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 can be set before the serious student.
White shows that American humorists have accepted their secondary place in the scale of seriousness for many years. The greatest of them, Mark Twain, asserted that “Humor is only a fragrance, a decoration”; he himself was essentially a preacher, he said (how strange for a man to think that essence and fragrance are separable!). Franklin P. Adams didn’t think it was even profitable: “For the writers who amass the greatest gold have, it seems to me, no sense of humor….” And the essayist Frank Moore Colby remarks, in an excellent passage on humor, that the pride taken by every American in his sense of humor is not a tendency that should be commended:
There are people whom nature meant to be solemn from their cradle to their grave…Solemnity is relatively a blessing, and the man who was born with it should never be encouraged to wrench himself away.
Poets who wrench themselves away long enough to write light verse are careful, White says, to do so under an assumed name. Apparently their seriousness as poets would be dangerously reduced if they were heard to laugh. The New Oxford Book of American Verse, published last year, shows that this is as true today as it was in 1941. Gravity is the hallmark of that excellent volume. After James Russell Lowell, only Gwendolyn Brooks and E.E. Cummings risk the calamity of a smile. T.S. Eliot is pure sackcloth and ashes; all the work he put into cats gets a rejection slip.
White believes that things are different in England. “The Punch editors not only write the jokes but they help make the laws of England.” It could be said that the laws have been an improvement on the jokes; but White’s point is sound. Britian’s problem is the opposite of America’s. Too much gravity incurs suspicion. It indicates that the author has a mission, or a message, either of which is bound to create discomfort and unhappiness. Most of the century’s most notable missionaries—Shaw, Chesterton, Belloc, Waugh—did their best to be serious as humorously as possible. Their native audiences took little interest in the United States except as a bottomless well of excellent humor. Thurber’s and White’s Is Sex Necessary? would have seemed to many of them a far more serious contribution to life in 1941 than the collected works of Theodore Dreiser.
But White has a second misfortune to be distressed about: he is not only a humorous writer but an essayist as well. He says of this fate:
I am not fooled about the place of the essay in twentienth-century American letters—it stands a short distance down the line. The essayist, unlike the novelist, the poet, and the playwright, must be content in his self-imposed role of second-class citizen. A writer who has his sights trained on the Nobel Prize or other earthly triumphs had best write a novel, a poem, or a play….
His publishers think better of him. They say: “The Essays of E.B. White are incomparable; as one critic puts it, he is ‘our finest essayist, perhaps our only one.”‘ In fact, he is one of a great many; but since few of them need to struggle with the curse of humor, they not only escape the humiliation of second-class citizenship but are often not recognized as essayists at all. Some are even indistinguishable, in a bad light, from men whose sights are trained on the Nobel Prize.
On this matter there is an interesting comment by Harold Ross, quoted by White in his collected Letters of last year. Ross turned a cold eye on any piece of work that was what he called “writer-conscious”—work, that is to say, in which the author’s sights were trained more on his own impressiveness than on his subject. Though the phrase was coined by a man who only edited a humorous magazine, it would be wise to take it seriously. “Writer-consciousness” is one of the toughest dragons in the field of authorship and carries off sociological and critical essayists as frequently as if they were virgins. One of White’s achievements—which goes hand in hand with his deprecatory remarks about himself—is the extent to which he manages to avoid being “writer-conscious”: his search is for the plain word and his concern is for the subject. If he doesn’t always get the better of the dragon it is because the humorist is always fond of his humor and gets personally involved in his pursuit of it.
Still the question remains: what seriousness can be expected of a man who can only write essays and is inclined to smile? White has smoothed out this question somewhat by the selection he has made for this book: there are a number of pieces, mostly about civil liberties, which would meet the serious test with perfect solemnity, even though they have no serious theories behind them and no serious clichés to push them forward. There are also some dubious ones, such as the study of Walden, a book which White thinks was not written for the “plodding economist” (is this the way to talk?), and the lively piece on White’s old professor at Cornell, William Strunk Jr., whose textbook, The Elements of Style, was largely a compendium of short rules—“Omit needless words”; “Make definite assertions”; “Avoid a succession of loose sentences.” These rules, if followed today, would reduce most great works to slim volumes.
But the heart of the collection is the picture it presents of country life. A humorous undertow is running all the time, and the combination of this and the rural material is bound to startle the foreigner who depends not only on the press for his picture of America but on American writers who are first-class citizens with a vengeance. The French like to say: “There is a peasant inside every Frenchman”; but the idea of a sort of peasant living in an American can only seem absurd. Take this statement, for example:
I like the cold. I like the snow. I like the descent to the dark, cold kitchen at six in the morning, to put a fire in the wood stove…. I steal down in my wrapper carrying a pair of corduroy pants…and fill the kettle with fresh spring water…with a poker I clear the grate in the big black Home Crawford 8-20, roll up two sheets of yesterday’s Bangor Daily News, and lay them in the firebox along with a few sticks of cedar kindling and two sticks of stovewood on top of that.
There must be something serious about this statement because of the shock it must give to innocent Frenchmen and many others. It is difficult for a foreigner to turn his back on an America that is not only entirely urban and electrical but forever verging on the criminal. He has lived with it for many years; it was as long ago as the Thirties that Alistair Cooke began his great pioneering struggle to present America as a place where people lived. White not only enters into this struggle with a cheerfulness that many serious natives would find objectionable; he even shows that the distress felt by Europeans over the loss of old ways and old institutions is felt with the same bitterness in his homeland.
There are a few other things to be said in favor of White. In his old-fashioned way, he omits needless words and avoids a succession of loose sentences. He continues the old tradition which has made humor America’s best ambassador. Though only an essayist, he makes definite assertions and says shortly what others say at length. He will never win the Nobel Prize and will certainly never approach a Great Work; but he will always make sense, which is an achievement too. To conclude that he should be ranked among serious writers would only give offense to those who are; the most one can say is that he was thought to be serious by Harold Ross.
October 27, 1977