Smilin’ Through

Essays of E.B. White

by E.B. White
Harper and Row, 277 pp., $12.50

One of the many interesting pieces in Essays of E.B. White is called “Some Remarks on Humor” and was originally the preface to an anthology of humor assembled by White and his wife and published in 1941. In it, White does his duty to the publishers like a man and talks about the essence of humor—why funny is so funny, what temperature the oven should be, and so on—but his heart is not in this unhappy duty; no man knows better that a dissertation on humor is bound to be worthless as information and painful as reading matter. So, he moves on smartly to the infinitely fascinating question, which nobody has managed to answer, of why Americans believe “that if a thing is funny it can be presumed to be something less than great, because if it were truly great it would be wholly serious.”

“Wholly solemn” or “wholly grave” is what is meant here, because the whole point of White’s argument is that a humorous response to life can be just as serious as a humorless one. How it has come about that a nation which produces humor in such abundance, and lives by it to such an extent that it would be unrecognizable without it, has concluded that humor is inferior nonetheless both in form and depth—this is either a most bewildering paradox or can be explained simply by itself: that of which there is no end, and which comes so easily to so many, cannot matter as much as a gravity which lies outside the reach of the vulgar and makes the author seem more like a rare bird than a bird-brained one.

Thus, when White says of Finley Peter Dunne’s Mr. Dooley that “the Irish dialect is difficult but worth the effort, and it smooths out after the first hundred miles,” the correctness of the criticism is invalidated by the smile, and the statement needs rewriting in stolid form before its rightness can matter. Similarly, few people would rate W.C. Fields’s disgraceful comedy as a serious social criticism of American hypocrisies; Fields was without the capacity to lapse into the shameless sentimentality that made Chaplin’s comedy seem infinitely serious and inspired volumes of writing that are still painfully serious to read.

It would be wrong to argue that all great comedians have something to offer. The late-lamented Groucho gave only joy to millions of people—a gift that is not regarded as serious and is not to be ranked with a good hospital or a seeing-eye dog. Most American humorists fall into Groucho’s category of clown and tumbler, and they pull down many funny foreigners in their fall. Few serious American students of French literature have noticed how funny Stendhal can be. We are never told that Dostoevsky wrote a story about a bureaucrat who was swallowed alive by a crocodile, leaving his wife “a sort of grass-widow.” Even Tolstoy’s unbelievably venomous humor respecting his two great hates, Wagner and Shakespeare, must be rendered glumly before it…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.