Robert Benchley: The Brow-Elevation in Humor



The Robert Benchley essay I want to share today is an unusual one in my selections. It’s from Love Conquers All, as often happens here. But it’s from the back half of the book, which collects his various book reviews. This review is a split between a little talk about Mark Twain, whose well-managed estate was putting out new books a decade after Twain’s death, and a book collecting the poetry of Franklin P Adams.

I’ve used some of Adams’s verse here, although not anything from the reviewed book. What interests me, though, is Benchley’s point about American humor. While it’s got a long anti-intellectual history, there’s also always a streak of good, popular stuff that is not. There are a lot of people who want jokes that assume intelligence and broad knowledge on the part of the audience.

That said, could there be a Franklin P Adams today? I don’t know. The kinds of classical allusions he would depend on seem to be less part of the common cultural pool. On the other hand, plenty of people still know this stuff, and it ought to be easier for them to find an author who writes about the kinds of things they like now. And it seems to be rather easy to come across a reference and use that to learn new things, and it can be great fun to find a writer that coaxes you into learning new things. I don’t deny that anti-intellectual is always around, but I would be interested to know how well intellectual can do.


After an author has been dead for some time, it becomes increasingly difficult for his publishers to get out a new book by him each year. Without recourse to the ouija board, Harper & Brothers manage to do very well by Mark Twain, considering that all they have to work with are the books that he wrote when he was alive. Each year we get something from the pen of the famous humorist, even though the ink has faded slightly. An introduction by Albert Bigelow Paine and a hitherto unpublished photograph as a frontspiece, and there you are—the season’s new Mark Twain book.

This season it is Moments With Mark Twain, a collection of excerpts from his works for quick and handy reading. We may look for further books in this series in 1923, 1924, 1925, &c., to be entitled Half Hours With Mark Twain (the selections a trifle longer), Pleasant Week-Ends With Mark Twain, Indian Summer With Mark Twain, &c.

There is an interesting comparison between this sample bottle of the humor of Mark Twain and that contained in the volume entitled Something Else Again, by Franklin P. Adams. The latter is a volume of verse and burlesques which have appeared in the newspapers and magazines.

In the days when Mark Twain was writing, it was considered good form to spoof not only the classics but surplus learning of any kind. A man was popularly known as an affected cuss when he could handle anything more erudite than a nasal past participle or two in his own language, and any one who wanted to qualify as a humorist had to be able to mispronounce any word of over three syllables.

Thus we find Mark Twain, in the selections given in this volume, having amusing trouble with the pronunciation of Michael Angelo and Leonardo da Vinci, expressing surprise that Michael Angelo was dead, picking flaws in the old master’s execution and complaining of the use of foreign words which have their equivalent “in a nobler language—English.”

There certainly is no harm in this school of humor, and it has its earnest and prosperous exponents today. In fact, a large majority of the people still like to have some one poke fun at the things in which they themselves are not proficient, whether it be pronunciation, Latin or bricklaying.

But there is an increasingly large section of the reading public who while they may not be expert in Latin composition, nevertheless do not think that a Latin word in itself is a cause for laughter. A French phrase thrown in now and then for metrical effect does not strike them as essentially an affectation, and they are willing to have references made to characters whose native language may not have been that noblest of all languages, our native tongue.

That such a school of readers exists is proved by the popularity of F.P.A’s verses and prose. If any one had told Mark Twain that a man could run a daily newspaper column in New York and amass any degree of fame through translations of the Odes of Horace into the vernacular, the veteran humorist would probably have slapped Albert Bigelow Paine on the back and taken the next boat for Bermuda. And yet in Something Else Again we find some sixteen translations of Horace and other “furriners,” exotic phrases such as “eheu fugaces” and “ex parte” used without making faces over them, and a popular exposition of highly technical verse forms which James Russell Lowell and Hal Longfellow would have considered terrifically high-brow. And yet thousands of American business men quote F.P.A. to thousands of other American business men every morning.

Can it be said that the American people are not so low-brow as they like to pretend? There is a great deal of affectation in this homespun frame of mind, and many a man makes believe that he doesn’t know things simply because no one has ever written about them in the American Magazine. If the truth were known, we are all a great deal better educated than we will admit, and the derisive laughter with which we greet signs of culture is sometimes very hollow. In F.P.A. we find a combination which makes it possible for us to admit our learning and still be held honorable men. It is a good sign that his following is increasing.

Advertisements

Statistics Saturday On An October Day


So, now, September 2014: by pretty much all the reader-count-based measures there are this was my most successful month as a humor blogger. According to WordPress’s statistics page I had somewhere around 825 views from 467 unique visitors, which is well above August’s 682 views from 369 visitors. It’s also the first month I’m aware of where I had at least ten views every day, and for that matter, twenty views most days. I’m not sure what lead to this steady popularity, although I imagine part of it is I’ve felt like I’m writing at more ease lately. (Of course, this did come to an average of only 1.77 views per visitor, which is the lowest monthly average WordPress has for me, but we can’t have everything, can we?)

I got to my 8,691st reader this month. If I have another month like this, I should reach a good round 9,000 around mid-October.

The most popular articles the past month, and I’m glad to say they all had at least twenty views each, were:

In the ever-precious Nations of the World report, the United States once more sent me the overwhelming majority of my readers, 701, even though I try to use “humour” as an equally valid tag for my posts. I think that’s working, too, since the next-most-common sources of readers were the United Kingdom (33), Australia (19), and Canada (16), and I notice that India has consented to send me eight readers the past month, above even the six that I saw in August. That’s not as good per-capita as Brazil (eleven readers), although it does edge out Singapore which sent me no readers the past month, which kind of hurts since I know some folks from Singapore and follow them on Twitter and everything.

I have a bunch of single-reader countries this time around, though, among them: Albania, Barbados, Finland, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Kazakhstan, Mexico, the Russian Federation, and Turkey. None of them were single-reader countries in August.

As for search term poetry, nothing much this month either, I’m afraid. I do seem to be a destination for people searching for “compu-toon”, at least, and of course “can you enter a snail in the indy 500”. “What percentage of the world like saturdays?” captures my imagination, as does “percentage of pages taken up by each letter in a dictionary”, though, and I hope I was of use to the person looking for “what did twain title his story an awful ____ terible middvil romance”.

Mark Twain: Awful, Terrible Medieval Romance


It’s hard to imagine anyone not being aware of Mark Twain, although whether they read him when it isn’t for an assignment is a fair question. Oh, his influence is staggering and much of it is so woven into the public mind that it can be plundered freely — I realized once that while I’ve seen enough versions of The Prince and the Pauper to be sick of the idea I’ve never read the original — but it could be that his status as a great and important figure gets in the way of reading him for fun. So, I’d like to summon from Mark Twain’s (Burlesque) Autobiography, published in 1871, the closing half of this (his third book).

It’s as the title describes, a Medieval Romance, and if it doesn’t show Twain’s prankishness enough, first in existing, second in padding out a mock autobiography, then please consider LibriVox’s note that “the illustrations form an interesting aspect of this book. They have no relationship to the text of the book. Rather, they use cartoons illustrating the children’s poem The House That Jack Built to lampoon the Erie Railroad Ring (the house) and its participants, Jay Gould, John T Hoffman, and Jim Fisk”. And isn’t that wonderful? (I’m sorry that I didn’t find a copy of the illustrations to go with this.)

AWFUL, TERRIBLE
MEDIEVAL ROMANCE

CHAPTER I

THE SECRET REVEALED.

It was night. Stillness reigned in the grand old feudal castle of Klugenstein. The year 1222 was drawing to a close. Far away up in the tallest of the castle’s towers a single light glimmered. A secret council was being held there. The stern old lord of Klugenstein sat in a chair of state meditating. Presently he, said, with a tender accent:

“My daughter!”

A young man of noble presence, clad from head to heel in knightly mail,
answered:

“Speak, father!”

“My daughter, the time is come for the revealing of the mystery that hath puzzled all your young life. Know, then, that it had its birth in the matters which I shall now unfold. My brother Ulrich is the great Duke of Brandenburgh. Our father, on his deathbed, decreed that if no son were born to Ulrich, the succession should pass to my house, provided a son were born to me. And further, in case no son, were born to either, but only daughters, then the succession should pass to Ulrich’s daughter, if she proved stainless; if she did not, my daughter should succeed, if she retained a blameless name. And so I, and my old wife here, prayed fervently for the good boon of a son, but the prayer was vain. You were born to us. I was in despair. I saw the mighty prize slipping from my grasp, the splendid dream vanishing away. And I had been so hopeful! Five years had Ulrich lived in wedlock, and yet his wife had borne no heir of either sex.

“‘But hold,’ I said, ‘all is not lost.’ A saving scheme had shot athwart my brain. You were born at midnight. Only the leech, the nurse, and six waiting-women knew your sex. I hanged them every one before an hour had sped. Next morning all the barony went mad with rejoicing over the proclamation that a son was born to Klugenstein, an heir to mighty Brandenburgh! And well the secret has been kept. Your mother’s own sister nursed your infancy, and from that time forward we feared nothing.

“When you were ten years old, a daughter was born to Ulrich. We grieved, but hoped for good results from measles, or physicians, or other natural enemies of infancy, but were always disappointed. She lived, she throve–Heaven’s malison upon her! But it is nothing. We are safe. For, Ha-ha! have we not a son? And is not our son the future Duke? Our well-beloved Conrad, is it not so?–for, woman of eight-and-twenty years–as you are, my child, none other name than that hath ever fallen to you!

“Now it hath come to pass that age hath laid its hand upon my brother, and he waxes feeble. The cares of state do tax him sore. Therefore he wills that you shall come to him and be already Duke–in act, though not yet in name. Your servitors are ready–you journey forth to-night.

“Now listen well. Remember every word I say. There is a law as old as Germany that if any woman sit for a single instant in the great ducal chair before she hath been absolutely crowned in presence of the people, SHE SHALL DIE! So heed my words. Pretend humility. Pronounce your judgments from the Premier’s chair, which stands at the foot of the throne. Do this until you are crowned and safe. It is not likely that your sex will ever be discovered; but still it is the part of wisdom to make all things as safe as may be in this treacherous earthly life.”

“Oh; my father, is it for this my life hath been a lie! Was it that I might cheat my unoffending cousin of her rights? Spare me, father, spare your child!”

“What, huzzy! Is this my reward for the august fortune my brain has wrought for thee? By the bones of my father, this puling sentiment of thine but ill accords with my humor.

“Betake thee to the Duke, instantly! And beware how thou meddlest with my purpose!”

Let this suffice, of the conversation. It is enough for us to know that the prayers, the entreaties and the tears of the gentle-natured girl availed nothing. They nor anything could move the stout old lord of Klugenstein. And so, at last, with a heavy heart, the daughter saw the castle gates close behind her, and found herself riding away in the darkness surrounded by a knightly array of armed, vassals and a brave following of servants.

The old baron sat silent for many minutes after his daughter’s departure, and then he turned to his sad wife and said:

“Dame, our matters seem speeding fairly. It is full three months since I sent the shrewd and handsome Count Detzin on his devilish mission to my brother’s daughter Constance. If he fail, we are not wholly safe; but if he do succeed, no power can bar our girl from being Duchess e’en though ill-fortune should decree she never should be Duke!”

“My heart is full of bodings, yet all may still be well.”

“Tush, woman! Leave the owls to croak. To bed with ye, and dream of Brandenburgh and grandeur!”

CHAPTER II.

FESTIVITY AND TEARS

Six days after the occurrences related in the above chapter, the brilliant capital of the Duchy of Brandenburgh was resplendent with military pageantry, and noisy with the rejoicings of loyal multitudes; for Conrad, the young heir to the crown, was come. The old Duke’s, heart was full of happiness, for Conrad’s handsome person and graceful bearing had won his love at once. The great halls of tie palace were thronged with nobles, who welcomed Conrad bravely; and so bright and happy did all things seem, that he felt his fears and sorrows passing away and giving place to a comforting contentment.

But in a remote apartment of the palace a scene of a different nature was, transpiring. By a window stood the Duke’s only child, the Lady Constance. Her eyes were red and swollen, and full of tears. She was alone. Presently she fell to weeping anew, and said aloud:

“The villain Detzin is gone–has fled the dukedom! I could not believe it at first, but alas! it is too true. And I loved him so. I dared to love him though I knew the Duke my father would never let me wed him. I loved him–but now I hate him! With all, my soul I hate him! Oh, what is to become of me! I am lost, lost, lost! I shall go mad!”

CHAPTER III.

THE PLOT THICKENS.

Few months drifted by. All men published the praises of the young Conrad’s government and extolled the wisdom of his judgments, the mercifulness of his sentences, and the modesty with which he bore himself in his great office. The old Duke soon gave everything into his hands, and sat apart and listened with proud satisfaction while his heir delivered the decrees of the crown from the seat of the premier. It seemed plain that one so loved and praised and honored of all men as Conrad was, could not be otherwise than happy. But strange enough, he was not. For he saw with dismay that the Princess Constance had begun to love him! The love of, the rest of the world was happy fortune for him, but this was freighted with danger! And he saw, moreover, that the delighted Duke had discovered his daughter’s passion likewise, and was already dreaming of a marriage. Every day somewhat of the deep sadness that had been in the princess’ face faded away; every day hope and animation beamed brighter from her eye; and by and by even vagrant smiles visited the face that had been so troubled.

Conrad was appalled. He bitterly cursed himself for having yielded to the instinct that had made him seek the companionship of one of his own sex when he was new and a stranger in the palace–when he was sorrowful and yearned for a sympathy such as only women can give or feel. He now began to avoid, his cousin. But this only made matters worse, for, naturally enough, the more he avoided her, the more she cast herself in his way. He marveled at this at first; and next it startled him. The girl haunted him; she hunted him; she happened upon him at all times and in all places, in the night as well as in the day. She seemed singularly anxious. There was surely a mystery somewhere.

This could not go on forever. All the world was talking about it. The Duke was beginning to look perplexed. Poor Conrad was becoming a very ghost through dread and dire distress. One day as he was emerging from a private ante-room attached to the picture gallery, Constance confronted him, and seizing both his hands, in hers, exclaimed:

“Oh, why, do you avoid me? What have I done–what have I said, to lose your kind opinion of me–for, surely I had it once? Conrad, do not despise me, but pity a tortured heart? I cannot–cannot hold the words unspoken longer, lest they kill me–I LOVE you, CONRAD! There, despise me if you must, but they would be uttered!”

Conrad was speechless. Constance hesitated a moment, and then, misinterpreting his silence, a wild gladness flamed in her eyes, and she flung her arms about his neck and said:

“You relent! you relent! You can love me–you will love me! Oh, say you will, my own, my worshipped Conrad!'”

Conrad groaned aloud. A sickly pallor overspread his countenance, and he trembled like an aspen. Presently, in desperation, he thrust the poor girl from him, and cried:

“You know not what you ask! It is forever and ever impossible!” And then he fled like a criminal and left the princess stupefied with amazement. A minute afterward she was crying and sobbing there, and Conrad was crying and sobbing in his chamber. Both were in despair. Both save ruin staring them in the face.

By and by Constance rose slowly to her feet and moved away, saying:

“To think that he was despising my love at the very moment that I thought it was melting his cruel heart! I hate him! He spurned me–did this man–he spurned me from him like a dog!”

CHAPTER IV

THE AWFUL REVELATION.

Time passed on. A settled sadness rested once more upon the countenance of the good Duke’s daughter. She and Conrad were seen together no more now. The Duke grieved at this. But as the weeks wore away, Conrad’s color came back to his cheeks and his old-time vivacity to his eye, and he administered the government with a clear and steadily ripening wisdom.

Presently a strange whisper began to be heard about the palace. It grew louder; it spread farther. The gossips of the city got hold-of it. It swept the dukedom. And this is what the whisper said:

“The Lady Constance hath given birth to a child!”

When the lord of Klugenstein heard it, he swung his plumed helmet thrice around his head and shouted:

“Long live. Duke Conrad!–for lo, his crown is sure, from this day forward! Detzin has done his errand well, and the good scoundrel shall be rewarded!”

And he spread, the tidings far and wide, and for eight-and-forty hours no soul in all the barony but did dance and sing, carouse and illuminate, to celebrate the great event, and all at proud and happy old Klugenstein’s expense.

CHAPTER V.

THE FRIGHTFUL CATASTROPHE.

The trial was at hand. All the great lords and barons of Brandenburgh were assembled in the Hall of Justice in the ducal palace. No space was left unoccupied where there was room for a spectator to stand or sit. Conrad, clad in purple and ermine, sat in the premier’s chair, and on either side sat the great judges of the realm. The old Duke had sternly commanded that the trial of his daughter should proceed, without favor, and then had taken to his bed broken-hearted. His days were numbered. Poor Conrad had begged, as for his very life, that he might be spared the misery of sitting in judgment upon his cousin’s crime, but it did not avail.

The saddest heart in all that great assemblage was in Conrad’s breast.

The gladdest was in his father’s. For, unknown to his daughter “Conrad,” the old Baron Klugenstein was come, and was among the crowd of nobles, triumphant in the swelling fortunes of his house.

After the heralds had made due proclamation and the other preliminaries had followed, the venerable Lord Chief justice said:

“Prisoner, stand forth!”

The unhappy princess rose and stood unveiled before the vast multitude. The Lord Chief Justice continued:

“Most noble lady, before the great judges of this realm it hath been charged and proven that out of holy wedlock your Grace hath given birth unto a child; and by our ancient law the penalty is death, excepting in one sole contingency, whereof his Grace the acting Duke, our good Lord Conrad, will advertise you in his solemn sentence now; wherefore, give heed.”

Conrad stretched forth the reluctant sceptre, and in the self-same moment the womanly heart beneath his robe yearned pityingly toward the doomed prisoner, and the tears came into his eyes. He opened his lips to speak, but the Lord Chief Justice said quickly:

“Not there, your Grace, not there! It is not lawful to pronounce judgment upon any of the ducal line SAVE FROM THE DUCAL THRONE!”

A shudder went to the heart of poor Conrad, and a tremor shook the iron frame of his old father likewise. CONRAD HAD NOT BEEN CROWNED–dared he profane the throne? He hesitated and turned pale with fear. But it must be done. Wondering eyes were already upon him. They would be suspicious eyes if he hesitated longer. He ascended the throne. Presently he stretched forth the sceptre again, and said:

“Prisoner, in the name of our sovereign lord, Ulrich, Duke of Brandenburgh, I proceed to the solemn duty that hath devolved upon me. Give heed to my words. By the ancient law of the land, except you produce the partner of your guilt and deliver him up to the executioner, you must surely die. Embrace this opportunity–save yourself while yet you may. Name the father of your child!”

A solemn hush fell upon the great court–a silence so profound that men could hear their own hearts beat. Then the princess slowly turned, with eyes gleaming with hate, and pointing her finger straight at Conrad,
said:

“Thou art the man!”

An appalling conviction of his helpless, hopeless peril struck a chill to Conrad’s heart like the chill of death itself. What power on earth could save him! To disprove the charge, he must reveal that he was a woman; and for an uncrowned woman to sit in the ducal chair was death! At one and the same moment, he and his grim old father swooned and fell to, the ground.


[The remainder of this thrilling and eventful story will NOT be found in this or any other publication, either now or at any future time.]


The truth is, I have got my hero (or heroine) into such a particularly close place, that I do not see how I am ever going to get him (or her) out of it again–and therefore I will wash my hands of the whole business, and leave that person to get out the best way that offers–or else stay there. I thought it was going to be easy enough to straighten out that little difficulty, but it looks different now.


[If Harper’s Weekly or the New York Tribune desire to copy these initial chapters into the, reading columns of their valuable journals, just as they do the opening chapters of Ledger and New York Weekly novels, they
are at liberty to do so at the usual rates, provided they “trust.”]

MARK TWAIN