Tuesday, June 29, 2010


I promise I have not forgotten this blog. It's just a complicated one to do, and, well, I've been busy lately. I do plan on doing some catch-up over the long Fourth of July weekend, however.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Lewis Carroll, Escapist

First, from Jim Clark, who brought the world the Scary John Steinbeck “Movie,” a Lewis Carroll “Movie,” in which the mutated nonsense poet, author, mathematician and reverent contorts and twists his way through “Father William,” which Louis Untermeyer features in his Carroll installment in Treasury of Laughter.

My advice, don’t watch it all the way through.

For some reason – and I’m guilty of this as well, though there is no audio or video proof – this poem is highly popular among poetry performers. Here’s the least annoying example I can find:

Then there’s “Jabberwocky,” here as presented by The Muppets:

As delightful as these first two poems are, in my opinion nothing beats the nonsense of Carroll’s tightly-wound “The Mad Gardener’s Song,” from his decidedly less popular novel, “Sylvie and Bruno.”

He thought he saw an Elephant,
    That practised on a fife:
He looked again, and found it was
    A letter from his wife.
'At length I realise,' he said,
    'The bitterness of Life!'

He thought he saw a Buffalo
    Upon the chimney-piece:
He looked again, and found it was
    His Sister's Husband's Niece.
'Unless you leave this house,' he said,
    'I'll send for the Police!'

He thought he saw a Rattlesnake
    That questioned him in Greek:
He looked again, and found it was
    The Middle of Next Week.
'The one thing I regret,' he said,
    'Is that it cannot speak!'

He thought he saw a Banker's Clerk
    Descending from the bus:
He looked again, and found it was
    A Hippopotamus.
'If this should stay to dine,' he said,
    'There won't be much for us!'

He thought he saw a Kangaroo
    That worked a coffee-mill:
He looked again, and found it was
    A Vegetable-Pill.
'Were I to swallow this,' he said,
    'I should be very ill!'

He thought he saw a Coach-and-Four
    That stood beside his bed:
He looked again, and found it was
    A Bear without a Head.
'Poor thing,' he said, 'poor silly thing!
    It's waiting to be fed!'

He thought he saw an Albatross
    That fluttered round the lamp:
He looked again, and found it was
    A Penny-Postage Stamp.
'You'd best be getting home,' he said:
    'The nights are very damp!'

He thought he saw a Garden-Door
    That opened with a key:
He looked again, and found it was
    A Double Rule of Three:
'And all its mystery,' he said,
    'Is clear as day to me!'

He thought he saw a Argument
    That proved he was the Pope:
He looked again, and found it was
    A Bar of Mottled Soap.
'A fact so dread,' he faintly said,
    'Extinguishes all hope!'

It’s silly, of course, but ultimately sad, as we’re left not to revel in the madness but in the piteous state of the madman, deluded not by what he thinks he sees, but by the banality of his life. This is Walter Mitty a full century before James Thurber thought him up. And escaping the banality of mathematics, clergydom and the stuffiness of England at the time may have been why the Rev. Charles Lutwidge Dodgson fled into the wonderful world that is nonsense. As we re-read his forays into the insane now, we see a person who accomplished what we might want to accomplish: An escape from the ordinary. That is the genius of Lewis Carroll.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Lewis Carroll: TOL's First Big Hitter

Our next update focuses on Lewis Carroll, the first anthologee in Louis Untermeyer’s anthology to remain as popular today as he was then, as evidenced by a clip from the recent “Alice in Wonderland” film:

Oops. Wrong film. Even Johnny Depp says, “It’s a completely new story.”


I meant this clip, of course:

Ah. That’s better. Actually following Carroll’s story, not “inspired” by it.

But that’s beside the point, as Untermeyer wisely focuses not on Alice or Looking Glass, but on the nonsense poetry contained therein, as you’ll see next time.

Monday, June 14, 2010

The Zinger

All of us, at one time, have wanted to do this: Absolutely and without question crush a heckler with a witticism, an aptly-turned phrase, or a single word.

Sometimes, it happens like this, as Louis Untermeyer records in a little bumper section in The Treasury of Laughter titled “Anecdotes of the Great and Near Great.”

During one of his campaign speeches, Theodore Roosevelt was continually interrupted by a heckler who kept shouting, “I am a Democrat.”

Finally Roosevelt had to do something. With disarming gentleness he inquired, “May I ask the gentleman why he is a Democrat?”

“My grandfather was a democrat,” replied the heckler. “My father was a Democrat, and I am a Democrat.”

“And suppose,” continued Roosevelt, “that your grandfather had been a jackass, and your father had been a jackass, what would you be?”

The heckler shouted back, “A Republican!”


Or, alternately, it’s like this:

Most of the time, however, we all end up sounding like morons. Which is fine, too, since Untermeyer records a few of those for us as well. Like this:

“Gentlemen,” [movie mogul Samuel] Goldwyn is reported to have said at a conference about a scenario, “I’m willing to admit that I may not always be right – but I’m never wrong.”

And this:

[Noah] Webster’s severe choice of words, the discrimination which led him to compile the dictionary, also led to his most quoted distinction.

One day his wife came suddenly into the pantry and found Webster kissing the pretty chambermaid. “Mr. Webster!” exclaimed his wife. “I am surprised!”

“No, my dear,” said Webster, with a reproving smile. “You are astounded. It is I who am surprised.”

Kazango. This might also be among the earliest documented evidence of a grammar nazi deflecting criticism of his own actions by citing a flagrant word use violation by another.

One more, just for fun:

When he was lecturing in Utah, a Mormon acquaintance argued with [Mark] Twain on the question of polygamy. After a long and rather heated discussion, the Mormon said, “Can you find a single passage of Scripture which forbids polygamy?”

“Certainly,” said Twain. “’No man can serve two masters.’”

Thus comes the first contribution of Mormon-themed humor to Untermeyer’s Treasury of Laughter.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Ellis Parker Butler KILLED in 1905. NOT!

First of all, I know it’s a hamster, not a guinea pig. But since guinea pig/Lego elevator videos are in short supply, this will have to suffice.

In Ellis Parker Butler’s “Pigs is Pigs,” we have two things going: First, the ever-popular humor tactic of a semantics arguments. Mr. Morehouse wants to have two guinea pigs delivered, twenty-five cents each. The reticent railway clerk insists that “pigs is pigs” and wants to charge the 30-cent-per-head rate for livestock. Hilarity ensues.

Or somewhat.

Because the other thing we have going in this story is a wide selection of Things that Will Likely Never be Shouted in Ordinary Dialogue, such as:

“You everlastingly stupid idiot!”

“Why you poor ignorant foreigner!”

“Where’s the ink!” (How anachronistic can you get, unless, of course, you’re talking of the inkjet, $85 a gallon variety.)

But there is this gem:

Mr. Morehouse went home raging. His boy, who had been awaiting the guinea-pigs, knew better than to ask him for them. He was a normal boy and therefore always had a guilty conscience when his father was angry. So the boy slipped quietly around the house. There is nothing to soothing to a guilty conscience as to be out of the path of the avenger.

The story then evolves into a history of bureaucratic mayhem, as officers both high and low in the Interurban Express Company debate whether guinea pigs are livestock or pets, all the while as the Oirish-speakin’ clerk at the depot continues to feed the guinea pigs cabbage and as they multiply like Tribbles. By the time the snafu is fixed – and it went all the way to the president of the company, who sent to an eminent scientist exploring in the Andes a request on the ruling: are guinea pigs pets or pigs—Mr. Morehouse has moved, his son, we can assume, went on feeling guilty about crimes we’re sure he committed and Mr. Flannery had 4,270 guinea pigs to care for at the depot:

"Error in guinea-pig bill. Collect for two guinea-pigs, fifty cents. Deliver all to consignee."

Flannery read the telegram and cheered up. He wrote out a bill as rapidly as his pencil could travel over paper and ran all the way to the Morehouse home. At the gate he stopped suddenly. The house stared at him with vacant eyes. The windows were bare of curtains and he could see into the empty rooms. A sign on the porch said, "To Let." Mr. Morehouse had moved! Flannery ran all the way back to the express office. Sixty-nine guinea-pigs had been born during his absence. He ran out again and made feverish inquiries in the village. Mr. Morehouse had not only moved, but he had left Westcote. Flannery returned to the express office and found that two hundred and six guinea-pigs had entered the world since he left it. He wrote a telegram to the Audit Department.

"Can't collect fifty cents for two dago pigs consignee has left town address unknown what shall I do? Flannery."

The telegram was handed to one of the clerks in the Audit Department, and as he read it he laughed.

"Flannery must be crazy. He ought to know that the thing to do is to return the consignment here," said the clerk. He telegraphed Flannery to send the pigs to the main office of the company at Franklin.

When Flannery received the telegram he set to work. The six boys he had engaged to help him also set to work. They worked with the haste of desperate men, making cages out of soap boxes, cracker boxes, and all kinds of boxes, and as fast as the cages were completed they filled them with guinea-pigs and expressed them to Franklin. Day after day the cages of guinea pigs flowed in a steady stream from Westcote to Franklin, and still Flannery and his six helpers ripped and nailed and packed—relentlessly and feverishly. At the end of the week they had shipped two hundred and eighty cases of guinea-pigs, and there were in the express office seven hundred and four more pigs than when they began packing them.

The story concludes with the typical zinger:

He paused long enough to let one of the boys put an empty basket in the place of the one he had just filled. There were only a few guinea-pigs left. As he noted their limited number his natural habit of looking on the bright side returned.

"Well, annyhow," he said cheerfully, "'tis not so bad as ut might be. What if thim dago pigs had been elephants!"

Just in case you’re wondering, Walt Disney Studios did make a cartoon of this story, filled with ethnic stereotypes:

By the way, I really like how Flannery schwiggles his hips as he builds that guinea pig cage.

And now something for you linguists out there: Lots of people like to consider the rejoinder “Not!” as a modern construction. Not. So, In Butler’s 1905 story, there is this:

“Proceed to collect,” he said softly. “How thim clerks do loike to be talkin’! Me proceed to collect two dollars and twinty-foive cints off Misther Morehouse! I wonder do thim clerks know Misther Morehouse? I’ll git it! Oh, yes! ‘Misther Morehouse, two an’ a wuarter, plaze.’ ‘Cert’nly, me dear frind Flannery. Delighted!’ Not!”

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:

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Roark Bradford, Meet Uncle Remus. Or Tom. Your Preference.

Here we tread into delicate territory.

That’s how I could start this entry. And I could go on, paragraph after paragraph, tap-dancing around subjects of Uncle Remus, Uncle Tom, “Song of the South,” and Roark Bradford’s “Green Pastures,” a re-telling of Bible stories, as Louis Untermeyer puts it, “as they might have been rendered by illiterate but highly imaginative colored preachers.”

Thus you see my hesitancy.

But Bradford, descendant of William Bradford, the first Governor of Massachusetts, proceeds with gusto. As will I. Here’s a sample:

After ole King Solomon died de kings got to comin’ and goin’ and goin’ so fast dat hit made de Lawd dizzy tryin’ to keep up wid who was de king and who wa’n’t de king. So he say, “Dis ain’t gittin’ nowheres. Ef my people can’t keep a king long enough for me to get acquainted wid him, well, I’m gonter see what gonter happen.

If you can’t handle the patois, or are livid or in any other way annoyed, do not continue.

Sometimes, racial stereotypes are put into films, stories, et cetera, to be hurtful.

Other times, a cigar is just a cigar.

Let’s continue with Bradford’s story:

So hit was a king over in de next town name Nebuchadnezzar which yared de news, so he say, “Well, when de Lawd was sidin’ wid de Hebrew boys they was doin’ some mighty struttin’. But now wid de Lawd layin’ back and watchin’, I’ll just drap over and raise me some sand.” And so he did.

So ole King Nebuchadnezzar lined up his army and lit out.

“Halt, who’s comin’ yar?” say de Hebrew sentry.

“Sad news is comin’ yar,” say King Nebuchadnezzar.

“Ain’t yo’ name King Nebuchadnezzar?” say de sentry.

“Dat’s what dey calls me,” he say. “What’s yo’ name?”

“Daniel,” say de sentry.

“Well, Daniel,” say Nebuchadnezzar, “I’m bringin’ you some sad news. I’m bringin’ you de news which say I’m gonter raise me some sand in dis town.”

“You better let dis town alone,” say Daniel. “When you raise a ruckus in dis town you’s raisin’ a ruckus in de Lad’s town.”

“I kotched de Lawd away f’m home, dis time,” say Nebuchadnezzar.

“You didn’t kotch me away from home,” say Daniel.

“Naw,” say Nebuchadnezzar,” and I’m gonter use you. I’m gonter feed my pet lines on you.”

And the story continues, a garbled version of Daniel in the lions den, getting chucked into furnace (which didn’t happen to Daniel) and Daniel interpreting the proverbial “writing on the wall,” while the addled members of King Nebuchadnezzar’s court chalk up the writing to the effects of drinking too much alcohol:

“What all dem solid-gold cups which I tuck f’m de Hebrew boys?” say ole King Nebuchadnezzar.

“Put away,” say de haid waiter.

“Well, bring ‘em out so My Majesty kind drink come licker outer dem solid-gold drinkin-cups,” say ole King Nebuchadnezzar. And right dar was whar he made a big mistake, ‘cause dem cups wa’n’t de Hebrew boys’ cups. Dem was de Lawd’s cups. So ‘bout de time old King Nebuchadnezzar drunk out of a solid-gold cup, de Laws stepped right through de wall and wrote somethin’ on hit, and den stepped right back again.

“I seen a ha’nt,” say King Nebuchadnezzar.

“Hit’s de licker,” say de gal which is settin’ in his lap. “Hit’ll make you see mighty nigh anything.”

Then we get this lovely picture:

So, yikes. Maybe we’d have been better off if someone had spilled jelly on this part of the book and made the pages stick together after all.

Marc Connelly, inspired by Bradford’s Ol’ Man Adam an’ His Chillun, wrote a play called “The Green Pastures,” which won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1930.

It didn’t play well in African-American circles.