In the half-century following the Civil War, the American culture curdled, coalesced, and homogenized in many ways. Sectionalism still simmered in the background (it’s still with us today, though to a greatly diminished extent ), but eventually a common mindset took hold as Americans once again began to think of themselves as one nation (and, for a while, under God).
In 1910, the death of Mark Twain provoked commentators to wonder out loud whether he could possibly be replaced and, further, just what form American humor would take in the future. One anonymous editor at The Nation (July 6, 1911) attempted an answer, and in doing so he described an America that seems strangely familiar to us a century on:
THE COMMON STOCK OF WIT. Mr. [William Dean] Howells in his Easy Chair has a number of things to say about American humor. Like others, he is wondering who will fill, or partly fill, “the void which now aches from the vast absence of Mark Twain.” He considers favorably Mr. Holman Day, author of “The Skipper and the Skipped,” because “he knows the intensity, almost to feminine shrillness, of the New England rustics whom he deals with.” But Mr. Howells is not quite certain of his choice, and adds, “unless, indeed, Mr. Irving Bacheller, in his new departure of ‘Keeping Up with Lizzie,’ is going to dispute it.” Mr. Dooley is placed outside the competition for the reason that “he is distinctively a philosophical observer.”
Picking the successor of Mark Twain, Mr. Howells naturally admits, is the right of the public at large, not of a critic, and no doubt for that reason he did not wish to seem too serious in his judgments. Yet one might have hoped to find, even in informal speculation, an analysis of American humor and—since Mr. Howells runs back in his survey to European writers of the sixteenth century—the trend of humor sketched with some precision. He has been content, however, to give merely offhand opinions: “The joking in Rabelais is not only filthy, it is atrocious.” “The humaner humor of Cervantes … is still … abominably unfeeling.” “Much of the humor of Shakespeare is cruel, so cruel that Mark Twain used to say that when it did not bore him it offended him past endurance.” One generalization of a more sweeping nature, is risked—that humor, with the years, has grown more kindly.
This point, if true, is surely worth making. It would be pleasant to believe that as civilization has advanced, laughter, a fundamental instinct, has lost its sting. We fear that the statement is true only in part. People no doubt are no longer tickled, as were the Elizabethans, by the antics of insanity, nor perhaps at the sight of a victim, like Marlowe’s Bajazet, caged and tormented. But many of the old brutalities remain. There is still gleeful derision for a fat or ugly-looking woman on the stage, who has, in fact, become a well-recognized type, bearing the technical name of “lemon.” Grim humor—for better or worse—is not yet dead, nor will be until the impulse of hilarity is greatly chastened. Samson making firebrands of foxes’ tails, Don Quixote slaughtering sheep mistakenly for famous warriors, Malvolio in the process of treatment for asininity, still bring laughter, however the tender-hearted moralist may protest. Besides, to make good his thesis, Mr. Howells should have proved that wit of the gentler, airier sort did not exist alongside of the boisterous. He should have shown reason why Addison’s smiling censures and Rosalind’s tantalizing are not as gracious as the witticisms of the present day.
If any great change has in reality come over our laughter we may perhaps get the clue to it by asking why Mark Twain should have been bored with much of Shakespeare’s humor. His remarks imply that he meant in this instance the more strictly intellectual kind—the play on words and the elaborate formal logic of foolishness. Says Touchstone to Audrey: “I am here with thee and thy goats, as the most capricious poet, honest Ovid, was among the Goths.” Little wonder that the point seemed remote to Mark Twain! The first demand of laughter is understanding, and here the change in pronunciation has robbed the pun of “goats” and “Goths” of any zest it may have had, while “capricious,” too, has lost its etymological color. It is perfectly true that appreciation of this side of Shakespeare is confined to scholars—to the rest it sounds woefully academic and unfamiliar. Admitting this, however, is far from implying that the manner and method of wit have greatly altered. Mark Twain himself had a huge liking for verbal comedies. What fun he had making a literal re-translation into English of a French version of his “Jumping Frog”; and putting into German order English sentences! So, too, a more recent writer wishes us to think it funny that to drive a car in France one must procure a license to “circulate.” This is typical of much present-day humor—phrasing in which the drolleries come from words used slightly out of tune. As for the formal logic of nonsense, it, too, is holding its own. To take the most spectacular examples of it, Mr. Shaw and Mr. Chesterton get their effects most of the time from doing seriously what Shakespeare’s fools did waggishly—applying the most rigorous logic to situations in which mankind is content to use common sense.
But if the manner and method of wit are much what they have always been, the material of wit, at least in our own country, has been undergoing a curious change. That is to say, where in former years there were jokes for high and for low, for North and South, East and West, to-day the same joke serves almost equally well the entire land. The wit of Lowell, save perhaps in the “Biglow Papers,” works upon material extremely confined in its appeal. Mark Twain, especially, broadened it to the attitudes of the typical, alert, hard-headed American, as defined first of all by the contrast with Europeans. Recent conditions have carried on enormously his initiative. Increase in travel, the growing facilities of the press and the stage, the uniformity of our educational systems, have tended to render one section of the country in many ways very much like any other. Already New York’s thrust at Chicago is an almost exhausted echo, and even the Southern colonel is scarcely any more a type. Plays given in New York are seen the same year in San Francisco; the “bestsellers” in Boston are read in about the same proportion in Richmond; the language of “fandom” is of one dialect. In a word, there is at present a much greater common stock of knowledge and custom in this country than was the case even so recently as Mark Twain’s middle years. And the humorists, like George Ade and Mr. Dooley and all others who have any chance of being acclaimed Mark Twain’s successors, are dealing in it. A note of philosophy they sometimes strike; of delicacy or out-of-the-way learning they know little, nor wish to know, since neither is typical of the common stock.