THE first professional humorist was a serpent who flourished at the dawn of the world. His originality is unimpeachable and it is unique, for none of his successors has had his opportunity to say a good thing before any one else. The modern joke editor may regret the Paradise of virgin inventions, the unpreëmpted Eden of wit, or he may hearken to his cheerless friend, the cynic, who declares that the editor would not recognize originality if he had it submitted to him, that his readers would be disconcerted by a joke to which they had not become accustomed, and that the editor had better not throw away his individuality upon a trivial and dreary occupation. But the joke editor, who to be useful must be more friendly than the cynic toward human habits, knows that though his task is less dignified than that of editing, say, the Atlantic Monthly, he can lay out the best of his genius in purveying to the lighter moods of his readers ; that the experiences of his day teach him much about men ; and that it is not so bad to live in a world of petty entertainment. He receives from all corners of the nations the humor of the afternoon tea, the club dinner, the theatre, the political meeting, without their drudgery and more solemn nonsense. His workmen are Mankind Laughing. The material of his labor is the recreation of toilers in other vineyards. He is the only man in the market place to whom all the world contributes the joke it has enjoyed most. What though the tarnished jest recur again and again in the offerings laid at his sanctum door ? He knows that each teller of the much told tale has enjoyed it, even as the editor himself enjoyed it long ago, forgot it perhaps, and now with no displeasure meets it again. Another man has laughed, and all is well with the world.
If the editor be a philosopher he may know men through their jests and keep a wise finger on the many little pulses of humanity. The history of his times, the courses of affairs, of politics and of thought, are revealed to him in humorous glimpses. He is the only editor who gets sooner or later almost everything that life produces which is classifiable under his department; no other kind of contributor covers the world so thickly and so thoroughly as the joker. What an unhappy fellow by comparison is the poetry editor, my brother whose correspondents are machine rhymers or despondent youths, a serious-minded crew who know Swinburne and have forgotten Wordsworth, who spend their nights with Rossetti, and neglect Milton in the morning, little dwellers in the City of Dreadful Dusk with Arthur Symons and the Irish poets of London, of no blood with Shakespeare, and kin to Browning only by the bond of obscurity. The joke editor gathers a handful of garnets and gold dust sooner than the poetry editor shall find one single gem. Poetry has shown her face more willing and more shining than now, but mankind never joked better than to-day and yesterday and to-morrow.
Nowadays everybody who can make his letters is contributing to the magazines, and writing books. To paint or sculpture or make music one must be at least slightly practiced upon a special instrument; but the medium of literature is in crude form a universal possession. Therefore it happens that many, overestimating their share in the common heritage of words, lisp to the fretted ear of the editor, whereas they would not presume to play the piano in public. If this be true, by how much more — as we used to translate the Latin — is it true that everybody thinks he has a joke worth printing. The joke is the most universal form of literature; it is protoplasmic, the simplest organized thing printable. Many people could be found even in Boston, who would not venture to write a long story or a poem or a drama, but all men — and some women — make jokes. Between their shop-talk drummers swap yarns in the fumes of the smoking-car; baby utters some unconsciously clever words, and mother records them; the rustic sets the country store in a gale which swells the draft in the air-tight stove; every grade of human beings, without distinction of creed, color, or previous condition of modesty, — even the immodest baby, — at some time or other hears or makes a joke “good enough to print.”
It is evident that more amateurs of more kinds beset the joke editor than ever break into the sanctum of the editor who passes judgment on the poem, the short story, the novel, the critical essay, or the nature article that is not of nature. The joke editor regards repetition and plagiarism as the normal fact of production, but I have said that if he knows his craft he will not be vexed or bored. The plagiarism is usually unconscious, and most often Joe Miller is accompanied by a sincere letter setting forth that “this happened in our town and has never appeared in print.” Moreover the amateur joker frequently sends something fresh and delicious. A semi-literate letter in pencil brought me this message from a far corner of our country: “Plese tell Mr. Carnagie that we have a hero out here. He is running for sheriff on the Socialist ticket without a ghost of a chance.” Another letter in crude scrawl contained an American yarn which has since attracted the scissors of many an exchange editor. The story illustrated the tough quality of buckskin pants, and narrated that a farmer was ploughing a field, dressed in breeches of this famous and durable material. Suddenly his oxen grew unruly and plunged across the field, dragging the farmer after them. He clung valiantly to the handles of the plough, even when he saw disaster ahead; the oxen were dashing straight for a large stump. The blade of the plough split the stump; the sundered edges of the stump, springing closed again, caught the farmer by the seat of his buck-skins, “and by jingo,” concluded the original version, “if they did n’t pull up the stump.”
The amateur poet is worse as a rule than the most hardened professional, but the untrained joker often has a story which the professional humorist cannot equal in a year’s invention for the Sunday supplements. Jokes rise ready made out of life, and are born with the hue and form of its fragmentary truths. Prose fiction is an artificial construction; poetry is more artificial; the joke is human experience, the property of the common man, the autobiographical utterance of the multitude, and the joke on the printed page is, of all things published to entertain, the least removed from reality. Even unreal and unfunny jokes, such as the conceit that mothers-in-law are vicious relatives, are true to life because the world out of print bandies them about, lives with them, enjoys them, tells them over and over as persistently as the world in print. The joke-maker is thus the most realistic of artists and often the better for being primitive and artless. The joke editor is the directest middleman between contributor and reader, and he must keep the point of view of the man in the street and the woman in the kitchen.
Holmes was partly in earnest when he said it is a very serious thing to be a funny man. He pretends to have met the sober aspect of his profession in a sad disaster. But he knew that the serious effect of the joke on his life was to make for his happiness, success, and popularity, that the joke took him to more good dinners than Hawthorne or Emerson ever ate, though they were greater and more deeply interesting men than he. An afterdinner speaker who talks on the capacity of the Filipinos to govern us, or on why women have a right to vote because they are not allowed to, may be ever so eloquent,yet the company yawns and forgets his name. But the man who makes some good new jokes or effectively retells some old ones is asked to dine again. A serious matter ? A joke in time has saved nations and made laws.
The importance of the joke in life may merely prove man ’s foolishness and flippancy. Though history records its power in human affairs, philosophy may not give it place among abstract values, and art cannot rate it highly. Humor is indeed, a mighty goddess, whose other names are Dramatic Irony, Satire, Comedy; but jokes are merely her lighter moments. She blesses them with her spirit, but she is usually bent on vaster offices of inspiration, to inform the comedy of Shakespeare, to direct the deadly fiction of Mr. Hardy, to give wisdom to the philosophical criticism of Mr. Dooley and Mark Twain, or to burnish the powerful mirrors of Dickens, Swift, Addison, Goldsmith. According to the psychological metaphysics which Hazlitt spins for us in his essay on Wit and Humor, tears and laughter are sisters. It is true that behind the great comic incongruities we hear the tread of tragedy, but the joke is only a poor relation to the mighty Comic Spirit. It is a crumb, a niblet; standing by itself it cannot be developed far enough to show broad relations. Therefore it must be light, and it must seldom raise great questions or stir deep feelings.
Would that the Goddess of Humor and her sister the Spirit of Courtesy might teach people the proper limits of the joke! The joke editor’s daily bundle of manuscripts is seldom free from appalling misconceptions of what it is fitting to joke about. One of the chief offenders is the evidently good and sweet woman who sends for publication the story of her child’s unconscious irreverence. What was meant to record a naïve misconception of God is converted by the act of writing into a record of grotesque disrespect on the part of the parent, — except that the parent is a child too, and does not know any better. The editor ought to know better, and it is amazing that the comic section of one of our most respectable magazines prints each month two or three “jokes"about innocent little Willy’s offensive prayers and comments on Deity. Little Willy is not to blame, and it is not he who ought to be spanked.
High comedy may treat important tragic relations, and deal with ideas of God, Country, Poetry, Death, Marriage, Divorce, Parenthood; various wrong human attitudes toward these ideas are fair game even for the little joker, but the ideas themselves are impossible subjects for the short joke. Whoever jokes about eternal ideas is himself subject for satirical epigram, but the satire should be turned so that there shall be no doubt as to either its subject or its object. When great ideas go wrong in the human mind, man is laughable, he is also pitiable. I am in complete sympathy with the mind which on hearing a joke about a silly prayer, sobers in the presence of the Deity and forgets the rest of the story.
Not only reverence but truth and general decency prescribe the limits of the printable jest. The Yankee “whopper” is often only a whopper, and lacks the American whimsicality and riotous absurdity which enliven the yarn about the buckskin pants. The German who refused to laugh at a Yankee exaggeration and said, “ Dot is n’t a joke; it is a damned lie,”will always appeal to the American who flatters himself that no nation has such humor as his. The Teutonic lover of truth will especially delight the American who thinks a joke twice as funny when it is in dialect, and who would have me write the German’s reply: “ Dot iss nod a choke; id iss a tam lie.” But I would some of the honest Teutonic gravity might be let into the American character, for our people are too prone to think that any lie is funny.
Mr. Barrie’s Lang Tam mas was a critical as well as a creative master of his art, and his explanation that all is not grist which comes to the humorist’s mill makes an excellent essay on his calling. It is wise criticism, human and literary (just as the great chapter in Tom Jones where Partridge sees Garrick in Hamlet, is excellent dramatic criticism, as wise as Mr. Archer and at least as friendly as Mr. Winter). Lang Tammas felt that some things are beyond the jest of man, and therein his instinct is better than that of Hazlitt, the professional critic. “The best parodies,” says Hazlitt, “ are the most striking things reversed. Witness the common travesties of Homer and Virgil.” Now there never could be a funny travesty on Homer or Virgil, simply because the Iliad and the Æneid are noble poems. For the same reason Mark Twain’s Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court is a dismal failure as a whole. It is funny in spots; the Yankee newspaper in the age of chivalry is outrageously droll. Humor may justly fling at the incongruities and ignoble places of many great old stories. Provided we remember the glories, it will not hurt us to discover, when we are in the mood, that Achilles is a poor thing who in any decent civilization would be court-martialed and shot, or that chivalry did not insure the legitimacy of children, or that Samson was a “weleher” who lost a bet and tried to elude payment, or that Milton’s archangels talk like the members of a town meetin’, or that Dante’s geometry of the other worlds is grotesque. But the noble things, “the most striking things,” cannot be “reversed” with humorous effect. 1 have seen a horrible parody of Hamlet. written by an American in the era of strapped peg-top pantaloons; it is about as funny as a burlesque of the Ten Commandments.
Mr. John Kendrick Bangs may have screwed some laughs out of the notion of Shakespeare and Bacon meeting beyond the Styx, but the joke is not on Shakespeare, it is on the Baconian theory. So Artemus Ward gets fun out of crooked quotations ascribed to Bill Shakespeare, and he made the blunder doubly droll by his look of innocent surprise when the audience laughed. But the modern humorist should remember that Artemus did that sort of thing once for all, and we need no more of it.
When the humorist drives his shafts at the weak and the wrong sides of great works and great men, he really does a service to the noble sides. J. K. Stephen’s Two Voices should delight Wordsworth - ians, because half the sonnet is a beautiful tribute to the poet, and the rest burlesques only Wordsworth’s solemn twaddle. Wagner is not ridiculous; many Wagnerians are, and so are many performances with their wooden swans and automobile dragons. The church is not ridiculous, but there is matter enough for ridicule in the failings of some churchmen. Browning is not ludicrous; Browning societies are. Temperance is not funny ; temperance societies, distinguished for their intemperance, that meddle with the rights and ceremonies appertaining to the dubbing of battleships, are proper targets of hearty wit. Wit depends on nice distinctions, and it should first distinguish carefully the object of its aim.
The most tiresome jokes are those that depend on unwarrantable fictions, which persist only for the sake of making ever more and more jokes. Instead of striking at true and evident human failings, the joker alleges that poets have long hair (a Canadian rhapsodist is the only longhaired poet among the hundred and ten with whom I am personally acquainted); that Boston people use long words, especially the children; that a gentleman kicks out the door an undesirable suitor for his daughter’s hand; that Philadelphians are always slow; that tramps always meet bulldogs and women who bake bad pies; that servant girls are always insolent ; that Irishmen and no other people make bulls.
The traditions bred of international prejudice are the most ignorant and enduring fictions. Maria Edgeworth and her father proved long ago that the bull is a habit of thought common to all races, and though Sydney Smith had a good deal of fun reviewing the Edgeworths, the Irish succeeded in making out their case, however gratuitously. America alleges that the Englishman has no humor, and keeps right on enjoying Lamb and Dickens and Hood and Thackeray and Gilbert. In the same way the Englishman alleges that the Scotsman has no humor. Lamb tells of going to a meeting at which Burns’s son was to be present. In his “South British” way he expressed the wish that it was to be the poet father instead of the son, whereupon, Lamb declares, four Scotsmen started up at once to inform him that “that was impossible because he was dead.” Yet Burns, himself a Scotsman, had played with a fellow Scotsman’s literalness, and written his Tom Samson’s Elegy. When it was read to Tom he cried out, “Ay, but I’m no deid yet,” and was highly offended. To appease him Burns wrote a final stanza of retraction, Per Contra. Burns was as much a Scot as his heavy-minded victim, and his humor in this case is much like that of Lamb the Londoner.
It is a mystery to know how some of the fundamental joke fictions originated in the first place and how they dwell and flourish in the world so long. All our grandmothers are mothers-in-law, and the convention of sentimental poets gives grandmother a sweet face, excellent manners, and all homely virtues, yet the convention of humorists, the Convention of Federated Jokesmiths, brands the old lady as your father’s worst enemy.
Whether founded in fiction or in fact, there are certain ideas which appear continually in the joke columns. Some of these are old maid (let us all read a story called My Cousin Fanny, I think by Mr. Hopkinson Smith), widow, grass widow, bachelor, poet, Irishman (simply to begin “there was an Irishman” is to prepare for a laugh), dachshund, woman’s bank-account, sausages, fiancée, parrot, (odious bird!), golf, liquor, incontinence, garter, financier, servant girl, Standard Oil, Hearst, yellow journal, Milwaukee beer, seasickness, amateur actor, Dowie, pie, false teeth, baldness, hair tonic, breakfast food, bad spelling, solecisms, barbarisms, improprieties, mispronunciations, plutocracy, missionary, sleeping-car porter, Paderewski, new-rich, Jew, messenger boy, fishing, borrowing, lending, book agent, sea-serpent, goat, Depew, Russell Sage, Ladies’ Home Journal, Bok, Thompson-Seton, Rockefeller, Bishop Potter, Judge Emmons, Ella Wheeler Wilcox, Marie Corelli, Hall Caine, Henry James, Whistler, Bernard Shaw, skyscrapers, twins, kaiser, lawyer, doctor, automobile, Pierpont Morgan, Carrie Nation, lord, duke, mosquito, Kentucky, Indiana, New Jersey, Chicago, Boston, Pittsburg, Hoboken, Lynn, St. Louis, Chelsea, Philippines, politician, policeman, anti-anything, tramp, professor, freshman, society, Newport, terminations in “ski” and “vitch,” kindergarten, strike, silk hat, landlady,boarding-house, lover, cigarette.
This catalogue is carefully compiled from a systematic perusal of various kinds of comic journals, and contains only ideas which recurred frequently in several months. The list is not complete, but it marks most of the principal points in the latitude of the present-day jokeworld; the longitude exceeds the limits of our chart. Besides the joke nuclei in this careful and scientific inventory are all manner of puns which cannot be classified; they include most of the words in the dictionary which have cant usages or slangy meanings, are overworked, or are related to matters of special contemporaneous interest.
I cannot tell how good puns are made — I wish I knew; but I could show how the ordinary joke-maker might go to work with his dictionary to dig out some puns as good as the average in the newspaper columns. I once opened my dictionary at random. It happened to be the volume which runs, suggestively, from Celt to Drool. I took down twenty-seven words in “C,” each used in two or more senses, and out of the twenty-seven I made thirty jokes, for several of which I received real money. The dictionary is an exhaustless mine of every kind of machine-made composition. All that men have written, and all that they may write is there, and you can find it if you go to work scientifically. There are at least as many new jokes as there are words which have not been thoroughly punned on in all possible meanings.
A perfect pun makes good sense both ways; the edges meet with a click like the blades of a sharp pair of shears. Sometimes the very thoughts fit tight together in antagonistic identity, as when the man said of the temperance exhorter that he would be a good fellow if he would only let drink alone; or as when Disraeli (if it was he) wrote to the youth who had sent him a first novel: “I thank you very much. I shall lose no time in reading it;” or as when a man seeing a poor piece of carpentry, said, " That chicken-coop looks as if some man had made it himself.” Exquisite perverse literalness of thought! And the same absolute punning, the very self-destruction of a proposition, was the old death-thrust at a poor poet by the friend who said, “His poetry will be read when Shakespeare and Homer are forgotten.” It was a fine double-edged blade of speech until some crude fellow, Heine, I think, sharpened it to a wire edge by adding, “and not till then,” a banality that dulled its perfection forever.
These puns set an unattainable ideal for the modern day laborer in humor, and ideals will not help him much. My suggestion about the dictionary will be of more practical service, and I think that by giving it publicity I have taken away the excuse for making again puns that have been made once for all, and I have earned the right to suggest that when Ironic Fate makes a pun by appointing that the anti-drink and antirevelry candidates for high offices in the land shall be named Swallow and Carroll, the joke-seller should not try to improve on the humor of the gods, and take credit and money for their perfect jest.
I do not pretend that the dictionary is as large a mine of untried puns as its bulk promises. Its contents have been in human service a long time, and it is amazing how sharp were the ears and eyes of punsters in the eighteenth century —and seventeen years before the flood. Even puns are made or suggested by the facts of life, and life repeats itself; thus it comes about that your most freshly discovered pun, involving a very modern idea, you shall often find was made and printed before your mother first remarked what a bright boy you were.
A few years ago there were built on Boston Common those little rectangular white stations that look like tombs. It was promptly remarked that the Boston Public Library (a mausoleum where literature lies buried) had borne a litter of pups on the Common. I am personally acquainted with two men, who do not know each other, each of whom claims the authorship of that joke. Both have said enough excellent things to be quit of all need to borrow other men’s comic plumes. Probably both men did say that thing; for although the joke is memorably good, it is inevitable and would fall out in the operation of many a logical witty mind. Indeed it had occurred to another wit half a century before. In Dr. Rolfe’s Satchel Guide to Europe, under Brighton, it is recorded that Sydney Smith, divine by profession and in wit, said that that city,with its profusion of domes, cupolas, and minarets, looks “as if the dome of St. Paul’s had come to Brighton and pupped.” Sydney Smith died in 1845. Who ever does not trust so excellent a scholar as Dr. Rolfe may do what I have not had time to do, — track down the jest in the many memoirs and reminiscences of Smith and his friends, and write us a Contributors’ Club about the quest. No doubt Monckton Milnes, whom Smith dubbed the “cool of the evening,” and often suddenly and gently flayed, has somewhere got even with Peter Plymley, as Mr. Menpes has evened things up with Whistler, by recording the jests of the man who lashed him.
In this joke about architectural parturition, the same circumstances suggested the same analogy, just as the man in Holmes’s Autocrat said under certain conditions exactly the same thing that he had said under identical conditions a year before. On the second occasion it flashed across the man that he had repeated himself and he was ashamed, but Holmes (who, I suspect, took the situation from an experience of his own) justly admires a mind that works with such automatic perfection. So we may admire the human mind as a whole for making the same joke twice without consciousness of plagiarism.
After all, America was no less a new country to Columbus because some Scandinavian pirate had drifted, live centuries before, up a river which he did not know was the Charles and which probably was not. Nor was our country any less new to the Pilgrims because Columbus had struck the south shores. Lowell, I think, has it that the best things obligingly got themselves said several thousand years ago, and there is a saying that the best things were originated by the ancients, elaborated by the French, and credited to Disraeli. But mind, the best things are not all the good things. A Harvard instructor, whose business it is to teach undergraduates to criticise books they have not read, has said to me sadly that all we can do now is to learn to express things well; we have nothing more to say. By a curious fluke of human thought this utterance is unconscious proof of itself, for Pope said it two centuries ago. Before Carlyle and Browning and Thackeray and Wordsworth, the narrow-minded little duncedestroyer announced as his sole task, and the only task worth while, to say what oft was said and ne’er so well expressed. He acted according to his critical faith, or rather, as is the habit of human beings, he made his theory to fit his own limitations. The result is that of important English writers he is the most quoted since Shakespeare and the least original since the beginning of English literature. To think with freshness and originality, to find an undiscovered Holy Grail, it is necessary to journey forth with sure faith that there is one to find. If the English departments of colleges had any effect on the Literature of the Ages, I should distrust the influence of that instructor. Every man has a story which is no more like the story of another man than any two of the achieved masterpieces of former times are like to each other. Every age, century, decade, year, every nation, city, village, parish, furnishes background unique and strangely new for the oldest plot in the world, Life played by men, women, and nature, a plot so vast that it cannot be stale, a plot as new in the year of Japan 50 as in the year of Greece 100. poets and novelists vet unborn shall make new eras of literature which shall add whole squares to the diagrams of epochs in the handbooks; and if we could look into the future and read one stanza of the poet yet to be, we should wonder at its novelty, and think what dull folk we are not to have hit upon that fine thought in our time!
But the joke editor is toiling up the rocky slopes of the higher criticism where it is hard to breathe and almost impossible to laugh. Back to the easy lowlands of more certain paths! Though originality is everlastingly possible, it is everlastingly scarce and always has been. Novelty was rare in ages before ours, but the large number of ages has bequeathed to us so much that continuous republication of old things is possible to-day without turning the barrel over often, and without giving the ever-renewed generations of readers suspicion that most that they get from the latest humorous paper is already in the books. To express new oil from jests once dry with wit and to-day not too dry with age, it is necessary only to fit it to modern instances, to apply it locally. or to connect it with the name of a contemporary celebrity. To these three kinds of refitting all the essential jokes are repeatedly subjected by unwittingly and sometimes witlessly imitative laymen, and by professionals who deliberately ply their shears on old cloth. In some cases it is possible to tell which kind of hand has been at work.
As long ago as Molière the stock jest about the physician’s impotence to cure was put in immortal form, and sometime since a physician traced most of the jibes at his profession back to the ancients. The new element necessary to-day is simply a new disease or a recently discovered germ. “But you say you don’t know what is the matter with me?" “I am unable at present to determine exactly,” replies the doctor. “Oh, well, let it go at appendicitis; that’s as cheap as any.” Or : “Then make it a new disease and name it after me.” Or: " My wife could n’t tell either, and she did n’t charge me anything.”
Ever since the trial of Socrates, prisoners and witnesses have been getting the better of the officers of the court, and every month the Green Bay, a magazine for lawyers, prints fresh or stale evidence that the layman often outwits the lawyer.
The jokes of old campaigns turn up every time the parties go to war to determine which politicians shall have opportunity to prove themselves statesmen (and right there is one of the familiar jests of politics). The newspaper man hunts for stories to fit each candidate. The vice of the newspaper is that the only necessary virtues are excitement and timeliness. A joke is considered twice as available if it is hitched to a rising star or one that has not waned in public interest. A recent newspaper announces that Henry Ward Beecher once said, “ Possibly God might have made a better berry than the strawberry, but certainly he never did.” And possibly Beecher may have invented that joke, but certainly he never did, for in The Complete Angler Izaac Walton credited it to Dr. William Boteler (Butler), who died in 1621. It was Frederick the Great who quizzed the little girl about the mineral,animal, and vegetable kingdoms, and to whom she replied,when he asked her to what kingdom he belonged, “To the Kingdom of Heaven, sire.” The story was told of Frederick III, in his time, and within a year it has been told of the present Emperor. Any well-known man who tells a story without pretending that it is his, may see it next day in the public prints ascribed to his invention. The modern writer is on the watch for yarns and plots, and he cares not whence they come. A familiar story of a faithful dog who fetched a stick of dynamite to his master and pursued him with it, was seized on by four professional purveyors of fiction, and served up in four several magazines. A young man I know told his sister a string of old jokes about drunken men. She told them to a writer of magazine fiction, and they all appeared in a popular periodical wrought into an ingenious plot. The newspaper man is more keenly pressed for matter than the writer of confessed fiction, and his attitude toward fact is much the same. If he cannot do better he is forced to take old stories, and introduce them as the latest production of a man who is “good copy.”
Thomas B. Reed, the statesman from Maine, and Mr. Chauncey M. Depew, the politician from New York (again the familiar joke entered in my card catalogue as No. 9999, and made in one form by Mr. Reed himself), are known as tellers of stories and crackers of quips. Mr. Reed was certainly a humorist of the Yankee type which in its highest literary form is Mark Twain. By the way, the Yankee humorist received an adroit dig in the ribs from the Kentucky economist, statesman, and master of literary style, Colonel Henry Watterson. He is reported to have advised Mr. John Sharp Williams not to damage his political efficiency by getting a reputation as congressional humorist. “If you do tell a story, tell it with a Yankee drawl, so they’ll think you’re from New England.” Mr. Reed is one of the few men in public life since Lincoln who have succeeded in driving in tandem a dignified reputation as master of affairs and an international notoriety caparisoned in jingling bells.
Knowing that the Reed gold label will make inferior goods salable in the market place, and that the label is not protected by the patent laws, the newspaper space artist takes his typewriter in hand and writes: “The late Tom (never Thomas) Reed was one day walking down the aisle of the House ”— So much for a winning introduction which makes the reader sit up. The newspaper man then takes down a volume of the Encyclopædia of American Political Humor, and finds on page 2345 that when the Hawaiian Islands were under discussion a congressman made a pun on “aisle” and “isle.” Transferring the pun to Mr. Reed and the Philippines, the forger of anecdote proceeds: “Mr. Reed found a Democratic congressman blocking the way. He paused a moment, and as the man did not remove himself to give room for the bulky form of the Czar, Mr. Reed said in his well-known drawl, a smile on his intelligent face, ‘Sir, I believe you said in your speech on Hawaii that even in savage isles all men have equal rights. Have you established a monopoly in this one ?’ The Democrat moved aside and Mr. Reed proceeded to the Speaker’s chair amid the roars of the bystanders.” Mr. Reed usually spoke in a calm low voice, but according to the newspapers, whenever he said anything funny, people heard him for five blocks and roared.
I know that this illustrative anecdote represents truly the habits of the newspaper joke counterfeiter, for I have just invented the story myself. Alas for the business of Mr. Reed if he ever said half the funny things set down to his credit and discredit! He must have jested eight hours a day for fifty years. So Mr. Depew, who is evidently willing to spend a part of the day in the manufacture and repair of humor, could not have made even the bad stories the authorship of which is charged upon his shoulders. Indeed History tells us that many jokes with which he has eloped were wedded to other humorists before he was born, and he must be aware of this from his extensive reading.
One thing that Mr. Reed did say had been said before he thought of it, and it has been said a few times since his death. I mean his retort to the man who boasted that he’d rather be right than be president. “The gentleman,” said Mr. Reed, “will never be either.” A later variation of this joke was made by a gentleman on whom was urged the nomination to an office which seems to be undesirable, though many of us would like to hold it. “You are wrong,” said the party boss, “to refuse this nomination. You are wronging your party, your country, and yourself.” “Well,” was the reply, “as the fellow did not say, I’d rather be wrong than be vice-president.” An earlier variation antedating Mr. Reed was perpetrated in Boston, an obsolescent city on the Atlantic coast which once produced things by which the rest of the country has profited ever since. An Irishman of wit and poetic distinction cried in the heat of argument, “I’d rather be Irish than be right.” And a friend rejoined, “You’re more likely to be.”
Mr. Reed’s form of the joke had sufficiently wide circulation, and it has always been indissolubly linked with Mr. Reed’s name. But behold in the year 1904 appears the following in a Louisville paper. Note the new cast of characters and especially the alleged authorship of a local celebrity from Chicago, obscurity standing sponsor for the illustrious. “’T had a dream last night,’ said Willis P. Gathright, of Chicago, at Seelbach’s Hotel. ' It was about Judge Alton B. Parker. I dreamed that Judge Parker was making an argument, and concluded his speech by saying, “I am right. I know I am, and I would rather be right than be president.” William Jennings Bryan stood near Judge Parker, and with a mischievous look in his flashing eyes, said: “Don’t worry about that, Judge; you’ll never be either.’”” The surprising thing is not that this joke should appear thus refurnished in a Kentucky paper, but that the New York Sun, which prides itself on being alert, should have copied the story with credit to its Louisville contemporary.
Lincoln staggers under a greater burden of anecdote than any man of a later generation, for his anthology of real and spurious story is lumbered with the accretion of half a century. No doubt he was a great joker and story-teller, and no doubt he told his stories to so many people that few have been lost. No man, however, even an idle gossiper, could have spoken the number of words that are recorded as having come from the lips of this overworked man. Him the inventor of bogus biography has not spared. The ingredients of a Lincoln story are a semi-political conference of some sort and homely analogy. I have made several Lincoln stories, and I thought of setting one down here to show how the crime is committed. But I have too much to answer for already. My invention might be copied in the newspapers and accepted as genuine, just as the declared hypothetical letter from Mr. Roosevelt to a labor leader, which the New York Evening Post contrived for satirical purposes, was taken seriously, and was repudiated by Mr. Roosevelt and by the labor leader. Though I might label my story a pure fiction, it would be seized upon by Mary Mabel Jones, who is preparing a new Life of Lincoln for the Great Men as They Actually Were Series, and nothing that I could do in a lifetime of repentance would ever set the matter straight.
A latter-day victim of the anecdote factory is Mr. Carnegie, who being a Scot is accused of the parenthood of every story found in Geikie’s Reminiscences and other Caledonian compilations. He is the scapegoat who succeeded Ian Maclaren after the Drumtochty blaze burned out in this country. I do not know whether Mr. Carnegie is a great raconteur, but — well, there were public libraries before he began to hand them round.
Years ago Professor Blackie of Edinburgh, who has been dead ten years, put a notice on his door that he could not meet his “classes" that day. Some waggish student rubbed out the “c;” the professor saw the erasure and promptly struck out the “I.” In 1904 the story appeared appended to the name of Professor John F. Genung of Amherst. Long study of Professor Genung’s Rhetoric convinces me that he is humorist enough to have been hero of that little comedy, and without asking him, it is impossible to say that this thing did not happen at Amherst; but if the editor who last paid money for the joke cared at all about truth, economy, and the origin of the anecdote species, even if he did not know the Blackie story, he might have reasoned it out that the joke is probably Scotch; for “lasses" is a word that the Scotch eye would see concealed in “classes” whereas the word is almost obsolete to the American. But of course the newspaper editor does not care a rap who the professor was, and it is cheaper to pay for an old joke than it is to dig it out in the libraries.
Sometimes a story is hung on shoulders which no tailoring could make it fit. A reputable periodical printed a story of one of the gentlest, most courteous humorists,which represented him as making a great racket at a merry gathering in his flat. The man in the flat below sent up word that the noise disturbed him. The servant said, “Mr. Jones says he cannot read.”“Can’t he?” was the ill-bred repartee. “Tell him I could when I was only four years old.”And this, which might have done honor to Whistler’s rudeness, was attributed to a man who could not do or say anything impolite. The truth is that the ordinary newspaper editor, so long as he keeps on the right side of the fence which the law has set up, does not care whether he slanders a gentleman. The newspaper has come in for so much scolding at the hands of critics and moralists that any one even remotely related to the press is inclined to defend a great and useful profession where hard work is the rule, and where on the whole a sound intelligence is the guide. If the honest newspaper editor were not driven to nervous hysteria by overwork, no doubt he would take more time to think about the little anecdotes that fill the chinks, and he would consider whether Mr. Roosevelt or Mr. Howells or Mark Twain, men of known personality, could or would have said the many discreditable things which the humorist lends to their lips.
Newspaper editors have more important things to think about. But the “humorous" periodical ought to do better than the newspaper. It is a pity that America has no adequate funny paper, no periodical which expresses in a catholic way the humor of which America boasts. We ought as a nation to do at least as well as the Germans do in Fliegende Blätter or as the English do in Bunch. On the whole the casual newspaper paragraphs and joke corners, especially those in the Chicago journals, are wittier and wiser than our comic weeklies. They show what the American joker could do, if he had a good national medium of satirical writing, up to the standard of Punch. The odd thing is that the American is inclined to hoot at Punch, which as a collection of humor has beaten us in every way for fifty years. When Emerson said in his essay on Fate that Punch prints with fatalistic — perhaps he meant fatal — regularity one good joke a week, he did the London weekly the minimum of justice. For finished satire, adroit parody, skillful verses as good as Gilbert and Owen Seaman, the American reader has to go to the English “Charivari.” Though the humor sometimes palls for us because it is remote from our national interests, yet Punch regularly leaves its American contemporaries out of the race. If the weekly pictures of some awkward rider coming a cropper are wearisome intrinsically and in repetition, they are at least as good as the endless pictures which recur in our satirical papers, of tailor-made youths and offensively pretty girls, whose slender dialogue is quoted beneath their fashion-plate portraits. One can excuse the weekly stench of the automobiles, for persistent satire against a foe has cumulative value and makes for reform. But the taste for cupids and hearts, for kisses petrified and prolonged in the moveless permanence of wash drawings, for barenecked ladies who are doing nothing worth while, and lovers who are saying nothing directly or indirectly funny, for limericks in Mr. Kr. Sr. a hundred times reprinted, — surely the taste for all this is not for a humorous paper to cater to, but matter against which good humorous satire would properly be directed. The trouble is that the humorous papers, like many other publications, breed their own kind in the contributors, and bring up an inbred family of wits. If a joke has pleased, one near like it will also please. The minds of editors, like those of great men, run in the same channel. As my cynic friend told me at the outset, the contributor knows that imitation brings the sincerest acceptance.
Not long ago I read the old joke about the Scotsman who, in accordance with the habit of lairds to call themselves by their estate, registered in a hotel book, “Cluny and Mrs. McPherson.” An American followed him in the hotel register with “4506 Wabash Av., and Mrs. Brown.” An American Episcopalian bishop reminds us of the power of British tradition in our humbler land by signing himself “William Albany.” A Methodist bishop grimly records himself as “John Oshkosh” (or Schenectady, or Terre Haute, or Boise City, according to the location of the newspaper that robs the boneyard). And what are all these jokes but the old one which has been told of every American who is known to adorn his travels with a body servant ? In its most common form it appears that a wellknown war correspondent registered at the hotel: “Richard llarding Gibson and Valet.” And of course somebody signed, “John Smith and Valise.''
A favorite trick of the anecdote-maker, as of the writer of historical romance, is to provoke astonishment by suddenly revealing the great man in disguise. It is a device easily applied to any distinguished personage. A private unwittingly insults General Grant in the dark (vide Shakespeare’s Henry V); a stranger in St. Petersburg asks a gentleman for a light for his cigar, a simple and not discourteous thing to do according to American standards, but it turns out that the man who so politely lends his lighted cigar is the Grand Duke Spitzovitch or the Czar himself! ! ! ! (That is the way to punctuate this kind of story.) I have seen the same thrilling yarn of the great man incognito told about King Edward, Kaiser Wilhelm, Emperor Franz-Joseph, Ruskin and Queen Victoria (the last two were of course not smoking). Here is the most recent that I have clipped from the prints:
“King Leopold, who has been spending his vacation at Biarritz, came out of his bath one morning, and collided with a portly man who evidently did not know the king in his bathing suit. ‘What do you mean, sir?’ snorted the man savagely. “I would have you know I am a member of the Paris City Council!' ‘Then I offer a thousand apologies,’replied the king at once (no hesitation, mind you, “at once”). ‘I am only the King of the Belgians.’ ”
So the cycles of jokes revolve, disappear and reappear. I have written several which came back to roost with their spurs clipped, branded “English Magazine.” My own inventions have been submitted to me as the personal experiences of somebody else, usually a great man whom I have not met. The Shakespearean series, born-achieve-thrust-upon, applies no less to jokes than to babies and greatness. The whole process of jokeology, from origin to latest printing, is human and engaging. All people like jokes and all would make them if they could. The chestnut and the latest invention minister alike to a need of our spirit. All good jokes shall live to be chestnuts, and good chestnuts shall not die, for a real joke is known by the humor it keeps.