Saturday, November 22, 2014

`Read Some Pleasant Author Till He Be Asleep'

Andrew Rickard has introduced me to a bookish stranger, Samuel McChord Crothers (1857-1927), the author of The Gentle Reader, who makes for pleasant company despite his shortcomings (and mine). We’ve come a long way since 1903, and we’re all sophisticated readers, but I like Crothers’ notion of reading as “a kind of conversation.” There’s easy and relaxed conversation, as with old friends, but a chat with newcomers, people whose assumptions might differ wildly from one’s own, even Unitarians, can be surprisingly gratifying if sometimes rancorous. 

The copy of The Gentle Reader I borrowed from my university library last circulated in 1958 and is inscribed (I think – the signature is faint and stylized almost into illegibility) “N.J. Sutter 1910.” The copyright page reads “Published October, 1903. Fourteenth Impression.” At the front is a list of other Crothers titles also published by Houghton Mifflin, including Miss Muffet’s Christmas Party (“Postpaid $1.08”) and The Pardoner’s Wallet. We’re in the company of an old-fashioned bibliophile, a genteel Victorian who, like Emerson, was a Unitarian minister living near the epicenter of Unitarianism. In 1921, Crothers would publish Ralph Waldo Emerson: How to Know Him. One page after the passage excerpted by Andrew we find this: 

“Wise old Burton, in the Anatomy of Melancholy, advises the restless person to `read some pleasant author till he be asleep.' Many persons find the Anatomy of Melancholy to answer this purpose; though Dr. Johnson declares that it was the only book that took him out of bed two hours before he wished to rise. It is hard to draw the line between stimulants and narcotics.” 

Crothers is not without humor. He’s like the minister who, in his sermon on Proverbs 10:9, jokes about his golf game. In The Gentle Reader he even includes an essay titled “The Mission of Humor” in which he composes this baffling sentence: “If the Universe had a place for everything and everything was in its place, there would be little demand for humor.” On the contrary, in such a Universe humor might save your life. His literary touchstones for humor are the usual suspects – Falstaff, Fielding, Dr. Johnson, Lamb, Thackeray, but no Swift or Sterne.

This gentle reader wishes Crothers would get pissed off about something or tell a dirty joke. If he has a fault, it’s niceness, an overweening urge to see everyone and everything as fundamentally benign and probably, especially the unpleasant stuff, misunderstood. In his discussion of humor he lauds “an overflowing friendliness, which brings a laughter that is without scorn.” But scorn is the very pith of humor. Niceness isn’t funny. You don’t gently josh your enemy. You mock him unmercifully and kick him when he’s down.

1 comment:

Subbuteo said...

But is all humour directed at enemies? Much of it arises out of delight in creation and words and from the wondrous ludicrousness of our condition. Humour can certainly thrive without animosity. Both Shakespeare and Rabelais prove this.