Saturday, February 7, 2009

Richard Armour

Years ago, my interest in old books was satisfied by a few visits per year to a used book store. I would walk in, nod to the proprietor – usually an old hippie about my age – and then leisurely browse through bookcases crammed to the ceiling with the literary residue of past generations. On a lucky day, I would greedily pluck my out-of-print treasure from the shelf, amazed that nobody had beaten me to the dog-eared 1906 edition of Tom Swift and His Electric Dirigible. But, more often, I would just wander about until I started sneezing from the musty air and had to depart. The pastime was harmless and inexpensive.

But now, the Internet has transformed everything. Amazon's website has links to used book stores across the nation. I click my mouse and any book that I select will arrive in the mail. The supply of books is immense. So is the danger of pauperizing myself.

Amazon eliminates the old-fashioned interval between desire and purchase. No time is wasted considering whether the purchase makes sense. Let me give an example. While reading a biblical commentary, I noticed that the author included a footnote that recommended other works. A few impulsive clicks of the mouse and soon in my mailbox appeared eight volumes by nineteenth-century Lutheran theologian Ernst Wilhelm Hengstenberg. This simple process – desire the book and then click the mouse – has grown into habit, almost a reflex, during the past several years and I can now boast two bookcases full of old books: mainly theology, philosophy, history, literature, adventure, and humor.

Two weeks ago, I was reminiscing about the humor books that I enjoyed reading in my youth. The familiar desire flamed within me. And so, thanks to Amazon and a surprisingly speedy U.S. postal service, within a week I had received two comic histories and one book of light verse by Richard Armour, an American humorist who made his reputation during the 1950s and 1960s.

But this was just the beginning. Armour's first comic history, It All Started with Columbus, was dedicated to two British gentlemen, Walter Carruthers Sellar and Robert Julian Yeatman, who had written a comic history of England in 1930 entitled 1066 and All That. Obviously, I had to have that predecessor book as well. It arrived three days ago. (Fortunately for my budget, Armour's literary lineage only went back to Sellar and Yeatman. Those two hadn't dedicated their book to any previous humor writer in the Victorian era.)

Wordplay, puns, and satire are the main comic techniques employed by Sellar and Yeatman. They assume that their readers have a good knowledge of English history and will recognize the comic distortions in the book. My own knowledge of English history is sketchy. Consequently, I missed some of the jokes about kings in the middle ages .

Here is a sample of 1066 and All That.

The first date in English History is 55 B.C., in which year Julius Caesar (the memorable Roman Emperor) landed, like all other successful invaders of these islands, at Thanet. This was in the Olden Days, when the Romans were top nation on account of their classical education, etc.

Julius Caesar advanced very energetically, throwing his cavalry several thousands of paces over the River Flumen; but the Ancient Britons, though all well over miliary age, painted themselves true blue, or woad, and fought as heroically under their dashing queen, Woadicea, as they did later in thin red lines under their good queen, Victoria.

Julius Caesar was therefore compelled to invade Britain again the following year (54 B.C., not 56, owing to the peculiar Roman method of counting), and having defeated the Ancient Britons by unfair means, such as battering-rams, tortoises, hippocausts, centipedes, axes, and bundles, set the memorable Latin sentence, "Veni, Vidi, Vici," which the Romans, who were all very well educated, construed correctly.

The Britons, however, who of course still used the old pronunciation, understanding him to have called them "Weeny, Weedy, and Weaky," lost heart and gave up the struggle, thinking that he had already divided them All into Three Parts.

In 1953, when Richard Armour undertook his own comic history of America, It All Started with Columbus, he patterned his style on this earlier British work:

America was founded by Columbus in 1492. This is an easy date to remember because it rhymes with "ocean blue," which was the color of the Atlantic in those days. If he had sailed a year later the date would still be easy to remember because it would rhyme with "boundless sea."

Columbus fled to this country because of persecution by Ferdinand and Isabella, who refused to believe the world was round, even when Columbus showed them an egg. Ferdinand later became famous because he objected to bullfights and said he preferred to smell flowers if he had to smell anything. He was stung in the end by a bee.

Before Columbus reached America, which he named after a man called American Vesuvius, he cried "Ceylon! Ceylon!" because he wanted to see India, which was engraved on his heart, before he died. When he arrived, he cried again. This time he cried "Excelsior!" meaning "I have founded it." Excelsior has been widely used ever since by persons returning with chinaware from China, with indiaware from India, and with underware from Down Under.

This first book ran only 115 pages; but even at that length, the constant stream of puns and satire tires the reader. For subsequent books, Armour adopted a more relaxed narrative style that I find preferable. In 1956 he turned his attention to notable women in history. The book was It All Started with Eve.

Here is an excerpt from the chapter on Eve. Armour manages to add a sensuous undertone to his humor, but with no trace of prurience.

One day while she was sitting in the shade of the old apple tree, a snake came up and introduced himself. In those days snakes were called serpents and walked upright and looked people straight in the eye. This snake had a receding forehead and small eyes, but he was slenderer than Adam, especially in the hips. There was a sophisticated, worldly look about him, too. He had obviously been places and seen things. At any rate, thought Eve, he was a change.

The snake bent over and kissed Eve's hand. "You're ravishing," he said.

"Stop kidding," said Eve, but she was pleased and a little embarrassed. A blush started in her cheeks and kept going. In Eve's time you could follow a blush all the way.

Here is an excerpt from the end of the chapter on Marie Antoinette. She is about to fall victim to the vengence of the French Revolution:

Meantime the Reign of Terror was in full sway. Revolutionists paraded the streets, singing the Marseillaise and frightening everybody with their grimaces when they tried to reach the high notes. Some carried the heads of unfortunate Aristocrats on their pikes, hoping they would keep until Halloween. A guillotine had been set up at the Place de la Discorde, and the people of Paris were enjoying themselves royally. When the knife blade flashed down, Madame Defarge and her ghoul friends dropped their knitting and stood up to see what was coming off.

One day they came for the King. He said good-by to his wife and promised he would be back shortly. Or maybe he said shorter.

Finally they came for the Queen. They were singing lustily, and asked her to accompany them. As she mounted the steps to the guillotine, there was a storm of cutting remarks. But Marie Antoinette held her head high. So, a few minutes later, did the headsman.

Armour's light verse is clever but much of it seems bland to modern tastes. At his most playful, Armour nearly rises to the level of Odgen Nash.

Here is his poem (from the collection The Medical Muse) written in response to a news item stating that among the greater metropolitan areas with populations of a million or over, the Boston area has the highest ratio of physicians to population.

Why is it doctors are the thickest
In Boston? Are the people sickest?
If so, and this is rather odd,
Is it from eating beans and cod?

Or do the doctors swarm in legions
Around the proper Back Bay regions
Because they find it elevated
To treat the Harvard educated?

We do not know the reason, but
To young M.D.s who know what's what
We'd say: Seek out, sir, some metropolis
Where doctors are not quite so popolis.