Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Irvin S. Cobb: Our First Thudding Artiste

Today’s installment is a good example of how, over time, rhetorical style changes.

Louis Untermeyer assures us, in his introduction to Irvin S. Cobb’s “Speaking of Operations,” that the piece, written in 19196 and commonly delivered as a humorous monologue, had people laughing. But –

No, I’ll let you pass judgment. Here are a few excerpts:

It all dates back to the fair, bright morning when I went to call on a prominent practitioner here in New York, whom I shall denominate as Doctor X. I had a pain. I had had it for days. It was not a dependable, locatable pain, such as a tummyache or a toothache is, which you can put your hand on; but an indefinite, unsettled, undecided kind of pain, which went wandering about from place to place inside of me like a strange ghost lost in Cudjo's Cave. I never knew until then what the personal sensations of a haunted house are. If only the measly thing could have made up its mind to settle down somewhere and start light housekeeping I think should have been better satisfied. I never had such an uneasy tenant. Alongside of it a woman with the moving fever would be comparatively a fixed and stationary object.

So. Pain as a haunted house. That’s pretty funny. Then there’s this description of waiting in the doctor’s waiting room:

Time passed; to me it appeared that nearly all the time there was passed and that we were getting along toward the shank-end of the Christian era mighty fast. I was afraid my turn would come next and afraid it would not. Perhaps you know this sensation. You get it at the dentist's, and when you are on the list of after-dinner speakers at a large banquet, and when you are waiting for the father of the Only Girl in the World to make up his mind whether he is willing to try to endure you as a son-in-law.

Then some more time passed.

One by one my companions, obeying a command, passed out through the door at the back, vanishing out of my life forever. None of them returned. I was vaguely wondering whether Doctor Z buried his dead on the premises or had them removed by a secret passageway in the rear, when a young woman in a nurse's costume tapped me on the shoulder from behind.

Who hasn’t wondered this – where do they bury the dead that never leave the premises? Honestly, this is funny stuff. It’s just that the language is so stilted and lugubrious it’s kinda hard to get through to the humor.

That’s how the rhetoric has changed. We’re a lot less flowery now. A lot less stilted, at least in comedic circles. If Cobb got onto the standup circuit today and tried this material, well, Bomb City. No way can this compete against this:

And even this is a bit old-timey now.

Cobb does get out some good humor. I recommend reading the full text, available here. But if you fall asleep and thud your head on the desk while reading and end up going to a doctor, well, that’s not my fault. I have to admit I’ve tried reading through it several times and the language just turns me off every time. It’s not that it’s not funny, it’s just so rhetorically alien to what I’m used to reading – and I’ve read a lot of stuff, both older and younger than this.

So read. The thuds you hear will likely be brain cells falling asleep as you do. But at least you have a pain you can localize, and something to think about as the patients leave one by one.

This makes Irvin S. Cobb our first "thudder," the kind of writer who inspires sleep -- and quickly -- among modern readers. I know what that's like -- I'm a thudder, too.

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