« السابقةمتابعة »
term humor. The names we have given are really exceptions in the literary history of the English. A few others might be included, such as Goldsmith and Charles Lamb, but this only by a liberal expansion of definition. In Charles Lamb, in particular, the attempts at humor are really among his least successful performances. He is more apt to make you pensive than merry. The effect of his quaininess, dealing as he does with reminiscences and experiences which are most usually painful, is saddening and produces thought. His happy faculty seems to be in softening what is gloomy in itself, and, by a gush of quaint etlusion, simply preventing you from falling into melancholy musing. His most successful essays are more pathetic than humorous. We doubt, indeed, if any body rises from the perusal of these two writers, and others, considered humorous, that might be named, without experiencing sentiments of the saddest and soberest complexion. Chaucer is accounted a humorous writer, but his humor is a very different thing from that which in our day is marked for humorous. Chaucer is rather a robust and healthy exponent of the English nature, in its least excited moments. He was a writer of society rather than of passions,—and preferred taking ordinary views of society to profound ones. In our day, he would have written prose narratives, like those of Mr. Dickens, with better plots, less extravagance, and less of the pathetic. But he would have been more true, as the representative of society in general. He was another of those catholic writers, who would have forgotten himself in his character. The humor of his day was preserved to that of Smollett and Fielding. In them, it grew naturally out of the situation-was unstrained,-the result of the regular progress of events, and not of cunning contrivances, merely set in operation to provoke the cachination of the reader. If the fun came, well and good, they set it down as it accrued to them. They never called for it. It was the spontaneous effusion of a faculty in themselves, and in the character and the event upon which they were engaged, and the action of circumstances upon character, gave form and effect to the situation. Nothing was derived from mere quaintness of expression, peculiarity of phrase, or oddly-sorted phraseology. The thing, as we encounter it now-a-days, is of different fashion, and if deserving of the name of humor, is certainly of a far inferior quality. We are made to laugh now by what is simply queer or ridicu
lous,—by the grotesque and impossible,—by a nomenclature that seems to task the writer's ingenuity much more than his plot, and by the worst of manners, shown up in the strangest of situations. Mere fun is now the object; yet we take it for granted that no reader, perusing the great masters of the humorous, would suspect them for a single moment of a labor at any such effect. Life as it was,-a speaking, being, doing and suffering, not an automaton life,-seems to have been their purpose. Now, your book of humor seems manufactured only for the fun, as the monkey is dressed in red, with cap and cockade, and attended by kettle-drum or banjor, is set to perform at the corners of the highway for the amusement of the thoughtless boy, or the inconsiderate, halfstarved ignorant. The purposes for which the separate authors wrote, seem to be entirely different, and the difference of humor between them is quite as apparent. But to return.
Sprung from the same stock, the American cannot materially differ from his ancestor. He is like unto the Englishman. He shares his character in all substantial respects. He has his inflexibility of purpose, his jealousy of others, his keen, suspicious sense of liberty, his earnestness, and his profound faith in himself. He has the same warm and violent passions,—the same intensity of mood,—the same tendency to the sanguinary and the violent. The events which havě modified the English character in America, have not always tended to its improvement-have not, certainly, rendered it more susceptible to the influences of humor. In the colder clime of New-England, labouring under the adverse influences of inclement skies, and sterile soil, the intensity of the Puritan nature became rather increased than diminished, even while seeming, for a season at least, more humble and subdued. Prosperity has not, to this day, subdued the earnest and irascible in their character. Subjected to novel necessities, severe trials and conflicts, and strange encounters, in the new world, English character was somewhat drawn out, and became more flexible, more susceptible of adaptation to various uses, than in Europe. With more levity than his ancestor, the American has really no more humor. Our vanity produces more flippancy, -we talk with more freedom, and attempt all sorts of smart things in what we say; but our attempts at the humorous are usually wretched enough. We are scarcely sensible to the humorous. Broad farce and lamentable caricature suffice
us. Look at our newspapers,—filled as they are with a melange, over which the presiding spirit shows himself as reckless ordinarily of decency as he is of proper taste, --and what is the humor there but dashing effrontery, bold blackguardism, or a fun that is deplorably silly and ridiculous. Our wit consists in odd analogies, strained metaphor, hyperbole beyond grasp, and absurdity that seems to exult, like Mawworm, in being contemptible. It is in song, or story, or caricature, very much the same thing. When least offen. sive, the highest merit aimed at or attained, is a lively turn to a sentence or a verse, a harmless point or pun, that sneaks in, and is successful rather from the surprise which it provokes, than because of any merits of its own. The best specimens of American humor, by far, which have ever been issued from the American press, are those of Judge Longstreet,—the Georgia Scenes,—specimens, by the way, quite equal, of their kind, to any thing from the hands of modern Europeans. You hear something said of Jack Downing, and even the British press found something to please them in this clever jeu d'esprit. But Jack Downing was satirical rather than humorous. Its caricatures, except at a time of intense political excitement, would scarcely have provoked a smile; and now that the struggle which provoked it is at rest, the Letters of Jack Downing are as effectually buried from sight as if they were sealed up in the catacombs of Egypt. Their success--aside from the demands of partylay in their excessive grotesques—in the brunt of face with which the writer could insist upon the impossible.
In humorous poetry, we have nothing better than Halleck's “Fanny,"—which is merely a lively local picture, the humor of which is exceeding faint and characterless. It has never found much favor out of the corporate limits of NewYork. As for our taste and skill in caricature, it is scarcely possible to imagine any thing more uniformly and thoroughly wretched and ridiculous,-more stupid, less expressive, and less likely to arouse the cachinatory muscles of any--even among the most blank-witted and thick-headed of the vulgar,-than the draughts of political allegory, which exult in lithographic costume, at the corners of the highway, just on the eve of each popular election. Even that insect tribe, which rejoices in the euphonious names of “Phiz" and "Biz" and “Quiz”—and with the feeble extravagancies of which, our brother Bull seems so perfectly satisfied-have as yet failed to
find any worthy successors among us. We cannot call to mind a single painter, who has yet, in our country, addressed his attention to subjects at all humorous. Our Hogarths have yet made no sign. And thus stands the case in all departments. Our published humor is a blank. Yet there is humor in the country-rare, racy, articulate, native humor. We have spoken of the Georgia Scenes of Judge Longstreet. Unquestionably, far beyond any comparison,
they are the best specimens in this field that the American genius has produced ; and that they spring from this region—a region which, as yet, has put in no claim to the regards of the nation, in a literary point of view, leads to reflections of some significance. Our publishing press is established in places having intimate intercourse with Europe. New-York, Boston and Philadelphia, from which cities all our literature emanates, is more or less under the immediate control and direction of European mind. In the same degree are they denuded of originality; and we must look elsewhere, to regions free, if possible, from this paralyzing influence, for whatever nationality our literature is destined to possess. If we look in the right direction, we shall not always look in vain : and, as perfect originality is, by reason of the very nature of humor, one of its most absolutely necessary constituents, our eyes must necessarily turn in that quarter in which the latter property is already most conspicuous. It is not now found in those regions, where every facility is already afforded for its utterance, if it there existed. You will find it stretching downwards, however, from the great back-bone, the central ridge of the country, following the course of its waters along the slopes of the western and south-western valleys. There grows a hardy and a generous nature, untaught, unsophisticated, warm, ardent and impetuous, which is yet destined to unfold great destinies in art and literature for the country which it endows. It is an original and vigorous nature, rough but rich, illiterate but fresh,-full of virgin glow and enthusiasm,-yearning after great things, and impetuous in their attainment. As yet it does not conceive its own endowments. Busy in the most laborious toils,—striving against merely physical necessities,—it has yet an infinite deal to learn and to overcome, before it can possibly enter upon the nobler work of creating and refining in the empire of art. But it betrays signs of intellectual prowess, in numerous departments, which the prescient
philosopher cannot easily mistake. Eloquence born of noble and daring impulses,-enthusiasm which already declares a proud faith in its own destiny,—and thought and speculation, which does not shrink from any difficulties, already speak for its possessions, and are so many shows of the power still in reserve. And in the buoyant force and animation of its speech,-in its copious fund of expression,-in the audacity of its illustration,-its very hyperbole,—the singular force of its analogies,-the pregnant, though ludicrous vitality of its pictures,-its queer allusions, sudden repartee, and lively adaptation of the foreign and unexpected, to the familiar, -we recognize the presence of a genius as likely to embody the humorous as the eloquent,—the mirthful and the picturesque, as the sublime and the imposing. The nature of the people of this region lacks the rigidity, the solemnity, the staid forms and exactions of the people on the slopes of the Atlantic. Their destiny has been more fertile, more fruitful, cast in more pleasant times, less influenced by English characteristics, and the gloomy dispensations of colonial necessity. They are, in truth, a native people, children of the soil and sun,marked by their common characteristics : great vivacity, a clear spirit, a quick, impulsive temperament, ---capricious, it may be, but oh ! how buoyant,- how elastic,-how free from those morbid depressions which, for so many seasons of the day and year, impair the energies of the Englishman, and fetter his best faculties. It is needless to add, that, though our expectations of this sort are not large, we do not despair of seeing American writers of humor worthy to take rank with the European. All that we shall say just now is, that we have not found them yet.
But humor is not necessarily the constituent of a natural performance. No !-by no means. It is a very good element to give relief to the mass, but may, in certain classes of writings, be dispensed with. We may not say what should constitute a national writer, but this we do say, that he who shall succeed in illustrating the nation, must make his leading idea a full acknowledgment of the impetuous and intense earnestness of the people,—an intenseness that seems to madden upon each successive topic, and runs headlong in the prosecution of every novel purpose. With this idea in mind,--the condition of the country,--the employments of the people,--their expectations and denials,--the events in their history,--all furnish abundant materials for