Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 112: Artemus Ward, Artemus Ward on His Visit to Abe Lincoln (#44)

Artemus Ward, "Artemus Ward on His Visit to Abe Lincoln" (1860) from The Lincoln Anthology: Great Writers on His Life and Legacy from 1860 to Now:

Even some stand-up comedy from the 1980s can feel dated ("White people do X like this. Black people do X like this. How do you like the brick wall behind me?"); so we might tiptoe our way up to something from the 1860s, not expecting much. (Especially something involving Lincoln, where our usual referent for Lincoln + "humor" are the incredibly offensive anti-Lincoln and anti-black cartoons of the day.)

So I was a little and pleasantly surprised to find this piece was... bearable. It starts out with "Artemus Ward" speaking in his broken, New Englander English--"I hiv no politics. Nary a one."--which seems to make him the butt of the joke. He starts off sort of as an idiot, the sort of man who would say
I’m the father of Twins, and they look like me--both of them.
But he quickly moves on to making fun of the office seekers who crowd around President-Elect Lincoln. Which brings us to one reason why comedy doesn't translate so well across time: he's writing in a time period where people who worked to get someone elected might be rewarded with some government office, the old office-holder being turned out usually if he had supported the wrong party. (Notably, Nathaniel Hawthorne lost both his custom house job and his surveyor job when Democrats lost.)

So the mid-section of this has lots of physical comedy, with office seekers coming down the chimney or crawling between Lincoln's legs.

And then we come to the end where we have an abrupt change in tone, from the silly to the serious. Which is a nice reminder that so much of this 19th-century humor that survives has a serious, often political edge. So we're not reading about clowns hitting each other with pies. (When did that start?) We're reading about office seekers who get frightened off by a man with a terribly thick accent who winds up his piece by telling Lincoln--and the reading audience--that we should let the Confederacy secede and try to make peace.

Ward somewhat undercuts that point by then slipping back into silliness, telling Lincoln to fill the cabinet with showmen, since they have no political principle and only want to please the audience, i.e., the voters. But maybe that point is somewhat serious too? Maybe all of this silliness about not having principles is a sincere encomium to the practicality that lets politicians compromise rather than go on fighting?

So here's another reason why comedy doesn't travel well: it's hard to know where the comedy ends and the serious message begins.

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