Thursday, November 06, 2014

`The Corn Tastes Different Where It Grows'

Humor shrivels, dries up and blows away like a mushroom in a drought. Few human gifts are so time-and-place-dependent. Much of Mark Twain is heavy going and Rabelais has never made me laugh. The same is true for other renowned jokesters. The first bookish genre I felt enthusiasm for while crossing the border from children’s books into adult fare was humor, the twentieth-century American variety, especially Thurber, Perelman and Benchley, all associated with The New Yorker. The wittiest writer ever to work for that magazine was A.J. Liebling, a mere journalist. In contrast, the putative humorists have aged poorly. 

I spent the other morning with a graduate student who studies lysosomal aggregates and their impact on human aging (don’t ask).  He showed me slides of “lipofuscin in a liver biopsy with ground glass hepatocytes,” which resembled nothing so much as Nevada dyed pink and viewed from the air. I remembered Thurber’s description of botany class at Ohio State University in My Life and Hard Times (1933), when he peers through a microscope and draws what he observes – an image of his own eye. I had a hazy memory of a Benchley story, too, something about cells. I found it, “Cell-Formations and Their Work,” in Pluck and Luck, a collection published in 1925, the year The New Yorker was founded. The pieces originally appeared in such publications as The Bookman, College Humor and The Detroit Athletic Club News. The copy I found in my university library bears an inscription in a spidery hand on the front endpaper:
“Clifford –
Uncle Ed Smith
Xmas 1925.” 

(That made me laugh. Why add “Smith”? How many Uncle Ed’s did Clifford have?) “Cell-Formations and Their Work” might have worked in 1925 because fewer people were knowledgeable about science and comfortable with its tools. How many Americans (besides Thurber) had used a microscope? Benchley relies on Will Rogers-style folksiness and a tone of faux-na├»ve wonder: 

“Shortly after the cell decides to go ahead with the thing, it gets lonely and divides itself up into three similar cells, just for company’s sake and to have someone to talk to. They soon find out that they aren’t very congenial, so they keep on dividing themselves up into other cells until there is a regular mob of them. Then they elect an entertainment committee and give a show.” 

You recognize that Benchley is working hard to keep you amused, and you want to oblige, but ninety years of genocide, television, impatience and inveterate irony make it difficult. One passage gave me a twitch in the throat that almost but not quite blossomed into an unambiguous titter: 

“We should have said that there are two classes of animals, unicellular and multicellular. From the unicellular group we get our coal, iron, wheat and ice, and from the multicellular our salt, pepper chutney and that beautiful silk dress which milady wears so proudly. Woolen and leather goods we import.” 

The fault is not Benchley’s. He was a comic actor of modest accomplishment, often playing nervous straight men, as in his well-known “Treasurer’s Report.” His humor was true to his time, but like almost all humor it is perishable and travels badly, which reminds me of the opening lines of A.J. Liebling’s The Earl of Louisiana (1961): 

“Southern political personalities, like sweet corn, travel badly. They lose flavor with every hundred yards away from the patch. By the time they reach New York, they are like Golden Bantam that has been trucked up from Texas -- stale and unprofitable. The consumer forgets that the corn tastes different where it grows.”


George said...

A good deal of Mark Twain's humor now lies dead on the page, but far from all. My father was fond of the woman in the early pages of Roughing It who "rained the nine parts of speech for forty days and forty nights", and I agree with his judgment. Most of what still lives in his humor is not in the elaborately built up jokes, but in observations evidently taken from life, as with the woman on the stagecoach. I could say the same for Perelman, who is at his best with the lunacy of Hollywood.

Rabelais is like Chaucer and Aristophanes, so remote that chiefly the farce survives. But I should say that in all cases, the farce does survive. There is a letter from Henry Adams to Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., who had just written a biography of Emerson, enumerating some of Emerson's judgments that Adams found odd. Of them I remember there is no music in Shelley; Egypt does not interest me; and there is no humor in Aristophanes.

(As for Ed Smith, I had two Uncle Johns, two Aunt Marys, and two Aunt Sues, though apart from the Marys one of each pair was by marriage.

Subbuteo said...

Some of the pleasure in Rabelais comes from the rain of delirious inventiveness he pours on us. He takes such delight in it.