Sunday, June 6, 2010

Carlos Bulosan, Humorist and Humoristic Commentator

Pity Carlos Bulosan. Or at least try to. He wrote a book, “The Laughter of My Father,” that was considered a best-seller in the United States in 1940, and is still regarded today as a comic gem, certainly by Louis Untermeyer, who included the story “My Father Goes to Court” in his humor anthology.

But he didn’t mean it to be that way. Bulosan wrote with an undertone of social commentary that, like Multatuli’s “Max Havelaar,” was meant to comment on the rich trampling down the poor. Few Americans read Bulosan today, but fewer still read Multatuli – though his Dutch origins may also play a role in that obscurity.

It doesn’t help, as many critics of Bulosan’s criticism have pointed out, that in “My Father Goes to Court,” the poor family wins.

WARNING: I’m starting here with the zinger to the story, so if you’ve not yet read the tale, just stop right now.

Bulosan writes of a rich man who takes his father to court because while the man has been able to feed his children well, it’s Bulosan’s poor, and poorly nourished family, that has the health the rich man thought he could buy. So the rich man takes the other family to court, accusing them of stealing “the spirit” of his family’s food and wealth. He demands payment. The wise, poor father then does this:

“Do you claim that we stole the spirit of your wealth and became a laughing family while yours became morose and sad” Father asked.


“Do you claim we stole the spirit of your food by hanging outside your windows when your servants cooked it?” Father asked.


“Then we are going to pay you right now,” Father said. He walked over to where we children were sitting on the bench and took my straw hat off my lap and began filling it up with centavo pieces that he took out of his pockets. He went to Mother, who added a fistful of silver coins. My brothers threw in their small change.

“May I walk to the room across the hall and stay there for a few minutes, Judge?” Father asked.

“As you wish.”

“Than you,” Father said. He strode into the other room with the hat in his hands. It was almost full of coins. The doors of both rooms were wide open.

“Are you ready?” Father called.

“Proceed,” the Judge said.

The sweet tinkle of the coins carried beautifully into the courtroom. The spectators turned their faces toward the sound with wonder. Father came back and stood before th complaintant.

“Did you hear it?” he asked.

“Hear what?” the man asked.

“The spirit of the money when I shook this hat?” he asked.


“Then you are paid,” Father said.

And so on. Judge and audience approve with gusty laughter, the rich man falls into his apples and the case is dismissed. I’m sure, somewhere, a coed burned her bra.

There’s debate on whether this is actually biographical, or, if as with Hans Christian Anderson and O. Henry, the story started out as biographical but then diverted in order to hammer home the moral. Either way, it’s a funny story.

Humor is a great societal tool. It can be used to help others see the folly of their actions, or of the political views they support. And sometimes, humor is just humor. There is great pathos in Bulosan’s father paying the complaintant with only the spirit of the money. Life would better be with more such pathos.

Here’s a rather bland reading of Bulosan’s poem “If You Want to Know Who We Are,” taken from every writer’s “I’m Oppressed” stage:

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