Monday, June 25, 2012

British Humour after the Great War

As part of my investigation of comic writing, I bought a used copy of Stephen Leacock's 1938 book Humor and Humanity.  Leacock's old-fashioned and idealistic view of written humor is summarized in the book's preface. 

The author has given to this book the title Humor and Humanity, rather than the obvious and simple title Humor, in order to emphasize his opinion that the essence of humor is human kindliness.  It is this element in humor which has grown from primitive beginnings to higher forms: which lends to humor the character of a leading factor in human progress, and which is destined still further to enhance its utility to mankind.

In the book, Leacock recommended A. A. Thomson's 1936 book Written Humour for details of British humor.  I went searching for this book and discovered that it had nearly been lost to obscurity.  Only twenty copies were available within the vast Interlibrary Loan system of libraries.  This posed a potential problem: libraries are often reluctant to loan out books that are essentially irreplaceable.  Fortunately, Interlibrary Loan found a library willing to loan the book.   Within a few weeks a worn and fragile volume from the San Diego State College Library was sent to me.

Thomson began with general descriptions of the various realms of humorous writing and then compared the genial, civilized British approach to humor with the snappy approach favored by the Americans.

American humour displays even sharper contrasts with our own, and anyone who wishes to sell his stories to the American magazines must frankly recognize this fact.  I have an American cousin, a charming and intelligent companion, who sincerely believes that the English have no sense of humour whatever.  This view, comic as it may seem to us, is shared by many good American citizens, who would not otherwise speak evil of us.  They think us slow, dull, and stand-offish, too prim and formal to appreciate a funny situation or a swift wisecrack.  We, on the other hand, can be just as intolerant, and sometimes express the opinion that American humour is a mere form of slapstick, incredibly crude and unedifying.  Neither of these opinions give a fair all-round view of the position.  They underline but do not explain, certain obvious differences. The fact is that while English people, as a rule, prefer their humour to ripple along with a quiet whimsicality, many Americans like their laughter in a more exuberant form, deriving great pleasure from wild exaggeration, picturesque hyperbole, and the shuttlecock and battledore of swiftly bandied repartee.

I should explain that a battledore is a small racket used to strike a shuttlecock.  The ancient Indian game of "battledore and shuttlecock" is the ancestor of our modern game of badminton.  In Charles Dickens's Pickwick Papers, Sam Weller says, "Battledore and shuttlecock's a wery good game, vhen you an't the shuttlecock and two lawyers the battledores, in which case it gets too exciting to be pleasant."

Thomson recommended A. A. Milne, a Punch humor writer later famous for his Winnie the Pooh children's books, as a master of British whimsy.  Here is the beginning of Milne's 1920 humorous essay "On Going into a House."

It is nineteen years since I lived in a house; nineteen years since I went upstairs to bed and came downstairs to breakfast. Of course I have done these things in other people’s houses from time to time, but what we do in other people’s houses does not count. We are holiday-making then. We play cricket and golf and croquet, and run up and down stairs, and amuse ourselves in a hundred different ways, but all this is no fixed part of our life. Now, however, for the first time for nineteen years, I am actually living in a house. I have (imagine my excitement) a staircase of my own.

Flats may be convenient (I thought so myself when I lived in one some days ago), but they have their disadvantages. One of the disadvantages is that you are never in complete possession of the flat. You may think that the drawing-room floor (to take a case) is your very own, but it isn’t; you share it with a man below who uses it as a ceiling. If you want to dance a step-dance, you have to consider his plaster. I was always ready enough to accommodate myself in this matter to his prejudices, but I could not put up with his old-fashioned ideas about bathroom ceilings. It is very cramping to one’s style in the bath to reflect that the slightest splash may call attention to itself on the ceiling of the gentleman below. This is to share a bathroom with a stranger—an intolerable position for a proud man. To-day I have a bathroom of my own for the first time in my life.

Milne has a pleasant style as an essayist, but his writing is unlikely to elicit knee slaps and guffaws from the 21st century reader. 

In the realm of humorous fiction, Thomson awards the honors to P. G. Wodehouse for his "spirit of sheer irresponsible fun which blends narrative, characters, and dialogue into one glorious whole."

Of all humorists, Wodehouse is perhaps the most difficult to analyse.  The frameworks of his stories are not elaborate, and the plots of his novels would probably seem quite ordinary comedy plots, if handled by somebody else.  What he gives to his work is something that is part of his own rich ad joyous personality.  His touch is not deliberately fantastic, for his characters are, within the limits of gorgeous exaggeration, real enough, nor is it, in the ordinary sense, farcical, for farce, even at its swiftest, always has something a little heavy-footed and pedestrian about it.  I am inclined to think that it might be said of Wodehouse, as Chesterton said of Dickens, that he is really a fairy-tale writer.

Here is a sample from Wodehouse's 1917 story "Bill the Bloodhound."

There's a divinity that shapes our ends. Consider the case of Henry Pifield Rice, detective.

I must explain Henry early, to avoid disappointment. If I simply said he was a detective, and let it go at that, I should be obtaining the reader's interest under false pretences. He was really only a sort of detective, a species of sleuth. At Stafford's International Investigation Bureau, in the Strand, where he was employed, they did not require him to solve mysteries which had baffled the police. He had never measured a footprint in his life, and what he did not know about bloodstains would have filled a library. The sort of job they gave Henry was to stand outside a restaurant in the rain, and note what time someone inside left it. In short, it is not 'Pifield Rice, Investigator. No. 1.—The Adventure of the Maharajah's Ruby' that I submit to your notice, but the unsensational doings of a quite commonplace young man, variously known to his comrades at the Bureau as 'Fathead', 'That blighter what's-his-name', and 'Here, you!'

Henry lived in a boarding-house in Guildford Street. One day a new girl came to the boarding-house, and sat next to Henry at meals. Her name was Alice Weston. She was small and quiet, and rather pretty. They got on splendidly. Their conversation, at first confined to the weather and the moving-pictures, rapidly became more intimate. Henry was surprised to find that she was on the stage, in the chorus. Previous chorus-girls at the boarding-house had been of a more pronounced type—good girls, but noisy, and apt to wear beauty-spots. Alice Weston was different.

Even after nearly a century, Wodehouse's prose still sparkles.

In the realm of burlesque and nonsense, Thomson applauded the work of six writers: Lewis Carroll, Stephen Leacock, Ashley Sterne, D. B. Wyndham Lewis, F. W. Thomas, and Maurice Lane-Norcott.  In our day, Lewis Carroll remains universally renowned.  Stephen Leacock may no longer be a household name, but many of his collections of comic stories remain in print.  (Seven of his volumes adorn my bookcase.)  But the remaining four men are seldom spoken of today. 

I intend to check out Ashley Sterne's writing.  Interlibrary Loan lists a mere four copies of Ashley Sterne's 1926 story collection Knotted Yarns.  I placed my request today, hoping that one of the four libraries trusts me with its copy.

Here's a contemporary review of the collection from the London periodical The Age:

"Knotted Yarns," by Ashley Sterne (Nisbet and Co. Ltd, London) are a series of sketches of the broadly burlesque kind, which have been contributed to the "Passing Show," "London Opinion" and the "Bystander."  They represent the limits to which an English humorist will go, and are, as a flapper would say, "screamingly funny."  The very title of the first one – The Sheik, the Shriek and the Shrike – is enough to bring a smile to the reader's face.  The sketch is funny enough to convulse one.  The second one – The Charity Which Stayed at Home – concerning the heartburnings of a vicar who wins 10,000 pounds in a lottery reads like Anthony Trollope run mad.  The others are in similar strain.

The collection sounds jolly good!   

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

The Vertical Blogger

Chastened by a recent popular science article that warned of the dangers of the sedentary life, two days ago I reconfigured my computer setup so that I now stand instead of sit in front of my computer.

For years I have kept my computer on a card table in my bedroom.  (The card table, a wedding gift from the 1980s, is still serviceable, having now outlasted the marriage itself by fifteen years.)  But this computer location had a pernicious effect: I was susceptible to wasting time in long sessions on the computer before bedtime, harming my body through indolence and my sleep through residual nervous excitement.  It was time for a change.

I searched my townhouse for a place to relocate my computer.  The ideal place would allow me stand comfortably, with the keyboard and mouse at waist level, the center of the monitor at eye level, and the computer tower within easy reach of all my existing cables.  I first considered the various book cases that fill my house.  A book case would permit the computer equipment to be stacked vertically, I reasoned.  However, I discovered that no book case was deep enough.  And it's no use to have the computer monitor directly above the keyboard.  Eye strain or poor posture would surely result.

A makeshift pyramid of cardboard boxes atop my trusty card table seemed like a possible approach; but I knew that my younger son, a purist in matters of craftsmanship and household furnishing, would express his disapproval in laconic comments and withering glances.  He tries to discourage my tendencies toward lazy, slapdash solutions.

Finally, I found a good location for my computer in the pantry closet adjacent to the kitchen.  Now the monitor is at the right height and is recessed a foot back from the keyboard.  The keyboard is resting on a pair of telephone books to bring it into proper ergonomic position.  (A bit slapdash, I suppose, but not particularly objectionable.)

It's too early to be certain about the results of standing to use the computer; however, I notice that my legs get tired about about half an hour.  This may cause me to write shorter blog entries.  Time will tell.


Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Back to the Land of the Lean

I just took a vacation in Iowa, the land of my birth.  Although I am right at a BMI value of 30, the official boundary between being overweight and being obese (shame on me!), I flattered myself that I appeared relatively fit compared with many Iowans my age.  According to a 2010 study by the Centers for Disease Control, more than 28% percent of Iowa adults are obese.  In my age bracket, I would guess that the obesity rate is pushing 40%. 

Colorado has the lowest adult obesity rate of all the states, a mere 21%.  (In relative terms, this is something to boast about.  In absolute terms, this is dreadful.  In 1992, Colorado's obesity rate was below 10%.)

For the sake of motivation, it's probably better to be an embarrassed fat man in Colorado than a complacent fat man in Iowa.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

A Fairy Tale Fragment

I am currently going through the files on my computer to determine what I want to archive to the Amazon cloud storage.  Apart from documents about family matters, there is little amidst my collected ephemera that is worthy of preservation.  Many things that seemed important to me years ago now seem like trifles, no more valuable than my childhood collection of colored rocks stored in egg cartons.   

I found some writings from a period when I was experimenting with journaling or non-directive writing, as I attempted to follow Dorothea Brande’s advice for novice writers.  She said the important thing was to free the mind from the shackles of self criticism.  To further stymie my over-active critical sense, I would type at the computer with my eyes closed.  The effect was more like dictation than literary composition, which in my case proceeds by endless accretions, deletions and rearrangements.  My results were not encouraging.  I cranked out endless pages of pretentious, vaguely haiku-like maunderings:  

Even the strongest and purest work is undertaken from uncertain beginnings.  A light shines in the darkness and we move toward it.  How glib we are in explaining our motivations and desires!  

Or worse: The boulevard glows with subtle inquiries and suppositions.  The corner shops sell what you need, if what you need is recreation and despair.  By their fruits ye shall know them.

Or even worse: Taste the sweet savor of priceless beauty.  Vapors of Christian piety drift over the source of true imagining.  

Buried in this drivel I found a fragment of a short story dating from January 2004.  It appears to be the beginning of a fairy tale, judging by its tone; but I have no memory of writing it.

There was a cottage near a gap in the mountains.   Travelers would stop for aid from time to time, because the way through the mountains beyond was steep and uncertain.  The cottager, a sociable old fellow, would tend to their needs: a bite of porridge perhaps, some friendly conversation, and a hospitable pile of bedding straw in the corner of the cottage.  

One time in the fall the cottager was awakened at dawn by an insistent rapping on the door.  He climbed unsteadily from the loft, nearly slipping on the bowed ladder rungs.  He bent to peer through a lengthwise crack in the door slats; and in the gray morning light spied a young woman, no older than fifteen or sixteen, dressed or rather wrapped in a loose drapery of dark green cloth.  “Just a moment,” he said over the continued rapping .  He unfastened the binding strap and opened the door part way, not for fear of the young woman but cautious that she might have an accomplice bent on mischief.

That's all!

Friday, June 1, 2012

A Literary Dustup Over Jack Kerouac

I signed up for a free 5 gigabytes of storage on Amazon last weekend and began copying my little literary and musical treasures to this storage stronghold in the Amazon cloud. 

While searching my computer for items worth preserving, I ran across a copy of an email reply that my younger son had sent to me from college after I had provided him a link to an internet article by conservative writer Anthony Daniels blasting Jack Kerouac's writing.  Anthony Daniels, the great deplorer of the decadence of Western Civilization, was reviewing John Leland's book Why Kerouac Matters and launched into a spirited attack on the morals, intelligence, and literary merit of Kerouac and the Beats.  My son took issue with Daniels's assertions and sent me a sharp rebuttal.  I was sufficiently impressed with my son's well-reasoned arguments to save his email for later reference. (At the time I had hoped to submit my son's email as a comment to Daniels's article and perhaps get a response from Daniels.  But, alas, the comments section on the website had already closed.)  

As this Woven Minutia blog is a scrapbook of my impressions and observations, it is a fitting place to present an email that made an impression on me back in 2007.

First, let's take a look at some excerpts from Anthony Daniels's article in the New Criterion (September 2007),  Another Side of Paradise: On the questionable legacy of Jack Kerouac and "On the Road".

Beginning excerpt:

Not long ago, I tried to have a suit made of gray flannel, but was told that, being a thick and heavy cloth, flannel was no longer in demand. Buildings are so well-heated these days, said the tailor, that flannel is uncomfortable to wear in them. Here was an indisputable consequence of global warming.

My attitude to gray flannel has changed over the years. Since my first school uniform was of that material, I associated it for a long time with immaturity and a position of subordination to others. Then, as a young doctor, I came under the spell of a most distinguished man, one of the Queen’s physicians, who was learned, suave, and wore the most beautifully tailored gray flannel suit. If I couldn’t be learned or suave, I could at least have a suit like his.


I mentioned the banality of the book to a young man who told me that he had thought it wonderful when he had read it a few years previously. I devised a test. He would open it and point to a passage at random, and I would read the passage out loud. He would then tell me whether he thought it was banal. Here is the passage:

"The drizzle increased and Eddie got cold; he had very little clothing. I fished a wool plaid shirt from my canvas bag and he put it on. I had a cold. I bought cough drops in a rickety Indian store of some kind. I went to the little two-by-four Post office and wrote my aunt a penny postcard. We went back to the gray road. There she was in front of us, Shelton, written on the water tank. The Rock Island balled by. We saw the faces of Pullman passengers go by in a blur. The train howled off across the plains in the direction of our desires. It started to rain harder."

A passage such as this, appearing in an alleged literary classic, must encourage and delude many an adolescent keeper of a diary that his entries will one day find the appreciative audience that their immanent genius deserves. The popularity of On the Road is a manifestation of the propensity in a demotic age of mediocrity to worship itself.


He led a tormented life, and I cannot help but feel sadness for a would-be rebel who spent most of his life, as did Kerouac, living at home with his mother. He also drank himself to a horrible death. But while it is true that most great writers were tormented souls, it does not follow that most tormented souls were great writers. To call Kerouac’s writing mediocre is to do it too much honor: its significance is sociological rather than literary. The fact that his work is now being subjected to near-biblical levels of reverential scholarship is a sign of very debased literary and academic standards.

I have seen some of the most mediocre minds of my generation destroyed by too great an interest in the Beats.

The last line is Anthony Daniels's snide parody of the opening of Allen Ginsberg's 1955 poem Howl:  I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix, Angel-headed hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night.
Now let's look at my son's email.  His rebuttal to Anthony Daniels's article was merely an informal reply to my previous email and was not intended for further distribution.  But I was surprised by how carefully and forcefully my son expressed his ideas.    

Interesting article, to be sure, but I was hoping Daniels would have more to say about Kerouac and his narratives, instead of playing the blogger's game of criticizing criticism.  Had the article been intended for a print medium, I can only hope that Daniels would have provided his own interpretation and criticism of the original Kerouac text, instead of analyzing the valuation of aspects of Kerouac's work by a prejudiced author.
Prefaced as it is by an oblique "I used to be young and independent, but am now seeing the benefits of 'grey flannel,'" and the " 'intelligent critic' Leland's value of Kerouac is faulty, so Kerouac must then also be a bad writer," and the immature "he took a shot at mine, so I'll take a shot at his mentality," it is immediately obvious that Daniels is guarded against Kerouac's virtues and is also on a mission to undermine the validity of Leland's criticism.  It is very unfortunate that Kerouac's art got caught up in the midst of a critics' battle, with his work (and its flaws) as the ammunition for attack that is frivolous and probably unnecessary.  When a critic goes to war with views of art as weapons in a battle of ideals, it is always observed that it is the artists in question that suffer most (even more than the object of the attack).  I would therefore discuss his criticism therefore in terms of the purpose of criticism, which is to evaluate the achievement of an artist in conveying the intent of his work through the materials selected and the craft used to assemble them.

Kerouac's intent in writing the stories of the two dozen or so friends involved in the complete Legend of Duluoz was not to create a piece of High Art, or to contemplate the universal truths he ran across in their adventures, but rather to gather information and to document 'life in the moment,' with an eye to presenting material for further analysis to a future generation of authors. (the latter an unstated purpose)  Analyzing his work as High Art runs against the purpose of good criticism, as does comparing it to works of High Art for the purpose of disproving its merit, or deconstructing the characters he "creates."  It is perfectly acceptable for Daniels to question the morals of Cassady because they are indeed questionable, but he is missing the point of Kerouac's saga, which is that it is just that--a running history of the notable characters in a community that defines the boundary conditions of the American Dream. 
Kerouac's style is extremely effective in fulfilling his intents, and it is worthy of note that there is nothing noteworthy about Kerouac's instinctive choice of stylistic techniques; all narrators of a small community saga have employed copious use of lists and realistic, descriptive narrative.  Within the half-dozen years that make up the scope of his works, the strengths and weaknesses of his characters and their life choices are magnified and are vivid not in philosophic or universal truths, but in terms of their eventual and irrevocable consequences.  Daniels' indictment of Cassady's behaviour is very much justified based on the individual events within the scope of On the Road, but his criticism of Kerouac's 'idolization' of Cassady and others' behavior is mostly unmerited.  Daniels speaks of the dangers of Kerouac's prose, and the possibility that his readers might be inclined to view Cassady as a role model, but if one does not blindly and foolishly accept the actions highlighted in On the Road as imitatable behaviour, the only danger to the reader is not reading on far enough through the series to realize that Cassady ends up burning all his bridges with both friends and family, ending up burning out all his opportunities and potential, and even burning out his own burning desire for the experience of 'never enough.' 
Striving to capture the intensity of life around Cassady in his lists of the vivid details of their adventures, Kerouac (somewhat) unintentionally captures the tedium of repeated mistakes, and the beauty of mundane objects and events, a skill that is the hallmark of the Beat generation.  On the Road is a portrait of the golden age of the beats, after the initial insecurities and before the meltdown of their unsustainable lifestyles, and therefore is least suited to expressing the overall intention and impact of Kerouac's assembled Legend of Duluoz, along with the stylistic immaturities and the idiosyncrasies of his chosen form of notation. (the scroll that On the Road is written on is stored in a glass case in the main branch of Denver Pub. Libraries)  It is strange that his most popular book does not showcase his best work: either the philosophical debate seen in The Dharma Bums, or the "descantation" (in JK's words in Visions of Cody) that he writes as a distillation of key elements that are superimposed over the chaos of city life in his lists of details or gestures of societal life that resonate with him.  To be called a 'true' artist and to receive criticism as such, Kerouac should be seen at the center of his work, crafting each element to fit with the whole, but he was always the outside observer, never directing the action.  His language is also another key to the fact that he is more journalist than author: there are individual sections of the speech-influenced prose that possess a haiku-like assemblage of seemingly disparate images that work together magically, but much of his writing is purely functional from the perspective of craft, rather than the focused and purpose-oriented prose of art literature.

It is entirely ridiculous that the quote that Daniels chooses as an example of an important observation is a "pithy" and "forceful" reiteration of the most important lesson contained in Kerouac's work.  "Where there is yet shame, there may in time be virtue" is an exact summation of the lesson that is mostly unspoken, but continually heaped on, list by list in Kerouac's stories.  His characters are fascinating because they don't change, but the reader's reaction to their amassed decisions and consequences changes as the overwhelming amount of cause-effect information begins to surface through the always-positive affectation of Kerouac's descriptions.  "These seven words" are the enlightenment of Kerouac's work, in that just as "Doctor Johnson uses his curiosity about the world as a dialectical aid to self-examination," Kerouac's chronicles of life observations provide negative examples of ways of life that demonstrate proper morals and behavior to the intelligent reader.

Very nice work.