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?

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