A Notorious Trifler

For Ogden Nash, humor was "a shield, a weapon, a survival kit." Herewith a small selection, previously unpublished

This August marks the hundredth anniversary of the birth of Ogden Nash, the idiosyncratic American master of light verse who is perhaps best remembered for his Prohibition-era suggestion that in matters of social icebreaking, "Candy/Is dandy/But liquor/Is quicker." For decades most of Nash's papers, public and private, have been in the possession of the University of Texas (Nash sold them, in 1967, to pay an unexpectedly large IRS bill), but more documents have recently come to light. Discovered among old family papers by Frances Smith, one of Nash's granddaughters, they include letters, poems, notes on rhyming possibilities, line drawings, drafts of stories, and rejected verse. A few selections are published here, for the first time.

Although Nash wrote prolifically for more than four decades, from the late 1920s through the 1960s, he always took pains to distance himself from any sort of earnest literary ambition. In his youth he decided to work at becoming "a good bad poet" rather than "a bad good poet"; later in life he defined himself not as a poet but as a "versifier" and devoted himself to "the minor idiocies of humanity"; and in 1970, only a year before his death, he dismissed himself as "a notorious trifler" and "a freak with the knack for rhyming."

Although some critics agreed with that last assessment, Nash had friends and fellow writers who were less deprecating. In 1938 F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, in a letter to his daughter, "Ogden Nash's poems are not careless, they all have an extraordinary inner rhythm." The literary critic Clifton Fadiman was a great admirer too. "I once nominated Mr. Nash for the Pulitzer Prize," Fadiman recalled, not long after Nash's death, "but the judges weren't listening. I not only thought Mr. Nash the best writer of light verse of his time, but sort of a poet laureate of our age of small frictions. He writes, in a suitably bumpy manner, about these troubles we all share, such as the common cold and Monday mornings." The poet Archibald MacLeish was perhaps Nash's most enthusiastic booster, going so far as to credit Nash—in the preface to I Wouldn't Have Missed It (1975), a posthumous collection of Nash's verse—with "the invention of a form, uniquely his own, which defied all the categories."

Artist or trifler, Nash was for years a popular and commercially successful writer. His first book of verse, Hard Lines, published in 1931, went through seven printings in a single year. Emboldened by his success, Nash quit his job as an editor at Doubleday (where he was the first to publish a book by the future U.S. poet laureate Stanley Kunitz), worked briefly for The New Yorker, and went on ultimately to publish about fifty more books of verse. He was also regularly pulled in other directions, many of them improbable. In the mid-1930s he moved to Hollywood and worked on, among other things, a movie adaptation of Dale Carnegie's best-selling How to Win Friends and Influence People and a rewrite of The Wizard of Oz. (Neither was ever used.) In 1942-1943 Nash wrote the lyrics and co-wrote the libretto (with S. J. Perelman) for the successful Broadway musical One Touch of Venus, which featured a score by Kurt Weill—and in 1943, the new Nash papers confirm, he even attempted a stage-musical adaptation of Gone With the Wind.

In the 1950s and 1960s Nash's popularity as a writer waned, and he spent more and more time on the lecture circuit. One of the last speeches he delivered, in 1970, was a commencement address to his granddaughter Linell's graduating class at Miss Porter's School, in Connecticut. In the address, a copy of which was found in the Smith papers, Nash summed up the effect he strove for in his work. He wanted to inspire laughter, not laughs, he said. Humor "is not brash," he wrote. "It is not cheap. It is not heartless. Among other things, it is a shield, a weapon, a survival kit." He continued, "So here we are, several million of us, crowded into our global concentration camp for the duration. How are we to survive? Solemnity is not the answer, any more than witless and irresponsible frivolousness. I think our best chance—a good chance—lies in humor, which, in this case, means a wry acceptance of our predicament."