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An essay by Brander Matthews

Of Two Latterday Humorists

Title:     Of Two Latterday Humorists
Author: Brander Matthews [More Titles by Matthews]

"WHOEVER and wherever and however situated a man is, he must watch three things--sleeping, digestion, and laughing," said Mr. Beecher; and he added with equal wisdom, "they are three indispensable necessities. Prayers are very well, and reading the Bible very well indeed; but a man can get along without the Bible, but he can't without the other three things." When a man has a clear conscience, good digestion ought to wait on appetite; and when he has a good digestion and a clear conscience, he ought to find it easy to sleep well. Yet as sleep is the only true friend that will not come at one's call, he may be wakeful despite his pure heart and quiet stomach; and in this case he may fairly resort to the Patent-office reports or the British comic papers, than which

"Not poppy, nor mandragora,
Nor all the drowsy syrups of the world"

are more potent soporifics. Many of the avowedly humorous publications of the day are better as a cure for sleeplessness than as a cause of laughter. Of all sad words of tongue or pen none is sadder than what is known in many a newspaper office as "comic copy." Wit cannot be made to order, and humor cannot be purchased by the yard, with a discount if the buyer takes the whole roll.

In the History of Henry Esmond--more veracious than many a more pretentious history of the reign of Queen Anne and of a broader truth--Thackeray speaks of the "famous beaux-esprits," who "would make many brilliant hits--half a dozen in a night sometimes--but, like sharp-shooters, when they had fired their shot, they were obliged to retire under cover till their pieces were loaded again and they got another chance at their enemy." And this figure expresses the exact fact; no wit is a breech-loader--still less is he a repeating rifle capable of discharging sixteen shots without taking thought. The readiest man must have time to reload and the most fertile must lie fallow now and again. Richard Brinsley Sheridan, even when he had most carefully prepared himself, did not sparkle in private conversation as he was able to make his characters scintillate through the long sittings of the scandalous college. If needs must and the devil drives a poor wretch to crack jokes unceasingly, then of necessity the edge of his wit will not be as keen nor the strokes of his humor as effective. And this is why the conducting of a comic paper is like the leading of a forlorn hope. Success can scarcely be more than a lucky accident. "'Tis not in mortals to command success," and if Cato and Sempronius were joint editors of a comic weekly it may be doubted whether they would even deserve it. Nor would the author of the tragedy from which this last quotation is taken have been a satisfactory office editor of a comic weekly, although he contributed to the Spectator the delightfully and delicately humorous sketch of Sir Roger de Coverley.

This is why the level of comic journalism is not as lofty as we could wish. This is why we frequently find poor jokes even in journals where every effort is made to provide good jokes. The supply is not equal to the demand, and the jokesmith often has to set his wits to work when the stock of raw material is running low. Punch and Puck are the representative comic weeklies of the two great branches of the English-speaking race. Punch has had a great past. It may even be questioned whether those who declare its decadence do not exaggerate its former merits almost as much as they do its present failings. It is vaguely remembered that in Punch Hood published the "Song of the Shirt" and Thackeray the Book of Snobs, and Douglas Jerrold the Story of a Feather, and it is often supposed that there was a time when all the clever men of London contributed their best things every week to Punch. But one has only to turn over the leaves of any of the earlier volumes of the British weekly to discover that if this ever were the case, then the clever men of London were a very dull lot. Punch is very much the same now that it was in the past. Hood contributed the "Song of the Shirt," and nothing else; Douglas Jerrold wrote the Story of a Feather--but who reads Douglas Jerrold nowadays? A'Becket composed a Comic History of England, and the few of us who have read it to-day feel as Dickens felt at the time, that it is dull and machine-made. Thackeray wrote Mr. Punch's Prize Novelists and the Snob Papers; and Thackeray was the "Fat Contributor;" and there has been no one like Thackeray since he left the paper.

But the pictures of Punch are as good now as ever they were; perhaps, taking one week with another, they are better. And the letter-press is very much what it has always been--rhymes, jingles, puns in profusion, topical allusions--"comic copy," in short. Now and then there is something in Punch which is still worth reading. There were Artemus Ward's papers a score of years ago, for instance, and there were more recently some of Mr. F. C. Burnand's earlier parodies and some of his earlier Happy Thoughts. Decidedly the most amusing prose which has appeared in Punch during the past four or five years is the series of overheard conversations called Voces Populi.

The author of Voces Populi is the "F. Anstey" who is well known in America as the writer of Vice Versa and of the Tinted Venus. It is an open secret that the real name of "F. Anstey" is Guthrie, just as everybody knows that the real name of "Mark Twain" is Clemens. (The conjunction of these names was fortuitous, but it serves to remind me that I once heard Mr. Robert Louis Stevenson say that the two strongest chapters in the fiction of the past ten years were to be found, one in the Giant's Robe of "F. Anstey" and the other in the Huckleberry Finn of "Mark Twain.") The first book of an unknown author has small chance of sudden success, and Vice Versa was Mr. Guthrie's first book. Fortunately it came into the hands of Mr. Andrew Lang a few days after it was published, and Mr. Lang was so taken with its freshness, its truthfulness to boy nature, and its almost pathetic humor that he wrote a column about it in the Daily News--a column of the heartiest appreciation. "It was Lang's review that made the success of Vice Versa," said Mr. Guthrie to me once in London, two or three years ago, when we were planning to write a story together. And it was Mr. Lang who afterwards introduced the author of Vice Versa to the staff of Punch.

In Voces Populi Mr. Guthrie has gathered a score and a half of fragmentary dialogues, casual, plotless, but never pointless. They are thumbnail sketches of British character, "At a Dinner Party," "At a Wedding," "At the French Play," "At a Turkish Bath," "In an Italian Restaurant," in "Trafalgar Square" during a demonstration, and in "A Show Place." They are photographic in their accuracy, making due allowance for humorous foreshortening. They hit off the foibles of fashionable frivolity; they depict with unfaltering exactness the inconceivable limitations and narrowness of the middle class; but where they are most abundantly and triumphantly successful is in the rendering of the lower orders of London. Mr. Guthrie has caught the cockney in the very act of cockneyism, and he has here pilloried him for all time, but wholly without bitterness or rancor. Mr. Guthrie knows his roughs, his ruffians, his house-maids, his travellers, "Third Class--Parliamentary," and his visitors to "An East-End Poultry Show;" he knows them through and through; he sees their weakness; and after all he is tolerant, he does not dislike them in his heart, he handles them as though he loved them. We confess his kindliness of touch, even though it moves us to no more friendly feeling of our own. "Vox populi, vox Dei," says the adage, as true as most adages; but these Voces Populi, if not "Voces diaboli," might at least be called to the witness-box by the devil's advocate. It is a terrible indictment of contemporary British manners that we hear in these conversations, humorous as they are; and the indictment is perhaps the severer in that it is wholly unconscious. It is quite unwittingly that Mr. Guthrie offers this evidence to prove the truth of Matthew Arnold's assertion that one could see in England "an aristocracy materialized and null, a middle class purblind and hideous, a lower class crude and brutal."

In this respect at least no greater contrast could be found to the Voces Populi of Mr. Guthrie, reprinted from the British Punch, than the Short Sixes of Mr. H. C. Bunner, reprinted from the American Puck. The impression with which one rises from the reading of Mr. Bunner's tales is as different as possible from that with which one rises from the reading of Mr. Guthrie's dialogues. In the one book we see the British selfish, brutal, narrow-minded; and in the other we see the Americans lively, kindly, good-humored. In each case the volume is made up of matter contributed week by week to a comic journal. If it be objected that the satirist is bound perforce to show the seamy side of human nature, the obligation ought to be equally respected on both sides of the Atlantic; and the fact is that Mr. Guthrie reports conversations which are very clever and very amusing, but which give us no liking for his fellow-countrymen; whereas Mr. Bunner's men and women we are ready and glad to take by the hand, even if we do not take them all to our hearts. Look down the dramatis personæ of Mr. Bunner's thirteen stories, and even the old curmudgeon who befools the little parson of one of "The Two Churches of Quawket" has humor enough to save him from hatred, and the little parson himself is pitiful rather than contemptible. Neither Colonel Brereton's Aunty nor the mendacious and persuasive colonel is a character whom any American would cross the street to avoid--far from it. And as for the pert young person who engages in "A Sisterly Scheme," and who is perhaps the most forward and objectionable young woman of recent fiction, where is the American who could object to her? Where, indeed, is the American who does not envy Muffets the fun of his courtship and the joy of his marriage?

George Eliot in one of her novels tells us that "a difference of taste in jests is a great strain on the affections"--a profound truth. There is little hope of happiness in a union where one party has a highly developed sense of humor and the other none at all. That is perhaps the reason why so few international marriages are happy. Certainly, the chief characteristic of the figures in Mr. Guthrie's little dramas is their absence of humor, and one of the chief characteristics of the people in Mr. Bunner's prose comedies is their abundance of humor. We laugh at the speakers in Voces Populi, while we laugh with the actors in Short Sixes. And we find in Mr. Bunner's book an unfailing variety, an unflagging ingenuity and an unforced humor, now rich and now delicate. We are delighted by wit, playful and incessant and never obtrusive. We discover ourselves to be dissolved in laughter, and often it is "the exquisite laughter that comes from a gratification of the reasoning faculty," as George Eliot called it in one of her letters. Never is it laughter that we ever feel ashamed of; near the smile there is often a tear, hidden, and to be found only by those who seek. "The Tenor," for example, which may seem to some hasty readers almost farcical, is in reality almost tragic, in that the heroine sees the shattering of an ideal and stumbles over the clay feet of her idol. The "Love Letters of Smith" are broadly funny, if you choose to think them so, but I feel sorry for the reader who pays that clever sketch the tribute of careless laughter only.

Next, perhaps, to Mr. Bunner's firm grasp of character, to his delicate perception, to his keen observation, to his faculty of hinting a pathetic undercurrent beneath the flow of humor, comes his felicity in suggesting the very essence of New York. Only three of the thirteen little tales are supposed to happen in this great city, and these are, perhaps, not likely to be the most popular; but they are enough to show again what Mr. Bunner had already revealed in the Story of a New York House and in the still uncollected Ballads of the Town, that he has a knowledge of this busy city possessed by no other American writer of fiction. It is knowledge not paraded in his pages, but it permeates certain of his characters. Take "The Tenor," for example. In that lively story the young girl, seeking out the being whom she has worshipped from afar, rashly ventures into the hotel where the singer and his wife live. She goes as a servant, and she has a chance interview with one of the employees of the house--"a good-looking, large girl, with red hair and bright cheeks." This young person sees the name "Louise Levy" on the heroine's trunk. "You don't look like a sheeny," she remarks promptly. "Can't tell nothin' about names, can you? My name's Slattery. You'd think I was Irish, wouldn't you? Well, I'm straight Ne' York. I'd be dead before I was Irish. Born here. Ninth Ward, an' next to an engine-house." Could anything be more intensely, impressively, essentially Manhattan than this little vignette framed in the doorway of a hotel?

There are those who choose to speak of Mr. Bunner as a humorist, because he is the editor of Puck. He is a humorist, no doubt, and his humor will endure, for it is founded on observation and on an understanding of his fellow-man. But he is a poet--as a true humorist must be. Perhaps his best story is "Love in Old Clothes," in which the humor and the poetry are inextricably blended, and in which there is a pure tenderness of touch I cannot but call exquisite. And yet, perhaps, I do not like it as well as the vigorous sketch called the "Zadoc Pine Labor Union." This is an object-lesson in Americanism; it is a model of applied political economy. And Zadoc Pine himself is one of the most direct and manly characters who has stepped from real life into literature. He has gumption and he has grit; he is an American as Benjamin Franklin was an American, and as Abraham Lincoln was. He could think as straight as he could shoot; and the tale of his rise in life is as potent a plea for freedom as Mr. Herbert Spencer's.

But about Mr. Bunner's writings I confess that I can never speak with the expected coldness of the critic, for the author is my friend for now many years. We have dwelt beneath the same roof for months at a time. We have exchanged counsel day and night; we have heard each other's plans and projects; we have read each other's manuscript; we have revised each other's proof-sheets; more than once we have written the same story together, he holding the pen, or I, as chance would have it. But shall friendship blind me to the quality of my comrade's art? When he puts forth a book, shall I pass by on the other side, silent, and giving no sign? That may be the choice of some, but it is not mine.


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Brander Matthews's essay: Of Two Latterday Humorists