| The Senses of Humor: Self and Laughter in Modern America
Book by Daniel Wickberg; Cornell University Press, 1998
Everyday language and ordinary speech in twentieth-century America find a place for something called the "sense of humor." We routinely describe individuals as possessing this trait; we use it as a shorthand for recommending the personal quality of people; we look for it in our associates and friends as a sign of their good nature and compatibility. Anyone who has read letters of recommendation or glanced at the personal ads that fill the back pages of urban weekly newspapers knows that the term "sense of humor" recurs with amazing frequency. It is a simple description of a universally recognized personality trait. And yet its use and appearance in everyday speech, as with so many of the routine phrases we use, is rarely accompanied by critical inquiry into its meaning. This is as it should be; if we are to stop to analyze the meaning of every commonplace, we will soon find ourselves unable to speak. But the question remains: What do we mean when we describe someone as having a sense of humor?
This book is an extended answer to that question. The answer takes the form of a history of the term, but the question itself seems of a different order. It is at once anthropological and philosophical: anthropological in the sense of posing an exploration or unpacking of the meaning of a term and value within a particular culture, namely our own; philosophical in the sense of requiring an analysis of a human faculty in terms of its relevance to the constitution and identity of persons in the abstract. Indeed, I hope the present work will be accessible to those who come to it from backgrounds in related humanistic and social scientific fields. We live, after all, in a time of "blurred genres," as Clifford Geertz reminds us, and those of us loosely connected to something called "cultural studies" can scarcely forget it. 1 Nevertheless, this book is written primarily as a work of history, albeit history of an interdisciplinary nature. More than half a century ago, the philosopher and historian R. G. Collingwood argued that history had supplanted philosophy as the foundation of knowledge of the human mind; 2 I concur that the best answer to a philosophical question is the writing of a history, that to know the meaning of an idea is to understand its history.
This, then, is a history of the idea and meaning of the sense of humor within Anglo-American, especially American, culture. Even having said this, however, I must point out what it is not. At the risk of seeming to define this project in largely negative terms, I have come to the conclusion that the best way to avoid misunderstanding is to address the initial expectations many readers may have. Cultural history today takes many forms, and frequently seems to have as many meanings as it has readers. The legacy of structuralist thought has left us with the notion that what is is defined by what is not. My purpose in describing what this book is not is simply to make my aims and intentions clear, to define exactly what kind of cultural history the reader might expect to find here.
Those who come to this work with the expectation that it represents a cultural history of American humor as a literary or popular form--that is to say, as a "tradition" or a body of texts--will be disappointed. There is a voluminous literature on American humor understood in this sense, and although I touch on some of the issues with which that scholarship is concerned, I approach them very differently. 3 The reader will not find, for instance, an interpretation of southwestern humor here. I do not focus on the meaning of particular humorous texts or the literary and cultural traditions in which they reside; I am interested, at least in part, in what makes possible the identification of these texts as "humor," and in this sense the tradition of scholarship on American humor is framed within my analysis. One way to put this is to say that I am interested less in the language of humor and more in its metalanguage. Thus, Mark Twain's discussion of the technique and structure of humor, "How to Tell a Story," is a primary source for this work, but his humorous stories themselves are not.
It would be a mistake, however, to say that I am concerned with the history of attitudes toward humor, or ideas about humor, rather than with the history of humor itself. The notion of a history of attitudes assumes that there is an independently existing body of things toward which people have changing "attitudes," that there are "ideas" on the one hand and "reality" on the other. The old dualism of mind and matter, superstructure and base in Marxian language, that in various forms continues to undergird most intellectual and cultural history, is embedded in the idea of a history of attitudes. Rather than a history of attitudes toward humor, or ideas about it, this is a study of the meanings of "humor," "sense of humor," and related terms, not as reflections, refractions, or indices of some other "real" thing, but as themselves elements of a cultural reality. Insofar as other realities slip into the narrative-under the names, for instance, of "individualism," "corporate capitalism," "bureaucracy," "market society"--they do so not to play the role of deus ex machina or philosophers' stone, nor to provide a solid ground upon which ideas can rest, but to add breadth and dimension to the cultural changes explicated in my analysis of the sense of humor, to make those meanings yet more meaningful.
Nor should this book be seen as a history of intellectuals and their ideas of humor. Although there are some prominent or "canonical" names appearing throughout the text--Ben Jonson, Francis Hutcheson, Mark Twain, Reinhold Niebuhr, John Dewey, Gordon Allport--there are also more obscure figures--Thomas Masson, E. P Whipple, William A. Jones, Agnes Repplier, William Moulton Marston--and others who by traditional criteria might not be classified as intellectuals at all--Art Henley, Bob Hope, Ell Perkins, Walt Disney, Eliza Leslie....