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Humor in America

By Joel Chandler Harris


NCE upon a time, in the early beginnings of the

Republic, when the thirteen colonies, by the force of

arms, and the growth and pressure of public opinion, both at home and abroad, had begun to adjust their social and political organization to fit the demands of freedom and independence, it chanced that one of the circuit judges in Georgia was a man named Dooley. Now, there is nothing in a name, and there is everything. This Mr. Dooley was a native-born American, and there is every reason to believe that his nature was seized and possessed by the same gentle and genial shadow of melancholy that has spread its wings over the lives of so many great men.

He had been an eyewitness to one of the most harrowing scenes enacted during the Revolution-he had seen his own father dragged from his home and foully murdered by the Tories in that part of the State where no quarter was asked or given. The scene must have made a lasting impression on the lad, but, if he ever referred to it in public or private, the fact has not been recorded by his contemporaries.

As a matter of fact, however, we know very little of his contemporaries. No doubt there were other judges on the bench in Georgia more distinguished, and other lawyers more famous in that day; but their names have been forgotten, and,


save for the tax-rolls, or family and court records, would long ago have perished from the face of the earth. There is nothing to show that Judge Dooley was a great man in his profession, or that his intellectual equipment was such as to set him apart from his contemporaries; but he had the gift of humor in a surpassing degree, and this fact has brought his name down to this generation, and has flavored his memory with a peculiar and lasting fragrance.

For some reason or other, no doubt political—for the controversies of that day were far more strenuous than they are now- Judge Dooley was challenged to mortal combat by a contemporary who had the misfortune to have a wooden leg. The judge accepted the challenge with a condition attached. To insure perfect equality for both parties, he insisted that one of his legs should be encased in a bee-gum—the bee-gums

а of that day being fashioned from sections of a hollow tree. This, of course, added fury to the anger of the challenger, who declared that the condition proposed was a more outrageous insult than the original provocation; and he gave notice that he would post the judge in the public prints of the day. Judge Dooley, responding, announced that, so far as he was personally concerned, he would rather fill every newspaper in the land than one grave, which, in the then existing condition of mining and surveying might turn out to be a misfit.

On another occasion, when the sheriff of one of the counties in his circuit, by way of showing him a little extra attention, placed a small pitcher of toddy, instead of water, at his hand, the judge sampled the offering, smacked his lips loudly, and commanded the astonished official to fetch him some more water from the same spring. Once, when about to engage in personal combat with an assailant, who was armed with a knife, and while three or four friends were trying to restrain


him, he turned to them, and remonstrated. “Gentlemen," he cried,“ any one of you can hold me; the rest of you go and hold the other fellow!” There was an instant explosion of laughter, in which the judge's assailant joined as heartily as the rest, and good feeling was immediately restored.

These examples of American humor, which have been the means of relieving tradition of its heaviness, will serve excellently well as an introduction to this modest collection of American humor, which makes no pretension to completeness. For many reasons, completeness is out of the question, for, in a compilation of this kind when you have done your best, the best is still to be done, especially in a land where certain forms of humor have been discovered in the wild creatures of the wood, not to mention the inimitable drolleries that observers have found in the barn-yard. Moreover, as likely as not, your dearest friend has a volume of humor on the press; and

you cannot overcome the belief that your neighbor, who, for reasons of health and economy, shingles his house by lamplight, is about to add to the gaiety of nations by gathering up and committing to print the casual comments of the people whom his industry has disturbed. Under such circumstances, the sense of incompleteness must necessarily take possession of the average compiler.

And this sense of incompleteness is made all the keener by a knowledge of the fact that much that is best and most characteristic in American humor has never had the advantage of type and binding. Much has been lost, but much has been preserved in the oral literature of the common people, having been handed down from generation to generation; and such of it as still persists is perhaps the cream of the best. The pungent and racy anecdote, smelling of the soil, that is told to illustrate a moral, or to give point to an argument, the happy allusion to some memory or tradition, the dramatic manner giving an added perfection, are all a part and parcel of American humor and give piquancy to its peculiarities.

It may be said of us, with some degree of truth, that we have a way of living humorously, and are conscious of the fact; that our view of life and its responsibilities is, to say the least, droll and comfortable; and there seems never to have been a day in our history when the American view of things generally was not charged or trimmed with humor. This fact, unimportant and insignificant as it seems to be, has tided our statesmen, as well as the common people, over many rough experiences, and has seasoned many disasters that would otherwise have wrought ruin and despair. At least one humorist of world-wide renown has sat in the President's chair, and it would not be going too far to say that American diplomacy has achieved its greatest victories since the chair of state has been occupied by a gentleman who was noted for his humor long before his statesmanship had been put to the test.

First and last, humor has played a very large part in our political campaigns; in fact, it may be said that it has played almost as large a part as principles—which is the name that politicians give to their theories. It is a fact that is common to the experience of those who embark in politics that the happy allusion, the humorous anecdote, dramatically toldespecially if it have the added perfection of timeliness—will change the whole prospects of a political struggle, even on the most extensive field.

The forms of humor that are preserved in the oral literature of the people are very dear to them, and for the best of reasons.

is based on their unique experiences; it is a part personality; it belongs to their history; and it seems, in some ways, to be an assurance of independence and strength, of sanity and wisdom, of honesty and simplicity. It need not be said that the hold which the name of Abraham Lincoln has upon the people of the whole country is based largely on the exquisite tact with which he handled the homely humor that runs riot among the common people. Other nations have wonder-tales and the various forms of folk-lore as it is known to our friends the scientists; but the folk-lore of the Republic consists almost wholly of humor, and, as it happens, it is the one quality, apart from religion--and it fits in capitally with thatnecessary to keep all things sound and sweet and wholesome. Moreover, the humor that is characteristic of the American mind—that seems, indeed, to be its most natural and inevitable product-can be found in no other nation under the sun, for it is possible only where many mixtures of many peoples have been worked into one homogeneous whole on the broad basis of Anglo-Saxon and Celtic thought.

The selections that are presented as in some degree representative of American humor body forth only that which has assumed the tangible shape of print, and, while they are sufficiently distinctive, while they are alive and palpitating with the peculiarities that belong to our national experience, our climate, and our form of government, they are neither so peculiar nor so distinctive as the humor that belongs to our oral literature. We speak the English language, or—to be perfectly fair to the genial beef-eaters to whom we are related by blood and financema form of English dialect called American, and, whether we will or no, we are all the time trying to conform to the standards of written English in form and expression, and to the general trend of English methods that are to be found in what are termed the British classics. This is inevitable, and no fault is to be found with it; but, at the same time, the fact must be recognized that these forms and methods

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