persons so destitute of a sense of humour, that they cannot make merry,
have no ear for a jest, no eye for the 'gayest, happiest attitude of
things,' no heart to rejoice in it. And the puritanical spirit
would fain have human nature reformed and re-stamped according to this
dull and dismal pattern; would, in truth, make this life a preparatory
process to fit us for a smileless eternity, and begin by trying to
paralyse the risible muscle of the human face. But the greatest
and the wisest men have not been of this type; they could laugh as well
as weep, and they lived in fuller perfection of spiritual health.
The deepest seers have frequently been the men who not only felt the
seriousness of life, but who also saw the province of humour as a
pleasant reconciler of opposites, and who bore their lot and wrought
their work in a brave spirit. The most earnest, we do not mean the grimmest,
of men, have had the keenest sense of fun.
We will not propose to define the nature of
humour, nor to discuss, metaphysically or philosophically, the
difference betwixt wit and humour; but as we shall have to use the
terms with some distinction of meaning, we may indicate by a few
examples the sense in which we understand and use them. When
Curran was asked by a brother lawyer, 'Do you see anything ridiculous
in this wig?' and he replied, 'Nothing but the head!' that was
wit. And when Scott describes the inmates of Cleikum Inn, in 'St.
Ronan's Well,' who thought they had seen the ghost of a murdered
man, we get humour, the root of which lies far deeper in human
nature. He says the two maidens took refuge in their bedroom,
whilst the hump-backed postillion fled like wind into the stable, and
with professional instinct began in his terror to saddle a horse.
This was his most natural refuge from the supernatural; a touch of
humour at which we smile gravely, if at all. When Hood describes a
fool whose height of folly constitutes his own monument, he calls him
'a column of fop,
A lighthouse without any light a-top.'
That is wit. But when Chaucer
describes the fox as desirous of capturing the cock, and trying to
flatter him into singing by telling him how his respected father used to
sing, and put his heart so much into his song that he was obliged to
shut his eyes, and by this means gets poor chanticleer to imitate his
father and sing and shut his eyes also, whereupon the fox pounces on him
and bears him off; — that is humour; a sort of shut-eyed
humour quite irresistible. Again, we have wit when Jerrold defines
dogmatism as 'puppyism come to maturity.' But we get at humour when Panurge, in his mortal fear of shipwreck, cries,
'Would to heaven that
I was safe on dry land with (we presume, to make quite sure of his
footing) somebody kicking me!'
The strokes of wit that are most
delightfully surprising are often the most evanescent. A flash and
all is over. You must be very much on the qui vive to see
by its lightning, or you may find yourself in a similar predicament to
that of the poor fly which turned about after his head was off, to find
it out. Not so with humour. It does not cut you
short. It is for 'keeping it up.' Wit gives you a nod in
passing, but with humour you are at home. Wit is a later societary
birth. Humour was from the beginning. There are persons who
have a sense of humour to whom the pranks of wit are an
impertinence. The true account of Sidney Smith's joke respecting
the necessity of trepanning a Scotsman is that the Scotch have
the pawkiest appreciation of humour, but do not so plentifully
produce or care so much for mere wit.
In its lowest range humour can produce its
effects with means most slight and simple. Indeed it is here as it
is in art, we sometimes admire all the more, and are apt to overrate
results, on account of the insignificance of the means employed. A
good deal of what is called American humour has been produced in this
lower mental range. It is not much beyond that which is uttered
nightly by the gallery 'gods' of our theatres, or daily by some
village humourist, who is noted locally for his ludicrous perceptions
and unctuous sayings. Artemus Ward's 'How goes it old
Sweetness, said I?' is precisely on a par with the humour of English
canal boatmen. Like the Scotch, the Americans have more
humour than wit. Their writers would not shine brilliantly
in company with such men as Hood, Lamb, Sydney Smith, or Jerrold.
But the humour is many-sided, quaint, and characteristic, ranging from
the dryly demure to the uproariously extravagant.
The Yankee character is in itself an
exceedingly humorous compound. 'A strange hybrid, indeed, did
circumstances beget here in the new world upon the old Puritan stock,
and the earth never before saw such mystic practicalism, such niggard
geniality, such calculating fanaticism, such cast-iron enthusiasm, such
sour-faced humour, such close-fisted generosity.' The Yankee
will make a living out of anything, and anywhere. His ingenuity is
just the most certain lever for removing difficulties and obstacles from
his path. It has been remarked that if a Yankee were shipwrecked
overnight on an unknown island, he would be going round the first thing
in the morning trying to sell maps to the inhabitants. 'Put him,'
says Lowell, 'on Juan Fernandez, and he would make a spelling-book
first and a salt-pan afterwards.' A long, hard warfare with
necessity has made him one of the handiest, shiftiest, thriftiest, of
mortals. In trading, he is the very incarnation of the keenest
shrewdness. He will be sure to do business under the most adverse
circumstances, and secure a profit also. This propensity is
portrayed in the story of Sam Jones: that worthy, we are told, called
at the store of a Mr. Brown, with an egg in his hand, and wanted to 'dicker'
it for a darning-needle. This done, he asks Mr. Brown if he isn't
'going to treat?' 'What, on that trade?' 'Certainly; a trade is a trade, big or little.'
'Well, what will you
have?' 'A glass of wine,' said Jones. The wine was
poured out, and Jones remarked that he preferred his wine with an egg in
it. The storekeeper handed to him the identical egg which he had
just changed for the darning-needle. On breaking it, Jones
discovered that the egg had two yolks. Says he, 'Look
here, — you must give me another darning-needle!' Or to
relate one other veracious history —
'"Reckon I couldn't drive a trade with you to-day, Square," said a
genuine specimen of the Yankee pedlar, as he stood at the door of a
merchant in St. Louis.
"I reckon you calculate about right, for you can't
"Wall, I guess you need'nt git huffy 'beout it.
Now, here's a dozen ginooine razor-strops—wuth two dollars and a
half: you may hey 'em for two dollars."
"I tell you I don't want any of your traps, so you may as well
he going along."
"Wall, now, look here, Square. I'll bet you five
dollars that if you make me an offer for them 'ore strops, we'll hey a
"Done," said the merchant, and he staked the money. "Now,"
says he, chaffingly, "I'll give you sixpence for the strops."
"They're your'n!" said the Yankee, as he quietly
pocketed the stakes! "But," continued he, after a little
reflection, and with a burst of frankness, "I calculate a joke's a
joke; and if you don't want them strops, I'll trade back."
The merchant looked brighter. "You're not so bad a chap, after all,"
said he. "Here are your strops — give me the money."
"There it is," said the Yankee, as he took the strops and handed
back the sixpence. "A trade is a trade, and a bet is a
bet. Next time you trade with that ere sixpence, don't you buy razorstrops."'
however, unlike the Jew or the Greek, has a soft place in this hard
business nature; there is a blind side to this wide-awake character;
he may be 'bamboozled' through his better feelings. And,
strangest thing of all, this acutest of creatures, is just the first to
be taken in by words. We might have fancied that a people so full
of shrewdest mother-wit, and so matter-of-fact, would easily see through
pretence, and sham, and snuffle.
' 'Tis odd,' says
Emerson, 'that our people should have, not water on the brain, but a
little gas there. Can it be that the American forest has refreshed
some weeds of old Pictish barbarism just ready to die out—the love of
the scarlet feather, of beads and tinsel? The English have a
plain taste. Pretension is the foible especially of American youth.'
But surely the boasting and buffoonery that is tolerated on American
platforms, and in American papers, cannot all be seriously swallowed by
the masses that pretend to believe in it. Surely it must be to a
great extent another form taken by the national humour. Naturally
enough, human nature likes to see itself look grand, and next to seeing
this, we should suppose the greatest pleasure is hearing it. And
the Americans 'must be cracked up,' and patriotically and
institutionally tickled; so it looks as if speakers and listeners had
tacitly leagued to keep the thing going, and that whilst the speaker or
writer distributed 'buncombe' and balderdash, the listeners accepted
it with the proper twinkle of the eye and the nod of
understanding. What but a suppressed sense of humour in both
speaker and auditors could possibly have carried off such a speech as
that attributed to Webster:—
of Rochester, I am glad to see you; and I am glad to see your noble
city. Gentlemen, I saw your falls, which I am told are one hundred
and fifty feet high. That is a very interesting fact. Gentlemen,
Rome had her Cæsar, her Scipio, her Brutus, but Rome in her proudest
days had never a waterfall a hundred and fifty feet high!
Gentlemen, Greece had her Pericles, her Demosthenes, and her Socrates,
but Greece in her palmiest days NEVER had a waterfall a hundred and
fifty feet high! Men of Rochester, go on. No people
ever lost their liberties who had a waterfall one hundred and fifty feet
The kind of
humour (such as it is) to which this belongs has been named by the
Americans themselves as high falutin.
We are told that there was a paper in
Cincinnati which was very much given to 'high falutin' on the
subject of 'this great country,' until a rival paper somewhat
modified its continual bounce with the following burlesque:—
is a glorious country! It has longer rivers and more of them, and
they are muddier and deeper, and run faster, and rise higher, and make
more noise, and fall lower, and do more damage than anybody else's
rivers. It has more lakes, and they are bigger and deeper and
clearer, and wetter than those of any other country. Our rail-cars
are bigger, and run faster, and pitch off the track oftener, and kill
more people than all other rail-cars in this and every other
country. Our steamboats carry bigger loads, are longer and
broader, burst their boilers oftener and send up their passengers
higher, and the captains swear harder than steamboat captains in any
other country. Our men are bigger, and longer, and thicker;
can fight harder and faster, drink more mean whisky, chew more bad
tobacco, and spit more, and spit further than in any other country.
Our ladies are richer, prettier, dress finer, spend more money, break
more hearts, wear bigger hoops, shorter dresses, and kick up the devil
generally to a greater extent than all other ladies in all other
countries. Our children squall louder, grow faster, get too
expansive for their pantaloons, and become twenty years old sooner by
some months than any other children of any other country on the earth.'
which is meant to be a satire, can be equalled in expression and
excelled in sentiment from the ordinary literature of America written
with a seriousness not meant to be absurd.
An article, entitled 'Are we a
Good-looking People?' appeared in 'Putman's Monthly Magazine,'
March, 1853, the writer of which maintains that John Bull won't do;
he 'must be done over again' on the Yankee model of humanity.
'Jonathan may be described as the finishing model of the Anglo-Saxon,
of which John Bull is the rough cast.' He goes on to say that
American ladies surpass all other women. American 'notabilities
are better looking than most notabilities elsewhere.' American
'crowds, and public gatherings, and thronged streets, show the
best-looking aggregate of humanity, male and female, in the world.'
To show how much superior in stature the Americans are, he says: 'Put
Lord John Russell and Daniel Webster back to back, and mark how the
Americans overtop their English relatives.' The American 'features
are more sharply chiselled than in any other people,' and their 'foreheads
are higher and wider.' In expression (he does not mean language)
'the Americans surpass every other people. The expression
of the common face of America is without doubt the finest in the world.'
He concludes that 'man has never had so fair a chance as in America
'- not only of living in the world or of diversifying his way of going
out of it, but he emphatically asserts that, until the American woman
was formed, or reformed, man had never had but half a chance of coming
into the world. 'It is easier, say the midwives, to come into
this world of America than any other world extant.'
As a matter of choice we prefer the humour
of the serious writing to that of the intentional parody. It is
ever the most provocative of mirth when the humour produces its effects
with unconsciousness of manner. Many writers assume this look and
attitude, and thus render their drollery all the drier. But
they cannot possibly compete with the man who does not know that he is
making fun all the while he is so much in earnest, and whose jokes are
too subtle for his own perception. This is one of the most
laughable aspects of American humour.
Again, the Yankee character has presented to
the world a fresh complexity of the great human problem. Hitherto
we have been in the habit of thinking that boasting and doing were
almost incompatible. And here is a nation of boasters who can act
as vigorously as they can brag; who can keep up a lusty crow under the
most discouraging circumstances, go on telling the world what they mean
to do and be as good as their word in the end. The Yankees can
both brag and hold fast. Of course it was not, even with them, the
great boasters that did the real work. Their fighting-men were
comparatively silent; they did not spend their breath in words, but put
it into blows. The burden was borne, the success attained by those
who knew how to put the
Twixt upright Will and downright Action;
men who had come to the conclusion
if you keep them, pay their keep,
But gabble's the short cut to ruin;
It's gratis (gals half-price), but cheap
At no rate, if it hinders doin'.'
national character includes these two extremes; thus creating that
congruity out of the incongruous which is so great and effective an
element in the production of humour.
One of the earliest, most obvious, and most
easily illustrated characteristics of Yankee humour is its lusty
hyperbole and power of boundless exaggeration. It is great in 'throwing
the hatchet,' and 'pitching it strong;' mighty in drawing the 'long-bow'
for a flight unparalleled. In this respect it shows some traits of
kinship to the old Norse humour, with its immeasurable broad grins and
huge uncontrollable laughters. We catch a far-off echo from the
back woods of the new world of that Brobdingnagian humour which once
delighted the Norsemen in the old. The story-tellers are not the
simple men of the Sagas; they have acquired a few more 'wrinkles'
of knowledge; the laugh has lost somewhat of the old hearty ring; the
imagination is seldom sublime; still we recognize the instinct of race
working on and asserting itself; and in defiance of time, and change,
and shape, we find an affinity here to the broad humour of the blithe
We can trace certain types of Norse humour
in some of the Yankee stories. Also in expression there is yet a
speaking likeness. At the gate of Urgard, says the Norseman, you
found it so high that 'you had to strain your neck bending back to
see to the top!' In the Norse tales we have a character who
listens and listens until 'his ears are fit to fall off!'
Another is in such a passion he 'does not know which leg to stand
upon.' Another has such a bush of beard that the birds come
and build their nests in it. Speaking of a very long distance, the
North Wind attempts to indicate it by saying that 'once in his
life he blew an aspen leaf thither, but it made him so tired he
could not blow a puff for ever so many days after.' And
surely the American Eagle, of which we hear such astounding things, must
be one with that great Giant of the Edda who sits at the end
of the world in eagle's shape, and when he flaps his wings all the
winds come that blow upon man.'
This tendency to humorous exaggeration has
run to riot in the Yankee mind, especially in that which is a dweller
somewhere 'down East' or 'out West.' In comparison with
its faculty for 'stretching it' when 'spinning a yarn,' the 'going
in for it,' the 'piling of it up,' the Norse originals are left
far behind. In no domain does it 'go-a-head' more rapidly than
in 'running a rig' with that species of humour which depends on
enormous lying for its success. Something vast in this way might
have been anticipated from a people born and bound to 'whip all
creation;' the children of Nature and of Freedom,' half horse and
half alligator, with a dash of earthquake, whose country is bounded 'on
the East by the Atlantic ocean, on the North by the Aurora Borealis, on
the West by the setting Sun, and on the South by the Day of Judgment.'
The Geography has been too much for the brain. Thus we meet
with a Yankee in England who is afraid of taking his usual morning walk
lest he should step off the edge of the country. Another, who had
been to Europe, when asked if he had crossed the Alps, said he guessed
they did come over so me risin greound.
It is related of one of this class which
nothing astonishes, nothing upsets, that he wanted to send a message by
telegraph, something like a thousand miles, and on being informed that
it would take ten minutes said he couldn't wait.
Akin to which is the story told by Mr.
Howells, in his recent work on Venetian Life, of a 'sharp, bustling,
go-a-head Yankee,' who rushed into the Armenian convent one morning
rubbing his hands, and demanded that they should show him all they
could in five minutes. The Yankees pride themselves on this
trait of their character. They consider themselves much quicker
and 'cuter' than the slow unwieldy English. Mr. Hawthorne
found one of his consolations in this fact. We have never heard,
however, what become of that particularly acute child (Yankee of course)
who left his home and native parish at the age of fifteen months,
because he was given to understand that his parents intended to call
him 'Caleb.' There can be no doubt that so precociously
sensitive an advanced intellect was soon snuffed out.
Here is a bit of Yankee humour really worthy
of the Norse imagination. It is so ridiculous as to be within one
step of the sublime. A traveller called at an hotel in Albany, and
asked the waiter for a bootjack. 'What for?' said the
astonished waiter. 'To take off my boots.' 'Jabers what a fut!'
the waiter remarked, as he surveyed the monstrosity, for the man had an
enormous foot. At length, we may say at full-length, he gave it as his
opinion that there wasn't a bootjack in all creation of any use for a 'fut' like that, and if the traveller wanted
'them are' boots
off he would have to go back to the fork in the roads to get them off.'
The Yankee also too keenly follows out the
consequence of any embarrassment in which he finds himself. To
take a recent illustration of this tendency, a Pittsburgh paper states
that a melancholy case of self-murder occurred on Sunday, near Titusvile,
Pennsylvania. The following schedule of misfortunes was found in
the victim's left boot:—
married a widow who had a grown-up daughter. My father visited our
house very often, fell in love with my step-daughter and married
her. So my father became my son-in-law, and my step-daughter my
mother, because she was my father's wife. Some time afterwards
my wife had a son—he was my father's brother-in-law and my uncle,
for he was the brother of my step-mother. My father's wife—i.e.
my step-daughter, had also a son; he was, of course, my brother, and in
the meantime my grandchild, for he was the son of my daughter. My
wife was my grandmother, because she was my mother's mother. I was my
wife's husband and grandchild at the same time. And as the
husband of a person's grandmother is his grandfather, I was my own
It may have been
'out West' that the thieves were so 'smart' they stole a felled
walnut-tree in the night-time; drew the log right slick out of the
bark, and left the five watchers sitting fast asleep astride the rind! Kentucky must have the credit for that wonderful curative
ointment, which was so effective that when a dog's tail had been cut
off, they had only to apply the ointment whereupon a new tail instantly
sprouted, and a youngster, with a genuine Yankee turn of thought, picked
up the old tail, and tried the ointment upon it, when it grew into a
second dog, so like the other that no one could tell which was which.
There is just a smile of this kind of
humour in a story told of two Yankees on meeting; the one said, 'How
are you, old Ben Russell?' 'Come now,' says the other, 'I'll
bet you I aint any older than you! Tell us, what is the earliest reccollection that you have?'
'Well,' says he, looking back
intently through the mists of memory, 'the very first thing that I can
remember is hearing people say, as you went by, 'There goes old Ben
Russell!' Holmes has neatly bottled a flash of this
lightning, and put it into verse.
professor of the headsman's trade,
Alike was famous for his arm and blade.
One day a prisoner Justice had to kill,
Knelt at the block to test the artist's skill.
Bare-armed, swart-visaged, gaunt, and shaggy-browed,
Rudolph the headsman rose above the crowd,
His falchion lighten'd with a sudden gleam,
As the pike's armour flashes in the stream.
He sheathed his blade; he turned as if to go;
The victim knelt, still waiting for the blow.
"Why strikest not? Perform thy murderous act,"
The prisoner said. (His voice was slightly crack'd.)
"Friend, I have struck," the artist straight
"Wait but one moment, and yourself decide."
He held his snuff-box—"Now then, if you please!"
The prisoner sniffed, and with a crashing sneeze,
Off his head tumbled—bowled along the floor—
Bounced down the steps; the prisoner said no more.'
are rich in specimens of what we may call the humours of character,
though, we should imagine, these are much droller in life than the dried
samples we have gathered up in books.
A complicated case was rather nicely met by
an American preacher, who owned half of a negro slave, and who used in
his prayers to supplicate the blessings of heaven on his house, his
family, his land, and his half of Pompey.
The late President Lincoln was very
fond of one particular form of Yankee humour, which consists of telling
a little allegorical story pat to the purpose, and pointedly
illustrative of some present difficulty. He had a large fund of
personal humour, by the aid of which his other self often took refuge
behind the mask that has a broad grin on it. In this way he was
enabled to parry many obstinate questionings which pressed inopportunely
upon him. No one ever had a quicker eye for the humours of the
national character, but it is evident that his grim jests and strange
mirth were only deep sadness in other shapes; bubbles from the troubled
depths. He was by no means author of all the sayings attributed to
him. Some of these are older than he himself was. Many were
well known before he made use of them and re-stamped them for a quicker
and wider circulation. Of this class was his story of the man who
would not change horses when crossing a stream, applied by him as an
argument against changing his Cabinet at a peculiar time. His
favourite illustration of a round peg in a square hole, by which he
indicated a man who did not fit his place, is one of Sydney Smith's
happy markings-off. It occurs at least twice in the course of his
'Letters.' And this reminds us that various stories collected
in 'American Wit and Humour' have already seen much service in the
old world before they were transplanted. One of these belongs
originally to Partridge, the Almanack Maker, and it has been applied to
Curiously enough, we find cited as a sample
of American humour a description of a man who had fallen in love and
been wrecked on the coral reefs, namely, of a woman's red lips.
And in a quaint old English love-poem, probably of the seventeenth
century, we find the idea in these lines—
me not of your starrie eyes,
Your lips that seem on roses fed,
Your breasts, where Cupid trembling lies,
Nor sleeps for kissing of his bed;
These are but gauds: nay, what are lips?
Coral beneath the ocean-stream,
Whose brink when your adventurer slips,
Full of the perisheth on them.'
It is difficult
to discover anything under the sun that is perfectly new. What the
Americans are and do is often so much more ludicrous than what they
write. The first specimen of American humour which attracted much
attention among us was 'Major Downing's Letters,' a keen political
satire, which presented us with the first authentic specimen of the
wonderful tongue which forms the actual colloquial dialect of the United
states.* Major Downing represented very cleverly
the bluntness and shrewdness of a country Yankee. He was the
parent of Sam Slick, who was the great illustrator of the style of
humorous exaggeration; but as Sam was not a Yankee, and as enormous
lying is not the most valuable feature of Yankee humour, we do not
include him in the present article, which is devoted to the humour of
the Yankee writers themselves. And we must avow that in our
opinion the Yankee humour has not the ruddy health, the abounding animal
spirits, the glow and glory of healthful and hearty life of our greatest
English. As the Yankee has a leaner look, a thinner humanity, than
the typical Englishman who gives such a fleshy and burly embodiment to
his love of beef and beer, so the humour is less plump and
rubicund. It does not revel in the same richness, nor enjoy its
wealth in the same happy unconscious way, nor attain to the like fulness
and play of power. We cannot imagine Yankee humour, with its dry
drollery, its shrewd keeking, shut-eyed way of looking at things,
ever embodying such a mountain of mirth as we have in Falstaff.
James Russell Lowell
But, as Lowell reminds us, the men who
peopled the New England States were not the traditionary full-fed,
rotund, and rosy-gilled Englishmen, but a hard-faced, atrabilious,
earnest-eyed race, somewhat 'stiff with long wrestling with the Lord
in prayer, and who had taught Satan to dread the new Puritan hug.'
Then their sense of freedom scarcely included the liberty of the lungs
in full crow with merriment. And if they felt internal ticklings
now and again they were sure to suspect it was the devil's work.
It was necessary, they fancied, to keep the face rigidly set in order
that they might preserve their spiritual balance. So they kept
watch and ward against all such wanton wiles of the wicked one.
Thus humour lived a more silent and stunted life it grew slyer in
character and more covert in expression; it learned to say the drollest
things with the old family face and with a sense of the stern Puritan
eye still upon it. Such, we think, was the early formation of its
most characteristic manner. And this manner has been very recently
illustrated by the 'Sayings' of Josh Billings. Josh never
laughs downright. There may be a knowing light in his eye, an
oafish pucker at the corners of the mouth, otherwise he is prim as a
Puritan; his hearing is formed on the early model. The
Yankee has a knack of splitting his sides silently and making no outward
sign. He does not laugh, he only chuckles internally. We
have heard of an English actor who went to New York, and on the first
night of his playing performed an exceedingly comic part, in which he
was accustomed to produce roars of laughter. But here there was
scarcely a grin. He thought he must have failed
altogether. On leaving the theatre he heard two of the audience
conversing on the subject of his acting. 'Never saw such a funny
fellow in all my life,' said one; and the other replied, 'Thought I
should have busted twenty times over.' But they had kept it to
themselves whilst inside the theatre. So is it with 'Josh
Billings' personally: a few of whose sayings we quote:—
people are fond of bragging about their ancestors, and their great
descent, when in fact their great descent is just what is the
matter of them.'
'If I was asked, "What is the chief end of man now-a-days,"
I should immediately reply, "10 per cent."
'It is dreadful easy to be a fool. A man can be a fool and
not know it.'
'God save the fools, and don't let them run out! for if it
wasn't for them, wise men couldn't get a living.'
'It is true that wealth won't make a man virtuous, but I
notice there ain't anybody who wants to be poor just for the purpose of
'There are some dogs' tails which can't be got to curl
no-ways, and some which will, and you can stop 'em. If you bathe
a curly dog's tail in oil and bind it in splints, you can't get the
crook out of it. Now a man's ways of thinking is the crook in the dog's
tail, and can't be got out; and every one should be allowed to wag his
own peculiarity in peace.'
'When a fellow gets to going down hill, it does seem as though
everything had been greased for the occasion.'
notions respecting the animal kingdom are very amusing at times.
This of the mule for instance:—
mule is half horse and half Jackass, and then comes to a full stop,
Nature discovering her mistake. The only way to keep a mule in a
pasture is to turn it into a meadow adjoining, and let it jump out.
They are like some men, very corrupt at heart. I've known them
to be good mules for six months, just to get a good chance to kick
somebody. The only reason why they are patient is because they
are ashamed of themselves.'
manner and dry caustic cynicism notwithstanding, 'Josh Billings' can
tell 'whoppers' on occasion after the 'down East' fashion, the
uproarious breakings out of nature long repressed. He has likewise
a touch of a kind of humour that in itself is inexpressible, in its
character indescribable, in its appeal helplessly ludicrous. An
example of what we mean occurs in Dickens's 'American Notes.'
We think it is the writer himself who was standing on the deck of the
vessel in a storm, up to his knees in water; and when some one suggested
that he would take cold, he pointed down towards his feet and murmured 'cork soles.'
It must be merely from imitation that Josh
Billings has adopted his mode of spelling. It does not in the
least enrich his humour, has no affinities to it. In the case of Artemus
Ward, we may imagine it to be a part of the speaker's character.
With him it looks like an element in that species of drollery which is
his forte; it helps to elongate and drawl out the
humour. But many of Josh Billings' sayings are keen enough for
the short, sharp, direct utterance of Douglas Jerrold, and the spelling
is an annoying obstruction; this we have removed in our quotations.
Again, in relation to the old world, there
is a spice of the Gamin nature in American humour, a dash of
impudence in the way it will 'take a sight' at the venerable author
of its being, or, as it may consider, the 'onnatural old parent.'
It can he as amusingly pert in its patronage of England as Mr. Bailey
was when his impudent eyes detected in Sairey Gamp the remains of a fine
woman. Its assumption is astoundingly vast; it takes such a range
of conditions for granted, each of which we should dispute at the
outset, and every one of which we might consider totally
inadmissible. But, whilst we may be pointing out the impossible
premises, it has reached its equally impossible conclusions.
Sometimes this is done with the consciousness made visible. At
other times it attains its triumph in apparent unconsciousness of the
existence of the societary or personal distinctions which it so coolly
and so utterly ignores. Not that we believe in the unconsciousness
of Yankee humour. If unconscious, it would be more self-enjoying,
and experience more 'the delight of happy laughter.' The
utmost that it can reach is a sort of knowing unconsciousness.
Artemus Ward will help to make our meaning understood. He has
given to it the broadest illustration in his well-known 'Interview with
the Prince of Wales in Canada.'
Artemus Ward, however, is
not so good in his sayings as in his scenes; but the most racy of
these, such as his Interview with the Prince of Wales in Canada, and his
Courtship of Betsey Jane, are too long for quotation in full. The
position of the lovers in the courting scene must have been rather a
sot thar on the fense, a swingin our feet two and fro, blushin as red as
the Baldinsville skool house when it was fast painted, and lookin very
simple, I make no doubt. My left arm was ockepied in ballunsin
myself on the fense, while my rite was woundid luvinly round her waste.'
The natural reasons why the two
were drawn together are amusingly simple:—
was many affectin ties which made me hanker arter Betsey Jane. Her
father's farm jined our'n; their cows and our'n squencbt their
thirst at the same spring; our old mares both had stars in their forrerds; the measles broke out in both famerlies at nearly the same
period; our parients (Betsey's and mine) slept reglarly every Sunday
in the same meetin house, and the nabers used to obsarve, "Wow thick
the Wards and Peasley's air!" It was a surblime site, in the
Spring of the year, to see our sevral mothers (Betsey's and mine) with
their gowns pin'd up so thay could'nt sile 'em, affeeshunitly
Biling sope together & aboozing the nabers.'
The humour of
Artemas Ward hardly attains the dignity of literature. If
Republicans kept their fools, we might class him with the court jesters
of old. He is a species of the practical joker who wears a cap and
bells. To us it seems that the drollery would be better spoken
than written. It wants the appropriate facial and nasal expression
to make it complete. Now and then, however, he says
something perfect in itself, as where he announces that 'the world
continues to revolve round on her own axeltree onct in every twenty-four
hours, subjeck to the Constitution of the United States.' 'If
you ask me,' he says, 'how pious Brigham Young is? I treat it as a
conundrum, and give it up.'
After all, we do not see that he gains much
by his mis-spelling. Mr. Ward makes no humourous use of this
device. The spelling here, as with Josh Billings and others, is
neither genuinely Yankee nor really witty. Indeed, this habit of
trying to make letters do the grinning, looks like an African
perception of the ludicrous: a trick caught from the negro.
The faculty which the negro has for making
fun by the distortion of language is well known. The sound that
words make when tortured appears to please his fancy, and constitute a
sort of humour; and America is now producing as many imitators of this grotesquerie
which is natural to the negro, as it has sent forth followers of the
negro minstrel in the swarms of sham Ethiopian and other serenaders.
It is quite true that iteration, if
not an element of humour, is at least a potent instrument for tickling
the ears of the multitude, as we may learn from the inextinguishable
laughter produced in our own country by so very moderate a piece of
pleasantry as 'How's your poor feet?' or the Parisian 'Where's
Lambert?' or any other vulgar catchword. By constant
repetition, together with the absurd appeal to the gravity of the person
addressed, a sort of fun is generated, and thousands can repeat and
repeat it, and enjoy the jest as much as if it contained the best wit in
In the 'Biglow Papers' the spelling is
perfectly legitimate. It carefully reproduces a dialect, and we
have real nature contributing to the purpose of art.
In this description of Hosea Biglow by his
father, the spelling is an essential part of the representation.
It not only helps to set before us the rustic poet under inspiration, in
life-like colours, but it also served to give bucolic character and
national twang to the speaker's self.
'Hosea he com home considerabal riled, and arter I'd
gone to bed I heern Him a thrashin round like a short-tailed Bull in fli
time. The old Wotnan ses she to me, ses she, Zekle, ses she, our
Hosee's gut the chollery or suthin another ses she, don't you Bee skeered, ses I, he's ony amaking pottery ses i, he's ollers on hand
at that cre busynes like Da & martin, and shure enuf, cum mornin,
Hosy, he cum down stares full chizzle, hare on eend and cote tales flyin,
and sot rite of to go reed his varses to Parson Wilbur hem he haint aney
grate shows o' book larnin himself, bimeby he cum back and sed the
parson wuz dreffle tickled with 'em as I hoop you will Be, and said
they wuz True grit.'
'Hosy ses he sed suthin' a nuther about
Simplex Mundishes or sum sech feller, but I guess Hosea kind o' didn't
hear him, for I never hearn o' nobody o' that name in this villadge,
and I've lived here man and boy 76 year cum next tatur digging, and
thar aint nowheres a kitting spryer'n I be.
But the work of
which we are now speaking is the lustiest product of the national humour; it is Yankee through and through; indigenous as the flowers of the
soil, native as the note of the bob-a-link. The author is a poet
of considerable repute, who has written much beautiful verse. But
he has never fulfilled his early promise in serious poetry. In
this book alone has he reached his full stature, and written with the
utmost pith and power. Doubtless because in this he relies more on
the national life, his work is more en rapport with the national
character, and thus the book is one of those that could only be written
in one country, and at one period of history. The enduring
elements of art, of poetry, of humour, must be found at home or
nowhere. And the crowning quality of Lowell's humour is, that it
was found at home, his book is a national birth.
The 'Biglow Papers' include most of the
aspects of American humour upon which we have touched, the racy and
hilarious yet matter-of-fact hyperbole, that is, 'audible and
full of vent;' the boundless exaggeration uttered most demurely, the knowing
unconsciousness, and other characteristic clues. They have also
that infusion of poetry which is necessary to humour at its best.
The two great characters of the book are the
'Rev. Homer Wilbur,' to whom Hosea Biglow, the young poet, takes his
verses, and 'Birdofredum Sawin.' But there are various smaller
sketches of character admirably drawn with the fewest strokes. We
have not room for the Newspaper Editor, one of the base 'mutton-loving
shepherds,' of which says the Rev. Homer Wilbur, there are two
thousand in the United States.
The life and glory of the Biglow Papers is
Mr. 'Birdofredum Sawin.' His experiences are as delightful as
his character is disreputable and true to nature. He has been
through the Mexican war, and this is his description of his
losses. Among other things he has lost a leg; however, he has
gained a new wooden one.
This was what he got, instead of making his
fortune as he had anticipated. Dilapidated and maimed as he is,
useless for anything else, he proposes to canvas for the Presidency, and
his instructions for agents show genuine insight, a fine sagacity—
wile you're 'lectioneerin' round, some cur us chaps should beg
To know my views o' state affairs, jest answer
Ef they aint settisfied with thet, an' kin' O' pry
An'ax fer sutthin' deffynit, jest say ONE
EYE PUT OUT!
Then you can call me "Timbertoes,"- thet's wut the people
Sutthin' combinin' morril truth with phrases sech
"Old Timbertoes," you see, 's a creed it's safe
to be quite bold on,
There's nothin' in't the other side can any ways
git hold on;
It's a good tangible idee, a sutthin' to embody
Thet valooable class o' men who look thin
It gives a Party Platform, tu, jest level with the
Of all right-thinkin', honest folks thet mean
to go it blind;
Then there air other good hooraws to dror on
you need 'em,
Sech ez the ONE-EYED SLARTEREE,
the BLOODY BIRDOFREDUM;
Them's wut takes hold o' folks thet think, ez well
ez o' the masses,
An' makes you sartin o' the aid o' good men
of all classes.'
during the late war to continue his 'Biglow Papers.' It is
proverbially difficult to continue a work like this, as difficult, we
should say, as it is to continue a first child in the person and
character of a second. But he succeeded in writing one or two
papers worthy of being included in the design. It is interesting,
on looking hack now, to observe how much national character there is in
the book. The theme on which he wrote is obsolete, but the human
nature remains the same. 'Birdofredum Sawin' is vital and
superior to circumstance, and impudent as ever.
Neither Lowell nor any other American
poet has ever before painted the coming of the New England spring with
the native beauty and new-world truth of these lines—
come the blackbirds clatt'rin' in tall trees,
An' settlin' things in windy Congresses,—
'Fore long the trees begin to show belief,—
The maple crimsons to a coral-reef,
Then saffern swarms swing off from all the willers
So plump they look like yaller caterpillars,
Then grey hossches'nuts leetle hands unfold
Softer'n a baby's be at three days old:
This is the robin's almanick; he knows
Thet arter this ther' 's only' blossom-snows;
So, choosin' out a handy crotch an' spouse,
He goes to plast'riu' his adobe house.
Then seems to come a hitch, - things lag behind,
Till some fine mornin' Spring makes up her
An' ez, when snow-swelled rivers cresh their
Heaped-up with ice thet dovetails in an' jams,
A leak comes spirtin' thru some pin-hole cleft,
Grows s'ronger, fercer, tears out right an' left,
Then all the waters bow themselves an' come,
Suddin, in one gret slope o' shedderin' foam.
Jes' so our Spring gits everythin' in tune
An' gives one leap from April into June:
Then all comes crowdin' in; afore you think,
The oak-buds mist the side-hill woods with
The catbird in the laylock-bush is loud,
The orchards turn to heaps o' rosy cloud,
In ellum-shrowds the flashin' hangbird clings
An' for the summer vy'ge his hammock slings,
All down the loose-walled lanes in archin' bowers
The barb'ry droops its strings o' golden flowers
Whose shrinkin' hearts the school-gals love to try
With pins,—they'll worry yourn so, boys,
Nuff sed, June's bridesman, poet o' the year,
Gladness on wings, the bobolink, is here;
Half-hid in tip-top apple-blooms he swings,
Or climbs aginst the breeze with quiverin'
Or, givin' way to't in a mock despair,
Runs down, a brook o' laughter, thru the air.'
fought long and strenuously against negro slavery, and lashed the vices
of American politics. But his ballad of 'The Courtin' is on
quite a different theme, and causes a regret that he has not written
more rustic poetry:—
crep' up, quite unbeknown,
An' peeked in thru the winder,
An' there sot Huldy all alone,
'ith no one nigh to hender.
Agin' the chimbly, crooknecks hung,
An' in amongst 'em
The ole Queen's arm thet gran'ther Young
Fetehed back from Concord
The wannut logs shot sparkles out
Towards the pootiest, bless her!
An' leetle fires danced all about
The chiny on the dresser.
The very room, coz she wur in,
Looked warm frum floor to
An' she looked full ez rosy agin
Ez th' apples she wuz
She heerd a foot an' knowed it, tu,
Araspin' on the scraper,—
All ways to once her feelins flew
Like sparks in burnt-up
He kin' o' l'itered on the mat,
Some doubtfle o' the seekle;
His heart kep' goin' pitypat,
But hern went pity Zekle.
An' yet she gin her cheer a jerk
Ez though she wished him
An' on her apples kep' to work
Ez ef a wager spurred her.
"You want to see my Pa, I spose?"
"Wal, no; I come designin—"
"To see my Ma? She's sprinklin' clo'es
Agin tomorrow's i'nin'."
He stood a spell on one foot fust,
Then stood a spell on
An' on which one he felt the wust
He couldn't ha' told
He was six foot o' man A 1,
Clean grit an' human natur;
None couldn't quicker pitch a ton
Nor dror a furrer
He'd sparked it with full twenty gals,
He'd squired 'em,
danced 'em, druv 'em,
Fust this one and then thet by spells,—
All is, he couldn't love
But long o' her his veins 'ould run,
All crinkly like curled
The side she breshed felt full o' sun
Ez a South slope in Ap'il.
She thought no v'ice hed such a swing
Ez hisn in the choir,
My! when he made Ole Hundred ring,
She know'd the
Lord was nigher.
Sez he, "I'd better call agin;"
Sez she, "Think likely, Mister;"
The last word pricked him like a pin,
An'— wal, he up and
When Ma bimeby upon 'em slips,
Huldy sot pale ez ashes,
All kind o' smily round the lips,
An' teary round the
Her blood riz quick, though, like the tide
Down to the Bay o' Fundy,
Au' all I know is they wuz cried
In meetin', cum nex Sunday.'
In this we see
humour at play with sentiment, and should like to have had more such interiors
pictured with the same vividness and delightful ease. In the other
poems we meet with humour—Yankee humour—in a working mood.
Hosea Biglow means 'business' when he enters the arena, and he
strikes his blows with the most sinewy strength; they go right home
with the utmost directness. The scorn that is concentrated in a
local phrase, the satire that is conveyed in the homeliest imagery, are
hurled with double force; the irony often reaches a Swift-like
intensity. The amount of hard truth here flung in a humorous guise
at humbugs political and literary is positively overwhelming. And
to enhance the effect there is that Yankee dialect, with its aggravating
drawl. Therefore we look upon the 'Biglow Papers' as the most
characteristic and complete expression of American humour.
We do not purpose including the humour of
Irving in this sketch. It does not smack strongly of the American
soil; its characteristics are old English rather than modern
Yankee. In its own mild way it is akin to the best humour, that
which gives forth the fragrance of feeling, and is a pervasive
influence, elusive and ethereal, sweet and shy; the loving effluence of
a kindly nature whose still smiles are often more significant, and come
from a deeper source, than the loudest laughter. This is the
quality likewise of Hawthorne's humour. But his has more
piquancy and new-world flavour. To do it justice, however,
would demand a close psychological study, so curious and complex were
the nature and genius of the man; the nature was a singular growth for
such a soil, the genius out of keeping with the environment, or, as the
Americans would say, the 'fixings,' —a new-world man who shrank
like a sensitive plant from the heat, and haste, and loudness of his
countrymen, and whose brooding mind was haunted by shadows from the
past. There was a sombre background to his mind or temperament,
against which the humour plays more brightly. In the piece
entitled the 'Celestial Railroad,' a modern version of the 'Pilgrim's
Progress,' which shows how easy it is to do the journey now-a-days by
the new and improved passage to the Celestial City, where stood the
wicket-gate of old we now find a station. Here you take your
ticket, and there is no need of carrying your burthen on your back, as
did poor Christian; that goes in the luggage-van. A bridge has
been thrown across the Slough of Despond. There is no longer any
feud betwixt Beelzebub and the wicket-gate keeper. They are now
partners in the same concern, with all the ancient difficulties amicably
arranged. A tunnel passes through the hill Difficulty, with the debris
of which they have filled up the Valley of Humiliation; and instead of
meeting pilgrims and compelling them to mortal combat, Apollyon is the
engine-driver. The passage is safe, the journey is short, but
somehow, when the end is near, the doubts thicken, and the smile of the
humourist is of a kind to awaken grave troubled thoughts.
Hitherto slavery and politics have been the
chief subjects of the best American humour. The great social
satirist has to come. And should he arise there will be ample
scope for the play of his saturnine humour. 'The leading defect
of the Yankee,' says an American writer, E. P. Whipple, 'consists in
the gulf which separates his moral opinions from his moral principles! His talk about virtue in the abstract would pass as sound in a
nation of saints, but he still contrives that his interests shall not
suffer by the rigidity of his maxims. Your true Yankee, indeed,
has a spruce, clean, Pecksniffian way of doing a wrong, which is
inimitable. Believing, after a certain fashion, in justice and
retribution, he still thinks that a sly, shrewd, keen, supple gentleman,
like himself, can dodge in a quiet way the moral laws of the universe,
without any particular bother being made about it.' This affords
a fine opening for the great humourist with genuine insight and a sure
touch; a nature that can 'coin the heart for jests,' use the scalpel
smilingly, apply the caustic genially, and give the bitter drink
blandly. Would the Americans welcome such a writer? There
was a time when they would not: we think there are signs that they now
would. They are beginning to laugh, and to laugh at their own
expense. This is finding out the true remedy for that
over-sensitiveness at the laugh of others which has tyrannized over them
George William Curtis
The author of the 'Potiphar Papers 'has
attempted to satirize the vices and foibles of the 'upper ten
thousand,' the ruinous extravagance and vulgar display, the insane
ambition to blow the loudest trumpet and beat the biggest drum, the
crushing and trampling to get a front seat in the universe of fashion,
i.e. a palatial residence with thirty feet of frontage; the
coarse worship of wealth, the pompous profusion, and the vain endeavours
of a shoddy aristocracy to outshine all foreign splendours; the houses
which are 'like a woman dressed in Ninon de l'Enclos' bodice, with
Queen Anne's hooped skirt, who limps in Chinese shoes, and wears an
Elizabethan ruff round her neck and a Druse's horn on her head;'
the vast mirrors that only serve to magnify the carnival of incongruity; the want of taste everywhere, or rather the prevalence of the taste
that estimates all things as beautiful and precious which cost a great
deal of money. One of the best characters in these papers is 'Thurz
Pasha,' ambassador from the 'King of Sennaar.' He writes
home to his royal master the results of his experience. 'I have
found them (the Americans) totally free from the petty ambitions, the
bitter resolves, and the hollow pretences, that characterize the society
of older States. The people of the first fashion unite the
greatest simplicity of character with the utmost variety of
intelligence, and the most graceful elegance of manner.
universal courtesy and consideration—the gentle charity, which does
not consider the appearance but the substance—the republican
independence, which teaches foreign lords and ladies the worthlessness
of mere rank, by obviously respecting the character and not the title—the
eagerness with which foreign habits are subdued, by the positive nature
of American manners—the readiness to assist—the total want of coarse
social emulation—the absence of ignorance, prejudice, and vulgarity in
the selecter circles - the broad, sweet, catholic welcome to all that is
essentially national and characteristic, which sends the young American
abroad only that he may return eschewing European habits, and with a
confidence in man and his country chastened by experience—these have
most interested and charmed me in the observation of this pleasing
people. They are never ashamed to confess that they are poor.
They acknowledge the equal dignity of all kinds of labour, and do not
presume on any social difference between their baker and themselves.
Knowing that luxury enervates a nation, they aim to show in their lives,
as in their persons, that simplicity is the finest ornament. We,
who are reputed savages, might well be astonished and fascinated with
the results of civilization, as they are here displayed.'
Oliver Wendell Holmes
Holmes is likewise doing his best to tell his countrymen a few truths it
was well they should learn, especially from their own writers. He
can say the most unpalatable things in the pleasantest possible
way. He does not appeal to the pride and pugnacity of his
countrymen, or tell them that America is the only place in which a man
can stand upright and draw free breath. He thinks there is 'no
sufficient flavour of humanity in the soil' out of which they grow,
and that it makes a man humane to 'live on the old humanized soil'
of Europe. He will not deny the past for the sake of gloryfying
the present. 'They say a dead man's hand cures swellings if
laid on them; nothing like the dead cold hand of the past to take down
our tumid egotism.' He is equally the enemy of high-falutin,'
and spread-eagleism, and social slang. 'First-rate,' 'prime,' 'a prime article,'
'a superior piece of goods,' 'a gent in a
flowered vest;' all such expressions are final. They blast the
lineage of him or her who utters them, for generations up and down.
He tells them that 'good-breeding is surface Christianity.' He
slyly consoles them with the thought that 'good Americans when they
die go to Paris.' He is thoroughly national himself, and would
have American patriotism large and liberal, not a narrow provincial
conceit. The 'autocrat' is assuredly one of the pleasantest
specimens of the American gentleman, and one of the most charming of all
chatty companions; genial, witty, and wise; never wearisome. We
fancy the 'Autocrat of the Breakfast Table' is not so well known or
widely read in this country as it deserves to be. A more
delightful book has not come over the Atlantic.
We have reserved Holmes to the last, not
that he is least amongst American humourists, but because he brings
American humour to its finest point, and is, in fact, the first of
Perhaps the following verses will best
illustrate a speciality of Holmes's wit, the kind of badinage
with which he quizzes common sense so successfully, by his happy paradox
of serious straightforward statement, and quiet qualifying afterwards by
which he tapers his point.
'Man wants but little here below.'
'Little I ask; my wants are few;
I only wish a hut of stone
(A very plain brown stone will do),
That I may call my own;—
And close at hand is such a one,
In yonder street that fronts the sun.
Plain food is quite enough for me;
Three courses are as good as ten;
If Nature can subsist on three,
Thank Heaven for three. Amen!
I always thought cold victuals nice,—
My choice would be vanilla-ice.
I care not much for gold or land—
Give me a mortgage here and
Some good bank-stock, some note of hand,
Or trifling railroad share,—
I only ask that Fortune send
A little more than I shall spend.
Honours are silly toys, I know,
And titles are but empty names;
I would, perhaps, be Plenipo—
But only near St. James;
I'm very sure I should not care
To fill our Gubernator's chair.
Jewels are baubles; 'tis a sin
To care for such unfruitful
One good-sized diamond in a pin,
Some, not so large
A ruby, and a pearl, or so,
Will do for me;— I laugh at show.
My dame should dress in cheap attire
(Good heavy silks are never dear);
I own perhaps I might desire
Some shawls of true
Some marrowy crapes of China silk,
Like wrinkled skins on scalded milk.
Wealth's wasteful tricks I will not learn,
Nor ape the glittering upstart fool;
Shall not carved tables serve my turn,
But all must be of
Give grasping pomp its double care,—
I ask but one recumbent chair.
Thus humble let me live and die,
Nor long for Midas' golden touch;
If heaven more generous gifts deny,
I shalt not miss them much,—
Too grateful for the blessing lent
Of simple tastes and mind content!'
Having had our
laugh at Yankee humour, let us glance at what it tells us
seriously. In the first place it is morally healthy and
sound. It has its coarsenesses, though these lie more in the using
of a word profanely than in profanity of purpose. It has no
ribaldry of Silenus, nor is there any leer of the satyr from among the
leaves. We perceive no tendency to uncleanness. Fashionable
ladies of the New York 'upper ten thousand' may be French at heart
in the matter of dress and novel-reading, but the national humour does
not follow the French fashion; has no dalliance with the devil by
playing with forbidden things, no art of insidious suggestion. In
this respect it is hale and honest as nature herself and it is just as
sound on the subject of politics. Disgust more profound, scorn
more scathing, than Lowell expresses for the scum of the national
intellect thrown up to the political surface by the tumult and fierce
whirl of the national life, could not be uttered in English. He
tells the people they cannot make any great advance; cannot ascend the
heights of a noble humanity cannot reach the promise of their new land
and new life; cannot win respect for self nor applause from others,
you elect for Congressmen poor shotes thet want to go
Coz they can't seem to git their grub no otherways than so,
An' let your bes' men stay to home coz they wun't show ez talkers,
Nor can't be hired to fool ye an' sof'-soap ye
at a caucus,—
Long 'z ye set by Rotashun more'n ye do by
Ez though experunce thriv by change o' sile,
like corn an' kerrits,—
Long 'z you allow a critter's "claims" coz,
spite o' shoves an' tippins,
He's kep' his private pan jest where 't would
ketch mos' public drippies—
Long 'z you suppose your votes can turn biled kebbage into brain,
An' ary man thet 's pop'lar 's fit to drive a
Long 'z you believe democracy means I'm ez good ez ,you be,
An' thet a felier from the ranks can't be a
knave or booby,—
Long 'z Congress seems purvided, like yer street cars an' yer 'busses,
With ollers room for jes' one more o' your
Dough 'thout the emptins of a soul, an' yit with means about 'em
(Like essence-pedlers**) thet'll make folks
to be without 'em,
Jest heavy 'nough to turn a scale thet 's
doubtfle the wrong way,
An' make their nat'ral arsenal o' hem' nasty
The war has
taught the Americans many lessons, but it was only driving home, and
clenching in some places, what their writers had been telling them
beforehand. For example, that it is man, manhood, not multitude,
which leads the nations and makes them great. They were made to
learn, through a long and painful struggle, the helplessness of hands
But this was what their best instructors had
already insisted on. And, in the midst of the fight, Lowell cries
to his countrymen,—
ain't your twenty millions that 'll ever block
But one man thet wun't let 'em jog jest ez
And again, in answer to the continual call for more men,
'More men? More Man! It's there we fail;
Weak plans grow weaker yit by lengthenin':
Wut use in addin' to the tail,
When it's the head 's in need of
We wanted one thet felt all Chief,
From roots o' hair to sole o' stockin',
Square-sot with thousan'-ton belief
In him an' us, ef earth went rockin'!'
We have always
believed that there were better things at the centre of American life
than were made conspicuous on the surface. We knew there were
Americans who had not the popular belief in 'buncombe,' who had the
deepest contempt for the 'tall talk' of their newspapers, and on
whom the sayings and doings of their countrymen inflicted
torments. Human nature in America is somewhat like the articles in
a great exhibition, where the largest and loudest things first catch the
eye and usurp the attention. Also, their system of representation
gives the largest and loudest expression to the, grosser human interests
in the political sphere; it aggregates a huge mass of ignorant
selfishness, such as is not swiftly or easily touched with the fine
thought or noble feeling of the few. For instance, the writers of
America who represent its moral conscience, are in favour of an
international copyright; they are on the side of right and justice, in
opposition to those who represent, only the political conscience of the
country. But their difficulty is in bringing their momentum
to bear upon the political machine, seeing that they cannot work
directly through it. With us the apparatus is far more delicate
and sensitive, and the chances of representation for the truer feeling
and higher wisdom are infinitely greater. Nevertheless it is
satisfactory to find—and the finger-pointings and the smile of Yankee
humour help greatly to show it—that there is among the Americans a
stronger backing of sound sense, of clear seeing, and of right
feeling, than we could have gathered any idea of from their political