. For it, we are all human beings, all children of the common soul. But humor will not apprehend this as a doctrine, as we have done here ; it will go far deeper, and apprehend it as a visible presence, a reality touched and felt, a direct intuition. For this reason, along with many others, the best American humor stands preeminent throughout the world and through all time. It recognizes no difference of race. It is free from that miserable tribal vanity which is the root of half our human ills. The Jewish spirit is perhaps the supreme instance which human history affords of this tribal self-love, with its reward of intensity and its punishment of isolation. And as certainly as night follows day, or day night, we find in Jewish wit the last essence of bitterness, the culmination of that unhumane quality which eternally divides it from humor. Read sentence after sentence of Koheleth, the Preacher, —the living dog better than the dead lion, the gibes at women, the perpetual mockery at fools, the deep pessimism under it all, — and you will realize how closely tribal zeal and bitterness are bound together; how certainly the keen sense of race difference closes the door of that warm human heart from which alone humor can come.

All Jewish writing, ancient or modern, has the same defect. There is always the presence of two qualities, seemingly unconnected, but in reality bound very closely together, — a certain bitter sensuality and a sardonic and mordant wit. Both spring from the same thing: an overkeen sense of bodily difference, whether of sex or of race. The first sense of difference causes a subjection to sex tyranny, which revenges itself in gibes and epigrams, as with that uxorious king to whom tradition accredits the Proverbs. The second, the keen sense of race difference, breeds a hostile and jealous spirit, a perpetual desire to exhibit one’s own superiority, to show off, to “ get the laugh on ” the supposed inferior races and outer barbarians, which, going with excess of vital power, — a marvelous characteristic of the Jews, — will inevitably give birth to keen and biting wit, but to humor never. The gibes of the Preacher, the courtly insincerities of D’lsraeli, the morbid sensuousness of Zola, all flow from the same race character, and are moods of the same mind.

It is curious to see the same thing cropping up in Alphonse Daudet, who was of mixed race, half Jew, half Provençal. One may follow that famous image of his own, which describes the two Tartarins,— Tartarin-Quixote and Tartarin-Sancho-Panza, or, more familiarly, Tartarin lapin-de-garenne and Tartarin lapin - de - choux, — and say that there are two Daudets, Daudet - Koheleth and Daudet-Tartarin: the one, the Semitic author of Sapho, of Rose et Ninette, of Fromont Jeune et Risler Aîné the other, the creator of the many-sided meridional, Tartarin-Numa-Nabab. There lies the difference between wit and humor, as it is influenced by exclusiveness of race, or, to give a foolish thing a commoner name, by tribal vanity.

To precisely the same category of wit springing from tribal vanity belong the endless stories in which the Germans score off the Russians, the Russians score off the Germans ; in which Magyars and Austrians whet their satire on each other; in which Bengalis try to get the laugh on Punjabis ; in which Frenchmen are witty about John Bull’s protruding front teeth, while Englishmen revenge themselves by tales of the frog-eating Mounseer. So that we have here a perfectly definite line : if there is a play of the mind about difference of race, using this as the laughter-rousing contrast which is common to both wit and humor, and if this play of thought and feeling accentuates and heightens the race difference, and tries to show, or assumes, as is oftener the case, that the race of the joker is endlessly superior to the other, then we are dealing with wit, — an amusing thing enough in its way, but a false thing, one which leads us away from the true end of man. If, on the other hand, we have an accentuation of the common life, bridging the chasm of race, and the overplus of power is felt to be shared in by the two races and to unite them, then we have genuine humor, — something as vital to our true humanity as is the Tragedy of Greece, as is the Evangel of Galilee, yet something more joyful and buoyant than either ; uniting us, not through compassion or the sense of common danger, but through the sense of common power, — a prophecy of the golden age, of the ultimate triumph of the soul.

In this binding quality of humor Mark Twain’s best work stands easily supreme. Take the scenes on the Mississippi in which the immortal trio, Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn, and Jim the Nigger, play their parts : they are as saturated with the sense of our common life as is the story of the sorrow of Ajax or the tale of the Samaritan. The author has felt the humanity in his triad of heroes as deeply and humanely as it can be felt; his work is sincere and true throughout; it is full of that inimitable quality of contagion, the touchstone of all true art, in virtue of which we vividly feel and realize what the artist has vividly felt and realized. Through every page we feel the difference of race, used as an artistic contrast; but we are conscious of something more, — of overstepping the chasm, of bridging the abyss between black and white, American and Ethiopian, bond and free. We have come to the conclusion, long before Huck Finn puts it in words, that Jim is a white man inside, — as white as we are.

This binding of the two races has been accomplished before, in a famous American book ; the most successful, probably, that the New World has yet produced. But in Uncle Tom the cement is sentimentality rather than humor ; the Galilean sense of sympathy through common suffering rather than through excess of power; it plays round feelings and emotions which, however keen and poignant, are not part of our everlasting inheritance ; moreover, it is colored with a religious pathos which, while it still saturates the minds of the race mates of Uncle Tom, is quickly vanishing from the hearts of his white masters, to give place to something higher and better, — an assured sense of the power of the soul. So marked has been the growth of our spiritual consciousness in the last generation, hitherto unconscious and unrecorded, that we can confidently look forward to a time when the fear of death will no longer be valid as a motive of tragedy, any more than the fear of hell is now a motor of morals. Therefore, the mood of religion which colors Uncle Tom is a far less enduring and vital thing than the robust out-of-doors vitality of Tom Sawyer’s Mississippi days : and it is this quality, this buoyancy and excess of power, which forms the necessary atmosphere of humor.

In another story, of a much earlier period, Mark Twain has again used his genius to bridge the same race chasm. It is that fine and epic tale of Captain Ned Blakely and his colored mate. Here humor is reinforced by indignation, and both are illuminated by fancy ; but humor, the sense of excess of power and of our common soul, is still the dominant note. Yet the Tom Sawyer trio, in those sunlit days on the great river, with the raft floating along, and the boys telling tales, or puffing at their corncob pipes, or going in swimming, is, and will probably long remain, the high-water mark of humor and imaginative creation for the New World, — the most genuinely American thing ever written.

Bret Harte is of nearly equal value in his early tales, but with this difference : that it is the chasm of caste, not of race, which his great power bridges over. Mark Twain does this abundantly, too. Huck Finn, the outcast, the vagabond, the homeless wanderer, with his patched breeches, his one suspender, his perforated hat, is bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh, beyond the common measure of our kind; more, he is the superior of most of us in humane simplicity, in ease of manner and unconsciousness, in genuine kindness of heart. But with Bret Harte, this bridging of chasms, this humanizing of outcasts, of vagabonds, gamblers, and waifs of either sex, is a passion, the dominant quality of his rich and natural humor. That nameless baby, the Luck of Roaring Camp, enlists our heartiest sympathy from the first; so, indeed, does his disreputable mother. We remember, and we are conscious of a profound satisfaction in remembering, that motherhood is always the same, without regard to race, caste, color, or creed. And with the excess of power in his robust miners, and their fine animal magnetism, as of the primeval out of doors, comes the quality of humor, like the touch of morning sunshine on the red pine stems and granite boulders of the Rockies, where is their home.

The Outcasts of Poker Flat is full of the same leveling quality ; a leveling up, not a leveling down. The two real outcasts, the gambler and the Rahab, are raised to a sense of their human life, to a human dignity and self-sacrifice, by the simplicity of their half-childish chance companions ; all barriers are broken down, and there remains nothing but the common soul. There is a touch of pathos in this tale, too, but rather as a contrast than as a primary element; yet the final feeling is humor, — victory, not defeat ; not weakness, but power. M’liss, one of the finest things Bret Harte ever wrote, is full of the same quality, — the quality of charity, of sympathy with outcasts ; or, to come to the true name, it is full of the sense of the common soul under all differences. More than that, we are all through conscious of a feeling that the essential truth is with M’liss in her wildness; that she is more at home in the universe than we are, feels more kindred with the enduring things, — the green forests, the sunshine, the wind, the stars in the purple sky, the primal passions of the human heart.

If genius thus bridges over the greater chasms of our life, we need hardly say that it still more easily and certainly passes over the less ; but there is one chasm which it is worth while to speak of more fully, — the chasm between childhood and age. American humor has discovered the child for the purposes of literature. The reason is, without doubt, that Americans are the only people in the world who take their children seriously; who make it stuff of the conscience to give their children the utmost possible freedom, and rouse them to a sense of responsibility. Think of how children were kept down and suppressed, even oppressed, in the Old World, only a generation or two ago, and you have the reason why the child of European literature is such a failure. I know not whether it has ever been said before, but the children of the greatest writer of them all are stiff and unnatural to a marvelous degree, so that we hardly regret Macbeth’s bringing to an end that precocious and sententious youngster who moralizes to his mamma. It is with a feeling of relief that we read the stage direction, “ Dies” Let him rest in peace.

Contrast with the deceased child those two inimitable creations of American humor, Budge and Toddy, in Helen’s Babies, one of the best books this continent has yet seen. In every point of reality, as far as child life is concerned, Habberton is the superior of Shakespeare, who in so much else is the superior of all other men. Tom Sawyer is also a most notable child in literature; but of course he is ever so much older than Budge and Toddy, and therefore the chasm is not so wide, and the honor of bridging it less. Yet there is something inimitable in the way he “ shows off ” when the new girl comes to the village, and, let me add, something irresistibly American. Up to the present, I have not been able to determine at what age Tom Sawyer’s fellow countrymen drop the habit, or at any rate the desire, of showing off; I am indeed strongly convinced that nothing more serious than that selfsame human weakness is the root of all the millionairism which seems to fill so large a space in our horizons. It is the desire to possess the stage properties essential to successful showing off which keeps the millionaires so busy; and it is to be surmised that, as in Tom Sawyer’s case, the “new girl ” is the audience of the play.

Speaking of the new girl calls attention to the fact that, so far, Budge, Toddy, and Tom Sawyer, the hierarchy of American boys, have no sisters. There are no little girls of the first magnitude in American literature. Perhaps the English Alice in Wonderland is the high-water mark among little girls ; but wonderful achievement as she is, and absorbing as are her adventures, the atmosphere of cards and chessmen which surrounds her is very different from the broad river bosom, the sweet-smelling woods, the echoing hills of night under the stars, where Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn play their parts. So infinitely does nature outweigh fancy.

Having established our canon, we can now apply it. We do, in fact, find that the masterpieces of American humor were conceived in an atmosphere possessing exactly the qualities we have outlined. There was the broad and humane sense of this our life, of our common nature, our common soul, overleaping all barriers whatsoever; the distinctions of race and caste, of rich and poor, dwindling to their real insignificance, or forgotten altogether ; this binding of hearts taking place, not through the sense of our common tragedy, our common servitude to fate, as in Æschylus and Sophocles, nor in pity and compassion, as in the Evangel of Galilee, but with a certain surcharge and overplus of power, a buoyancy, a sense of conquest, which could best come with the first youth of a young, strong nation, and which did, in fact, come in the harvest of success following that fine outburst of manliness and adventure, the mining campaign of ’49.

One characteristic of the finest humor, touched on already, we must come back to, — the quality of unconsciousness. Neither Bret Harte nor Mark Twain, when they wrote of the Luck, of M’liss, of Captain Ned Blakely, of Buck Fanshaw and Scotty Briggs, had any idea how great they were, or even that they were great at all; they never dreamt that these sketches for the local journal would outlive the week that saw their birth, and at last make the circuit of the world, becoming a part of the permanent wealth of man. This unconsciousness gives these stories their inimitable charm. There is none of the striving of the funny man in what belongs to that first period, no setting of traps for our admiration. This is the same as saying that there is none of that instinct of egotism which prompts a man to laugh at his fellow, to show how much wiser and cleverer he himself is. It is all free, generous, and bountiful as the sunshine of the land where it was conceived, full of the spontaneous life of Nature herself. As there is in the simplest heart a wisdom that outweighs all philosophy, in the most untutored soul a faith that the schools and doctors know nothing of, so there is in these firstfruits of genius a fresh charm that no art can emulate; we recognize the wisdom and handiwork, not of the immediate artificer, but of the great master builder, the one enduring soul, common to all men through all time. There is the sense of the unprecedented, of creative power, in all works of genius ; it shines forth brightly in the best work of American literature, and most brightly in the firstfruits of American humor.

It is not so agreeable to complete our inventory ; for we are forced to see that much of what passes for humor nowadays is not humor at all, but its imitation and baser counterfeit, — that wit which is marred by egotism and vanity, which springs from the desire to shine, to show off, to prove one’s self smarter than one’s fellows, to air the superior qualities of one’s mind. Let us devoutly hope that this mood of self-consciousness, like its cousin, the shyness of the half man, half boy, is transient only ; that it will presently give place to something more mellow and humane. How often we feel, when we read the productions of this class, that the writer, as he made each point, was lit up with a little explosion of vanity; that he was terribly self-conscious ; that he bridled and pranced within him, to think he was not as other men! Instead of that fine and humorous tale of Pharisee and Publican, we might write one of the humorist and the wit, the child of genius and the funny man; and the moral would be just the same. In the one case, a sense of peace, of hitting the mark, of adding to our human wealth, of reaching the true end of man; in the other, a certain tickling of the sensations, it is true, but, with it, dissatisfaction, unrest, a sense of vanity, with final bankruptcy staring us in the face. Self-consciousness is fatal to humor. It is as disappointing as that habit certain people have, whose sex and age we shall not specify, of always thinking of their clothes, or of your clothes or of some one else’s clothes ; their society is not joy and gladness, nor does it bring us nearer to the golden age.

It would be with genuine joy of heart that I should record, if conscience allowed me, that American life seems, on the whole, to be flowing in the direction which leads to humor rather than to wit, — the direction which leads away from tribal and personal vanity, from the lamentable longing to show off, from selfconsciousness and egotism, toward the common heart of man. But this, at least, can with certainty be said: that only as the great tide thus sets toward the better goal; only when the desire of wealth gives way to humane sympathy and inherent power ; when the barriers of caste, so untimely and anomalous here, are broken down; when the tribal vanity of fancied race superiority is forgotten ; when self - consciousness and the longing for stage properties are left behind, merged in that large urbanity which is the essence at once of real culture and of true breeding, — only then will a real development of humor be possible. But this humanizing of our hearts is in itself not enough, though it is essential and not to be replaced : there must also be a sense of power, of lightness, of success ; a surplus of magnetism and vital energy, like that surcharge of life which, having moulded root and stem and leaves, bursts forth in beauty in the flower. All this is needful, and by no means to be dispensed with ; yet to all this must be added something more, something which, by all our taking thought, we can never gain, — that superb fire of genius which comes not with observation, but is the best gift and creative handiwork of our everlasting human soul.

Charles Johnston.