Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Why Blog ATOL?

The important thing to remember is that humor is subjective.

Corollary to that is this: Times change. What was entertainment a hundred or so years ago – take minstrel shows – are now hardly tolerated. The Bang! Zoom! of Ralph Kramden fell to the zen nothingness of Seinfeld who, by all accounts, is already regarded in some pop culture circles as quaint.

So do well, dear reader, to take into account the cautions Louis Untermeyer offers as he introduces A Treasury of Laughter, a 1946 compilation of humor, with some satire mixed in:

The aim of this book is the communication of the comic; its object is to make the reader laugh. The editor’s chief concern is with such pieces in prose, and occasionally in verse, which have made readers grin, smile, chortle, chirrup, giggle, titter, crow, cackle, shout – where’s that thesaurus? Ah yes – leap, roar, burst and die with laughter. Obviously not every page in this collection will cause all these pleasant reactions, nor are they meant to . But each selection has its devotees and has won from them the genial chuckle or the side-splitting guffaw.

Or, as you’ll see, the confused look, the deer-in-the-headlights stare and other such reactions. Remember: Times change. Humor is subjective.

Untermeyer knows that, clearly:

As to the omissions which every reader will inevitably hold against the editor, there is this to say: Nothing is more personal than an anthology. If you ask me why I have left out some of your own favorites, I would offer one or more of these excuses: (a) Times change and taste changes with them. Some of the pieces I roared at in my youth still seem the best of their kind; some of the things that doubled me up last year seem pretty dull stuff to me today. (b) I admire the broad humor of Fielding, the delicate innuendoes of Sterne, and lively satirical novels of Thackeray, the breakfast-table repartee of Oliver Wendell Holmes; but much though I relish their works, I found nothing in them which seemed easily detachable or self-sufficient or actually funny by itself. (c) In spite of a lifetime spent in reading and an acquired air of omniscience, it is just possible that I’ve never encountered your particular favorite.

This blog aims to do maybe what Untermeyer wanted to do, but didn’t come out and say: Expose readers to new writers. For the most part, I’m as unfamiliar with the writers in this anthology as the rest of you. I recognize the greats – Thurber, Twain, Carroll, Mencken and Henry – but have also found rare gems. Thanks to Untermeyer, I now know and love Don Marquis’ Archy and Mehitabel and, for the first time, read writing by Robert Frost, Saki, and, yes, Untermeyer.

My hope is that this blog can do for you what it’s going to do for me: Open a mind. Besides, I like blogging about old books. What worked for the Cokesbury Party Book ought to work for A Treasury of Laughter, right?

Not Knowing the Man At All . . .

To better understand the anthology, we’d better understand the man.

Louis Untermeyer was born in New York City on Oct. 1, 1885. America was barely a hundred years old. It was the year the Washington Monument was dedicated by president Chester A. Arthur, the year American Telephone & Telegraph was incorporated, the year the Statue of Liberty arrived, in pieces, in New York, and the year Jumbo, P.T. Barnum’s famous elephant, died in a train crash.

I’m offering all this up because I don’t really know who Louis Untermeyer is, beyond what’s offered at Wikipedia or what can be gleaned from his self-effacing biographical paragraph in A Treasury of Laughter:

Because he failed three times in geometry and was unable to graduate from high school, Louis Untermeyer (born in 1885 in New York City) considers himself the least educated author in America. In youth he wrote poems and parodies, in middle age he edited them.

That alone endears the man to me. Though I got As in geometry, algebra was my failing, figuratively. I never failed, but I did consistently get Cs and Ds. I’m sure to this day Mrs. Barton, my ninth-grade algebra teacher, and Mr. Hunter, who tootled me through several painful years of advanced math in high school, consider me a moron. But that’s okay.

I do find this interesting:

Untermeyer had sympathies for socialists and was branded a communist during the Red Scare of the 1950s. He lost a popular gig on the panel show “What’s My Line,” and, as a result, didn’t stray from his apartment for a year out of fear of the society the United States had become.

Here he is, en kinescope:

And this:

The Lilly Library at Indiana University – Bloomington, is home to the Untermeyer papers. Why, I’m not sure. They don’t appear to have any of it available online. Pity.

So I need to find a biography, something much more authoritative than Wikipedia, before I can answer the question: Who is this man? He wrote a biography himself -- which goes without saying. Finding that would be a treat.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Woollcott the Crier

The funny thing about the past is that it's nothing quite like the present. And vice versa. Making a Merrie Melody like this one today, you'd need an entirely different set of authors and actors to portray -- forgetting, of course, that nobody would make this kind of cartoon today at all. You certainly wouldn't get a caricature of Alexander Woollcott as the Town Crier, that's for sure.

That's what the Treasury of Laughter Blog is going to be all about: Finding new in the old. Now, the authors featured in this anthology are varied, fromthe well-known today (Mark Twin, Ogden Nash, James Thurber, et cetera) to those who have slipped into obscurity, despite being very well-known in their day. (Anybody remember who Don Marquis, is, for example?)

But there are a lot of famous names and famous associations back then that still resonate today, albeit in different forms or for different reasons. We'll explore all that as time goes on.

Right now, I plan on two posts a week, each post focusing on an author featured in this anthology. We'll just follow Dusty Bottoms' admonition from "The Three Amigos:" We'll just relax and have fun with it.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Coming Soon

Coming in May 2010 to the Internet near you -- The Treasury of Laughter Blog. We'll see what fun can be had from a collection of 19th century humor by what are regarded today as mostly obscure writers. Guaranteed to make you roar. Or something like that.