Thursday, May 27, 2010

Morris Bishop, Smurf-Killer

I confess I’m not really a fan of the limerick. Though I’ve been praised for my affinity for writing tightly-structured poetry (okay, once, by a kind of out-there creative writing instructor at the University of Idaho) limericks are just a bit too limiting in their form for the kind of things I enjoy writing.

So I leave limericks to the professionals. Like Morris Bishop. Here’s a sample, which Louis Untermeyer obviously included in “The Treasury of Laughter”:

A ghoulish old fellow from Kent
Encrusted his wife in cement;
He said, with a sneer:
“I was careful, my dear,
To follow your natural bent.”

Not exactly my cup of tea, form-wise, but I won’t say I disapprove of the content. Untermeyer says Bishop is not “an originator” of light verse as is Ogden Nash, but “knows how to surprise the reader with a combination of round humor and barbed nonsense.”

Which makes me why Untermeyer didn’t include Bishop’s “How to Treat Elves” if he likes that round humor and surprise:

I met an elf man in the woods,
The wee-est little elf!
Sitting under a mushroom tall--
'Twas taller than himself!

"How do you do, little elf," I said,
"And what do you do all day?"
"I dance 'n fwolic about," said he,
"'N scuttle about and play;"

"I s'prise the butterflies, 'n when
A katydid I see,
'Katy didn't' I say, and he
Says 'Katy did!' to me!

"I hide behind my mushroom stalk
When Mister Mole comes froo,
'N only jus' to fwighten him
I jump out'n say 'Boo!'

"'N then I swing on a cobweb swing
Up in the air so high,
'N the cwickets chirp to hear me sing

"'N then I play with the baby chicks,
I call them, chick chick chick!
'N what do you think of that?" said he.
I said, "It makes me sick.

"It gives me sharp and shooting pains
To listen to such drool."
I lifted up my foot, and squashed
The God damn little fool.

Ah-hah. Not so nice. But there is that nice surprise Untermeyer promised. Somehow, I think he and Elmer Fudd would get along just fine.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Josh Billings and his, uh, Tripes

It’s every writer’s dream to be remembered.

Actually, it’s every writer’s dream to be followed by billowing clouds of cash blown out of his or her pockets wherever they go, but being remembered for something written down is second best.

That brings us to Josh Billings, the nom de plume of Henry Wheeler Shaw, pictured at left.

Shaw as Billings was one of the first popular "crackerbarrel" philosophers, who brought folk comedy, philosophy and spelling to the fore of American popular culture. Aside from Mark Twain, Billings was the most popular author in America in the 19th century.

Thing is, you've heard things Josh Billings said, but you don't recognize them as his. First of all, that line -- "In the whole history of the world there is but one thing that money can not buy... to wit the wag of a dog's tail," was featured in Disney's "Lady and the Tramp."But infinitely more famous is this little four-liner:

I hate to be a kicker,
I always long for peace,
But the wheel that does the squeaking,
Is the one that gets the grease.

Yep, every time you say "It's the squeaky wheel that gets the grease," you're paraphrasing Josh Billings.

For "The Treasury of Laughter," Untermeyer chose two pieces, the first of which we'll discuss here. It's called "The Mule." Behold:

The mule is haf hoss, and haf Jackass, and then kums to a full stop, natur diskovering her mistake. Tha weigh more, akordin tu their heft, than enny other kreetur, except a crowbar. Tha kant hear anny quicker, nor further than the hoss, yet their ears are big enuff for snow shoes. You kan trust them with enny one whose life aint worth enny more than the mules. The only wa tu keep them into a paster, is tu turn them into a medder jineing, and let them jump out. Tha are reddy for us, just as soon as they will du tu abuse. Tha haint got enny friends, and will live on huckel berry brush, with an ockasional chanse at Kanada thissels. Tha are a modern invenshun, i dont think the Bible deludes tu them at tall. Tha sel for more money than enny other domestik animile. Yu kant tell their age by looking into their mouth, enny more than you could a Mexican cannons.

And it goes on like this.

Tha are the strongest creeturs on earth, and heaviest, ackording tu their size; i her tell ov one who fell oph from the tow path, on the Eri kanawl, and sunk as soon as he touched bottom, but he kept rite on towing the boat tu the nex stachun, breathing thru his ears, which stuck out ov the water about 2 feet six inches; i didn't see this did, but an auctioneer told me ov it, and i never knew an auctioneer tu lie unless it was absolutely convenient.

Music to the ears of Henry Higgins, I'm sure. We kind of hear echoes of Billings in the twang and slang written by contemporary Mark Twain and in any string of radio comics, from the Old Timer on Fibber McGee and Molly to Amos 'n' Andy's Silverfish. This kind of folksy hokum is pretty much extinct today, being heard only in whispers of Rancid Crabtree in Pat McManus' delightful reminisces. Garrison Kellior is too progressive and urbane for this kind of tomfoolery, fortunately enough for us. He's ugly enough without this kind of misdirected language coming out of his puss.

Billings' death was ignominious, but remembered. Per Wikipedia:

Billings' death is described in Chapter 12 of John Steinbeck's fictional Cannery Row. According to Steinbeck's homage, Billings died in the the Hotel del Monte in Monterey after which his body was delivered for burial preparation by the local constable to the town's only doctor, who also doubled as an amateur mortician. The doctor, per his usual embalming protocol, dispensed of Billings' entrails by tossing them into the gulch behind his house before packing the torso with sawdust. The stomach, liver and intestines were found in the gulch the following morning by a dog whose master, a small boy, intended on using them for fish bait. Some local men, realizing the disgrace this could bring to Monterey -- a town proud of its literary heritage -- were able to stop the boy as he was preparing to row out to sea, retrieved the "tripas" and forced the doctor to give Billings' organs a proper burial befitting a great author.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Sally Benson Curing What Ails Us

Poet Ogden Nash has a poem called “The Adventures of Isabel,” in which Isabel, the pluckiest of little girls, encounters a doctor:

Isabel met a troublesome doctor,
He punched and he poked till he really shocked her.
The doctor's talk was of coughs and chills
And the doctor's satchel bulged with pills.
The doctor said unto Isabel,
Swallow this, it will make you well.
Isabel, Isabel, didn't worry,
Isabel didn't scream or scurry.
She took those pills from the pill concocter,
And Isabel calmly cured the doctor.

On the surface, this might be what Sally Benson’s “Between Madison and Park” is all about – a patient curing a doctor. But there are vagaries and subtleties throughout the short piece that Louis Untermeyer included in this anthology while tongue-in-cheek calling the author “witty and penetrating,” words many a reviewer has used to describe Sally Benson.

I’m just not sure what they are.

Maybe exploring her other works will help. Benson wrote the book on which the musical “Meet me in St. Louis” is based. The story focuses on the travails of a family facing an impending move from St. Louis to New York on the eve of 1904’s Louisiana Purchase Exposition World’s Fair. But, like Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, the story’s underlying tension is that of women trying to assert themselves and live their lives as they want to live them.

Oh, and two very popular songs, neither of which Sally Benson has anything to do with:

So let us examine a passage from “Between Madison and Park.” Here, our protagonist meets Dr. Mitchell, to whom she has been referred by a friend because she awoke that morning with a choking sensation that, oddly, didn’t seem to upset her husband all that much:

Well, Dr. Mitchell, first I want you to understand that I am not a woman who thinks she has something the batter with her when she hasn’t and keeps running to doctors all the time.”

He laughed pleasantly. “You don’t have to tell me that,” he said. “I can see that you’re not.”

“You’ll jut have to take my word for it that I’m not,” Mrs. Gibson said. “it’s just that – well, when I woke up this morning I felt funny. I felt as though I were choking. I mean I don’t feel sick at all. I just have this choking sensation.”

Dr. Mitchell closed his eyes.

Mrs. Gibson saw that there was a bust of Shakespeare in the center of the bookshelves that ran across the side of the room to the right of the Doctor’s desk. “Oh!’ she cried, “Isn’t that the funniest thing! You know, when I came in I was almost sure I’d seen you before, and I guess I was simply thinking of Shakespeare. I mean you would look almost exactly like Shakespeare if you wore a beard.”

He opened his eyes. “Not that’s very odd,” he said. “So many of my patients have told me the same thing. Personally, I don’t see the resemblance. But I suppose one never does see one’s own self.” He leaned forward and look at her steadily. “About this choking sensation which you have . . .”

Mrs. Gibson laughed nervously. “I suppose I imagine it, really.”

“But aren’t the things we imagine real to us?” Dr Mitchell asked softly.

“I daresay they are,” Mrs. Gibson said. “At least, I see what you mean. If I thought I were Napoleon, I would really think I was Napoleon.”

Then, after a few more diagnostic and personal questions. Mrs. Gibson goes on to give Dr. Mitchell hope that his dreamer namesake sixteen-year-old son who wants to be a writer will turn out just fine, though he only wants to study what he wants to study.

Maybe if you didn’t send him to school and let him go to work for a while,” Mrs. Gibson suggested.

Dr Mitchell breathed in deeply. “I hadn’t thought of that,” he said. “I’ll talk it over with Mrs. Mitchell.” He closed his eyes and nodded. “That might be the solution,” he said. He opened his eyes and smiled at Mrs. Gibson and she smiled back. “Now, that choking sensation,” he said. He took out a prescription blank from the drawer of his desk, wrote hurriedly on it, and handed it to her. The prescription was written in Latin, but at the bottom of the blank were two words in English. “For tension,” they read.

“Thank you,” Mrs. Gibson said. She arose to go and they shook hands. “I hope your boy will be all right. I’m sure he will. After all, you must realize he’s only sixteen.”

“I’d like to see you again in about a week,” Dr. Mitchell said. “And we’ll see if that choking sensation hasn’t cleared up. It may be a form of claustrophobia, or it may be that you are overtired and your nerves are playing tricks. Will you stop and make an appointment with Miss Devers, my nurse?”

“Yes, I will,” Mrs. Gibson said. “Good-bye.”

So, I can hear Untermeyer chuckling. Just who cured who?

Tuesday, May 18, 2010


A hurdy-gurdy. You'd think after watching The Polar Express with my kids a hundred times, I'd remember what one is. But this now puts Robert Benchley's comment in perspective, doesn't it?

Robert Benchley and the Hurdy-Gurdy

Now, I like me a bit of nonsense. Read any of my blogs, and you’ll see that. But I tend to be picky in my nonsense. Whenever I hear or read someone talking of “Nonsense for nonsense’s sake,” I say “Nonsense.” Nonsense is entirely subjective and varies from person to person, indeed, from mood to mood.

So, to test your affectation for Robert Benchley’s nonsense for nonsense’s sake, as Untermeyer puts it, first watch this:

Consider now that, in 1936, Benchley won an Academy Award for this ten-minute, uh, soporific. When I watched it earlier this week, early in the am, it was amusing. Gut-wrenching laughter? No. I did like the look on the cartoon alcoholic’s face, however.

But wait a second. It’s getting better. “A sleep position most popular with the drunk.” Wait a second. Wait a second. This reminds me of something. There:

This, from 1953. Everyone’s much more familiar with Goofy Geef’s “How to Sleep,” though it does seem ripped off from Benchley’s. Or inspired. Re-imagined, as they might say today. (And this ‘they” is not just Disney; it’s everybody.)

So to the Robert Benchley in The Treasury of Laughter: Kiddie-Kar Travel.

For the uninitiated, I should say that planes used to be called trains. Trains, too, used to whisk people along their merry way on long, cross-country voyages with all the comfort of one of those livestock trailers you see rattling down the highway with poop falling out of them. Just like in the cattle cars, it was important on the trains to get an upper berth – meaning first class – to avoid the inevitable downhill flow of the various waste products trains naturally accumulate.

One of those waste products, Benchley proposes, is children. So basically take your worst traveling on a plane full of kids nightmare and substitute “train” for “plane,” and you’ll get the picture:

If the child is of an age which denies the existence of sleep, however, preferring to run up and down the aisle of the car rather than sit in its chair (at least a baby can’t get out of its chair unless it falls out and even then it can’t go far), then every minute of the trip is full of fun. On the whole, having traveled with children of all the popular ages, I would be inclined to award the Hair-Shirt to the man who successfully completes the ride with a boy of, let us say, three.

In the first place, you start with the pronounced ill-will of two-thirds of the rest of the occupants of the car. You see them as they come in before the train starts, glancing at you and yours with little or no attempt to conceal the fact they wish they had waited for the four o’clock. Across from you is perhaps a large man who, in his home town, has a reputation for eating little children. He wears a heavy gold watch chain and wants to read through a lot of reports on the trip. He is just about as glad to be opposite a small boy as he would be if it were a hurdy-gurdy.

In back of you is a lady in a black silk dress who doesn’t like the porter. Ladies in black silk dresses always seem to board the train with an aversion to the porter. The fact that the porter has to be in the same car with her makes her fussy to start with, and when she discovers that in front of her is a child of three who is already eating (you simply have to give him a lemon-drop to keep him quiet at least until the train starts) she decides that the best thing to do is simply to ignore him and not give him the slightest encouragement to become friendly. The child therefore picks her out immediately to be his buddy.

So you see, readers who hate children on planes, you’re in good, well-documented company, predisposed to despise child and parent no matter what happens.

And we see, folks, that Benchley is a pioneer in that erudite, almost clinical humor that uses the overblown speech of psychology and academia to document nonsense for nonsense’s sake. And, for that, I am grateful.

Interesting tidbids: Robert Benchley is one of the founding members of the Algonquin Round Table, and father to Peter Benchley, of Jaws fame.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Ludwig Bemelmans Goes for the Yuks

We’ve all got an uncle like this. The kind who tells the same tired joke each and every time you see him. Everyone has to laugh because, hey, somebody told a joke, and not to laugh would be the acme of rudeness.

Then again . . .

Maybe this setup is a little unfair to Ludwig Bemelmans, whom Louis Untermeyer describes as “a small continent of varied cultures.” He did, after all, create the beloved – at least by some – character “Madeline,” of the popular childrens’ books of the same name.

But the Bremelmans selection Untermeyer picked for his Treasury of Laughter is an echo of the bad joke-telling uncle. It is entitled “The Elephant Cutlet.”

The story carries a lot of currency, in fact, it was the subject of a letter to the editor of TIME magazine in 1950, among other cultural references.

Te story goes like this: Two men in Vienna open a restaurant named “Cutlets from Every Animal in the World,” and have as their first customer a “distinguished lady, a Countess,” who orders an Elephant Cutlet.

“How would Madame like this Elephant Cutlet cooked?” said the waiter.

“Oh, Milanaise, sauté in butter, with a little spaghetti over it, on that a filet of anchovy, and an olive on top,” she said.

[Editor’s note: I can feel my acid reflux bubbling up already.]

The waiter places the order, much to the chagrin of the restaurant’s owners, a dentist who bankrolled the restaurant but had doubts on the premise, and the chef, who comes through with a zinger:

The Chef said nothing. He put on a clean apron and walked into the dining room to the table of the Lady. There he bowed, bent down to her and said, “Madame has ordered an elephant Cutlet?”

“Yes,” said the Countess.

“With spaghetti and a filet of anchovy and an olive?”


“Madame is all alone?”

“Yes, yes.”

“Madame expects no one else?”


“And Madame wants only one culet?”

“Yes,” said the Lady, “but why all these questions?”

You already know what’s coming, but I’ll still give it to you smack between the eyes:

“Because,” said the Chef,” because, Madame, I am very sorry, but for one Cutlet we cannot cut up our Elephant.”

To that, all that can be said is this:

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Hilaire Belloc Getting Gharsterly

I know it’s Edward Gorey who gets all the attention, the titters, the little hee-hees in the corners of the Internet. And that’s fine. I like me an occasional read of the Gashlycrumb Tinies just as much as the next guy.

But he wasn’t the first to find humor in the macabre. Or the first to poke fun at a strict, moralistic society, or at least the childrens’ books that society produced. Nor was Hilaire Belloc the first, either. But he’s damn entertaining. I'll hold Belloc's "A Bad Child's Book of Beasts" up against Gorey's Gashlycrumbs any time.

This is my favorite from his “A Moral Alphabet”:

E Stands for Egg


The moral of this verse
Is applicable to the Young. Be terse.

And, yes, you Gorey fans, Belloc did get into the slightly gross. Behold:


Who ran away from his Nurse and was eaten by a Lion

There was a Boy whose name was Jim;
His Friends were very good to him.
They gave him Tea, and Cakes, and Jam,
And slices of delicious Ham,
And Chocolate with pink inside
And little Tricycles to ride,
And read him Stories through and through,
And even took him to the Zoo--
But there it was the dreadful Fate
Befell him, which I now relate.

You know--or at least you ought to know,
For I have often told you so--
That Children never are allowed
To leave their Nurses in a Crowd;
Now this was Jim's especial Foible,
He ran away when he was able,
And on this inauspicious day
He slipped his hand and ran away!

He hadn't gone a yard when--Bang!
With open Jaws, a lion sprang,
And hungrily began to eat
The Boy: beginning at his feet.
Now, just imagine how it feels
When first your toes and then your heels,
And then by gradual degrees,
Your shins and ankles, calves and knees,
Are slowly eaten, bit by bit.
No wonder Jim detested it!
No wonder that he shouted ``Hi!''

The Honest Keeper heard his cry,
Though very fat he almost ran
To help the little gentleman.
``Ponto!'' he ordered as he came
(For Ponto was the Lion's name),
``Ponto!'' he cried, with angry Frown,
``Let go, Sir! Down, Sir! Put it down!''
The Lion made a sudden stop,
He let the Dainty Morsel drop,
And slunk reluctant to his Cage,
Snarling with Disappointed Rage.
But when he bent him over Jim,
The Honest Keeper's Eyes were dim.
The Lion having reached his Head,
The Miserable Boy was dead!

When Nurse informed his Parents, they
Were more Concerned than I can say:--
His Mother, as She dried her eyes,
Said, ``Well--it gives me no surprise,
He would not do as he was told!''
His Father, who was self-controlled,
Bade all the children round attend
To James's miserable end,
And always keep a-hold of Nurse
For fear of finding something worse.

This brings me to Kenny Kynoch. Kenny was (and is, I suppose) a guy of whom I was vaguely aware in junior high school. He was a dramatist, one of those guys who always went off in a room by himself at the library to practice oratory and readings and such. Much like this:

I don’t know if he ever read a Hilaire Belloc poem, but it’s quite possible. YouTube is littered with such dramatic readings.

I like Belloc’s style. When I give a go at poetry, I have a tight structure similar to his. I won’t burden you with my poetry. Or, maybe just this one:

When a mouse gets et by a cat
and don’t return to its homes
does the widder come a-lookin’
and scrub the poop from his bones?

When a mouse is digested and lumpish
all femurs and tibias and fur
does the family seek out the turd he’s in
while cursing the evil-fanged cur?

And mourned for its sad, brief existence
grieved for as Mother Machree
lost, and sorely lamented
as a sailor dead and buried at sea?

Or is the mouse, quietly defecated
blamed for its messy demise
and the bones left to moulder with feces
with no tears in the widder’s wide eyes?

I don’t know, I don’t know hisses Tabby
while Tiddles and Morris just laugh
When I eat, I just eat, don’t be churlish
I don’t think on my meal’s sad behalf.

Here’s an additional Belloc treat: The poet himself singing songs he wrote.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Max Adeler Doing What He Feels

In Max Adeler’s “The Obituary Poet,” we find a small-town journalist doing what many, many other small-town journalists have always wanted to do: Write to get noticed. That said poet gets ridden out of town on a figurative rail as way of notice is beside the point.

Here, a simple story with a simple premise: Colonel Bangs, publisher of the Morning Argus, hires Mr. Slimmer to write obituary poetry, in order to make the Argus “a popular vehicle for the conveyance to the public of notices of deaths.”

The premise is great – but the way it’s written about, in that overblown prose, is even better, because how many small-town journalists, myself included, write that way?

Here we have Colonel Bangs giving Mr. Slimmer his orders:

“You understand, Mr. Slimmer, said the colonel, that when the death of an individual is announced I want you, as it were, to cheer the members of the afflicted family with the resources of your noble art. I wish you to throw yourself, you may say, into their situation, and to give them, f’r instance, a few lines about the deceased which will seem to be the expression of the emotion which agitates the breasts of the bereaved.”

“To lighten the gloom in a certain sense,” said Mr. Slimmer, “and to—“

“Precisely,” exclaimed Colonel Bangs. “Lighten the gloom. Do not mourn over the departed, but rather take a joyous view of death, which, after all, Mr. Slimmer, is, as it were, but the entrance to a better life. Therefore, I wish you to touch the heart-strings of the afflicted with a tender hand, and to endeavor, f’r instance, to divert their minds from a contemplation of the horrors of the tomb.”

Here we see the publisher give the writer just enough rope to hang himself, the publisher, and the paper, from the nearest cottonwood. On to the poetry:

The death-angel smote Alexander McGlue,
And gave him protracted repose;
He wore a checkered shirt and a Number Nine shoe,
And he had a pink wart on his nose.
No doubt he is happier dwelling in space
Over there on the evergreen shore.
His friends are informed that his funeral takes place
Precisely at quarter-past four.

Brother Alexander McGlue is affronted by the wart – his brother had no such blemish.

Then there’s the sad tale of Willie and his monkey, a “scandalous burlesque,” as says the bereaved father:

Willie had a purple monkey climbing on a yellow stick,
And when he sucked the paint all off it make him deathly sick;
And in his latest hours he clasped that monkey in his hand,
And bade good-bye to earth and went into a better land.

Oh! No more he’ll shoot his sister with his little wooden gun;
And no more he’ll twist the pussy’s tail and make her yowl for fun.
The pussy’s tail now stands out straight; the gun is laid aside;
The monkey doesn’t jump around since little Willie died.

First of all, wipe those dirty smirks off your faces. Willie’s father is, naturally, appalled.

“The atrocious character of this libel will appear when I say that my son was twenty years old, and that he died of liver complaint.”

“Infamous!—utterly infamous!” groaned the editor as he cast his eyes over the lines.

“And yet,” whispered Slimmer to the foreman,” he told me to lighten the gloom and to cheer the afflicted family with the resources of my art; and I certainly thought that idea about the monkey would have that effect, somehow. Bangs is ungrateful!”

And so on, until Mr. Slimmer is chased off and the Argus resumes “it accustomed aspect of dreariness.”

To tell the truth, I actually started a novel a few years ago based on this premise, totally unaware that Mad Adeler had already written this short story on the subject. I still think the idea’s got legs, if pulled off correctly. The novel, not necessarily the obituaries as poetry.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Presidential Light Verse

Only the brave enter into the cutthroat, ruthless, and competitive world of light verse. Wander in too far, elicit more than just a few chuckles and you’re likely to encounter James Thurber, Ogden Nash and Richard Armour in a dark alley with blunt weapons, complaining about them being very, very upset.
Not that these three are of themselves mean, ruthless people. It’s just that to write light verse successfully and consistently is a lot harder work than most people give it credit.
Franklin Pierce Adams, longtime Chicago and New York journalist and collaborator with O. Henry, is one of those to enter the world of light verse and not come a cropper. Here’s his tickle on a wannabee rich man:
The Rich Man

The rich man has his motor-car,
His country and his town estate.
He smokes a fifty-cent cigar
And jeers at Fate.
He frivols through the livelong day,
He knows not Poverty, her pinch.
His lot seems light, his heart seems gay;
He has a cinch.
Yet though my lamp burns low and dim,
Though I must slave for livelihood –
Think you that I would change with him?
You bet I would!
Here, we have all the elements of American light verse:
  1. The jiggy meter. Fie to the rote measures of meter, the light-verser takes conformity and puts it on its pyramidical head, hence the last line of each stanza cutting short, causing traditionalists to wonder if the printer missed something.
  2. Cutesy words. No serious poet would use a truncated word like “frivol.” That’s solely the realm of the light-verser.
  3. Mock of formality. How about those last two lines? “Think you that I would change with him” could be from Wordsworth, Carlyle or any of those other stiffs. So contrast it with a by-golly you-betcha. That’s American Light Verse in a nutshell. 
So I like Franklin Pierce Adams, and not just because he combines the names of three former US presidents into one name.

This is what happens when wannabee rpesidents and light verse mix. Don't let it happen to you.
NOTE: In 2004, I, myself, voted for Ralph Nader. Had I seen this poetry clip before November 2008, he might ahve won my vote again.

Monday, May 3, 2010

The Slanguage of George Ade

I’m sure you think it’s “cool” to talk in slang or jargon. After all, the totally radical and awesome way in which each generation speaks will always mean something to them. So don’t be a square.

But we start off the Treasury of Laughter Blog with a word of warning, brought to you in one of Grandpa Simpson’s more lucid moments:

“I used to be with it. But then they changed what “it” was. What I was with wasn’t it, and what was it was new and scary. It’ll happen to you!”

And thus is the “slanguage” art of one George Ade, Hoosier, dramatist, lauded by Carl Van Doren as a vernacular philosopher, a “continuer of the old wisdom and the inventor of a new idiom.”

Hidy-ho, neighbor!

So why file him in the Abraham Simpson column of comically outdated vernacular? Because, as you’ll see through these excerpts from Ade’s “The Fable of the Spotlighters and the Spotter,” slang marches on. Onions fixed firmly to belts, please:

Once a Traveller arrived at a Cure where the Water of the Healing Springs smelled so awful that the Management felt justified in asking $10 a Day.

This Traveller was a City Yap, which is worse than being a Begosher, because the R.F.D. Boob usually knows that he is below Par.

The City Yap is a Vertebrate with Shiny Hair, living under the dominion of the Traffic Cops.

He will stand in front of a Window, with others of his Kind, for an Hour at a time, watching a powerful Blonde demonstrate a Fireless Cooker.

You know, it’s almost like we’re watching a YouTube video with their comically inept closed captioning going full face freckles. Some of what Ade writes here has survived – at least some of us today still talk about people operating “below par,” but as for the rest of it, the slanguage used falls into two categories: The Somewhat Decipherable, just as calling a city slicker a city yap, to the What The . . . , as in what the world is a begosher? I’m sure it has something to do with Midwestern or maybe rube Minnesotan denizens of the more bucolic portions of the nation, but I can’t be sure.

Writing in vernacular, or slang, or via accent is risky business, because you either pull it off successfully or you don’t. Ade’s writings may have worked in the day, but because slang is at best a slippery beast, that his fables are now mired in obscurity is easily understandable. I don’t mind writers who use occasional slang, but it had better be slang that’s stood the test of time, else that writer is going to look as Ade would probably put it, “like a Vessel Unloader who had put on a Mail Order Suit in order to attend a Clam Bake.”

Ade, of course, isn't the only one to write in slang or vernacular. Though I'm a fan, for example, of Rhciard Adams' books Watership Down, Shardik, and others, I cannot for the life of me get through Traveller, which he wrote from the point of view of the horse of Robert E. Lee, general of the Confederacy. That in of itself is fine. But Adams is fascinated, unfortunately, with the southern dialect. And southern slang at Civil War time. So that's how the horse "speaks." An interesting linguisitc adventure, to be sure. But a painful read.

Another example: Louis Dargaud. One fo these days I will make it through the French -- the original -- version of his novel The Button War, but it's not going to happen until I can learn the slang and vernacular of French children of the 19th century. So authors, please, choose your slang carefully, or your readers won't live to regret it.

For a good example of how painful slang can appear, go here.