thumbnail of Heritage of American humor; The grotesque corner
Hide -
If this transcript has significant errors that should be corrected, let us know, so we can add it to FIX IT+
The heritage of American humor. We have many sources of worthwhile laughter all influence our outlook on life from the early days comes a unique heritage for the 20th century American. Heritage enhanced by being shared. The University of North Dakota broadcasting service presents 15 dramatized essays on the American humor found in newspapers books and anthologies old and new. From these the 20th century American can obtain a perspective on the intelligences attitudes styles and sensibilities of the American outlook as it concerns himself and his world neighbors. The heritage of American humor is produced by the University of North Dakota under a grant from the National Educational Television and Radio Center in cooperation with the National Association of educational broadcasters. The writer narrator is Professor Joseph F. Smeal of the University of North Dakota Department of English programs.
The grotesque corner. There are standard answers to the question What is American humor. People often think of it as preeminently tall tale or dialect. Or Cracker Barrel or Frontier humor. Such answers however oversimplify the actual variety of it. And since the purpose of these programs is to make us aware of the rich variety of American humor we cannot hold ourselves to the standard answers. So today we adapt for radio presentation to stories by Edgar Poe's and provide a transitional sketch between them based on an anecdote by George Derby. These adaptations illustrate the nature of the grotesque in American humor. But what is meant by the grotesque in writing. Here. We assume that it is writing that leads us into the queer world of mechanical automated doll like a
mask. Figures that seem to be distortions of the human creature. It is writing to that leads us into the aberrations of the memory of the sensory system. And of the emotion. It is writing that tries to give verisimilitude to the fantastic. It is writing at jokes about death and about time size and color as they are known to us in everyday life. Ghosts return. Colors have a sound. Collection Sarc route makes things shrink to little size or grow too Brobdingnagian proportion. If we let a sharp attention follow the curve of fantasy the curve laid out by such kinds of writing we will find ourselves in a little appreciated corner of American humor where strange things occur with time. Weird and human creature.
I call today's program the grotesque corner because the bits of American humor that we present are grotesque. And because they are associated for me almost all of them with corner corners of dingy small rundown American hotels. Somehow my imagination seems to connect the grotesque with little lobbies of offbeat corner hotels the ones with plans. And no parking signs outside but without taxis. Or should I say hacks or carry Jesus ever visible near their door. An American master of the grotesque began dying over 100 years ago on a corner near one of these hotels and some suppose that it has since haunted minor hotel lobbies throughout the nation and that he may be seen in their dark corners using their writing tables or spruce and trim near the doors of their marble barber shops. In any case he is the man who can introduce you to the grotesque in American humor.
To a laughter that skirts along the edges of hysteria is a laughter encountered sometimes among men alone and not too young who lived in small hotels. Let us listen then to a hypothetical gentleman's experience of the grotesque in American humor. A hypothetical gentleman who can experience the clear signs of the grotesque for us and can take us into the environment which with which we associate the grotesque. Let us call our hypothetical gentleman Arthur Stuart. We come upon Arthur Stuart for the first time in the little lobby of the Oriental Hotel just north of the rail station. It is the year 1854 and just after breakfast he enters the reading room of the dingy hotel and speaks to a gentleman seated at the writing table. Miserable weather they ice it certainly.
Please do. May I smoke. Certainly. Please do. My name is Arthur Stuart. I cannot just now remember when where I first met Brigadier General John A B C Smith. Someone did introduce me to him I'm sure. The truth is I am constitutionally nervous. A family failing and I cannot help it. The truth is I take a melancholy satisfaction in remembering Brigadier General John A B C Smith's personal appearance. His hair was jet black which also was the color of his unimaginable whiskers. You perceive that I speak with enthusiasm. And those jet whiskers overshadowed a mouth utterly equalled there with the most entirely even and quite of all conceivable teeth and from behind them issued a voice of surpassing clearness melody
and strength. In the matter of AI's also the general was remarkably And how did either one of his was worth a couple of ordinary ocular Oregon's. It was perceptible that they were crossed just that amount that gives interest to the expression. The generals shoulders would have called up a blush of inferiority on a marble Apollo. The General's arms were admirably modeled. Every kind of so admitted his legs to be good. I could not imagine a more graceful curve than that of his femur. Still I would not say that I remember the man because of a remarkable physique. Perhaps what I remember was his manner there was primness not to say stiffness in his carriage. And degree of measured I've rectangular PER SE Asian. But I cannot remember the friend who introduced me to the general John A B C Smith did say he was a remarkable man and
a very remarkable man and indeed one of the most remarkable a man of the age. But my friend was interrupted. I did not learn what I needed to know. I did not learn why Brigadier General Johnny B C Smith was so remarkable man. The truth is I am constitutionally nervous. A family failing. So I had to know that I had to know why he was thought a remarkable man so I inquired. I had to inquire. I asked Mr. Buy thought true in church during the sermon and thought you knew about him this is a wonderfully invented it was a horrific Yeah but he said of savages those people he thought prodigies are immortal just spear you know he's the man that is born of a woman and what a short time to
live. So Mr. by thought was interrupted and I did not learn what I needed to know. I inquired again this time of Mrs. Arabella and Miranda can you senti at the play and they were pleased. Gentle job maybe. God bless me did you ever behold I thank you. It is fair that wasn't it. Terrible wretches those bugaboos cannibals. But then we do have an inventive myth. Never heard Let me why he's really good. Oh of the drowsy medicine suites which suggest that interruption occurred during a performance of Othello and I did not learn what I needed to know. I inquired again was terrible Kickapoo three times did you say we are playing. That was bugaboos. But this is the age of invention most certainly the age one might say the age par excellence of invention. You have no heart
Mr topple. You don't know why bless me said the man. I kept on man are you talking about the do all that interruption unnerved me. I needed so to know. I inquired again was wonderful a dividend you know and again and again and. I damned the man and the man in the Iron Mask and the man in the moon. I needed to know. It was but one resource left me. I would call on the general at his hotel. I would be plain. It was early when I called the general's negro valid let me in. As I entered the room I looked about for the general but I didn't immediately perceive him. There was a large odd bundle on the floor. I pushed aside in order to seat myself and wait. I was not in the best humor so perhaps I kicked it out. Perhaps my horror showed the bundle I saw was squirming
upon the floor carrying out an evolution like the drawing on of a stocking. There was but one leg however. The negro Vallet screwed on a cork leg already completely dressed and then them but don't stood upright before my eyes. And Pompey screwed on an arm. Yes and there's been negro did so the funny small squeaky voice said something about a wig. The bundle was becoming more rectangular more precise. A coat was added. In my horror I could not focused directly on the thing before me. I could not accept it. Your eye. I said. Then I began to perceive a kind of real man though the little voice still
unnerved me. Then the negro grumbled in apology opening the rectangular objects mouth he adjusted there in a somewhat singular looking machine in a very dexterous manner that I could not altogether comprehend. The bundle changed in a matter of instantaneous and surprising. It was Brigadier General John A B C Smith kick up a plane I'd only knocked in the roof of my mouth but they cut out seven eighths of my tongue. The rich melody and strength of the voice startled me. But I cannot remember when or where I had first met the General. Someone had introduced me to him. If you remember the hotel where the general stayed I cannot just now remember. In Richmond in a small hotel as it was in a corner of its lobby I believe. Well I must get some matches if you'll excuse me.
When the hypothetical man whom we have chosen to call Arthur Stuart returned with these matches the odd friend of the General Smith was gone. And as our Mr Steward let his cigar he was savoring one instance. Of the grotesque corner of American humor. In the story of the General Smith. A man who was all used up certain signs of the grotesque had been clear. There had been an interest on the part of the storyteller in an artificial automated mechanical human being or at least in one who was almost such and there had been to an interest in the aberrations of the memory. And there had been an impression of precision in language used to cover over fantasy in the situation whether the strange story had struck or Mr. Stuart as amusing cannot be determined. But as I was saying the rain had stopped. It was still after breakfast in the hotel help were still to be seen. The hotel waiters
at half hidden corners that began still other hallways. As if all the hotel rooms in the world opened on one long dim corridor. So the man we have chosen to call Arthur Stuart said again where he had said before where the third volume of his father's edition of Edgar Allan Poe rested on the arm of an overstuffed chair. As he recalls his question about the location of the general's hotel a well-groomed stranger entered from the hotel barber shop. The hotel sir was the Oriental Hotel and in 1954 it was at the corner of grace and the streets I remember too well. 1854 was April 20 of that year. I had arrived in Richmond on my way from Philadelphia to Savannah the southwest of the name by the way. I remember that hotel Well I was accompanying the body of my second wife to Savannah where she was to be buried with her family. Mine is Arthur Stuart
you remember the Oriental Hotel in Richmond where I remember it three or four needle shops between its lobby and the street shops with entrances into the lobby and into the street. Well I'd stopped taking the body of my second wife to Savannah. She was a wealthy woman and it was her wish to be buried there with her family. As I sat in the lobby after my breakfast I noticed first the calendar which made the day April 20 1854. And second the notice the little sign on one of the neat little shops which read in gaily painted colors. Richmond ladies Depository. Today I know we speak of a depot rather than a depository but the term then was as often as I do remember that hotel well. Anyway I was a little mystified by that sign. I went over and pressed my nose against the lobby window. I could see through to the carriages passing in the rainy street
and then I saw two ladies of rare beauty both very neatly attired in sewing. They were tired. You say I supposed today we would speak of them to be dressed. But yes I do remember that well they were attired. And they were sewing near a light on a small counter in the window near me was filled with lace caps baby stockings capes collars articles of white linen and other things of still life. I went in and had in hand I addressed one of the ladies madam. I said I perceive by your sign that this is a depository for Richmond ladies. But I'm going west in a few days and should be pleased to leave my wife in your charge. But I don't know if by your rules you could receive. She's not from Richmond. That's what I said with an intense politeness and one of the lady's pretty little one in the blue dress sewing on a thing that looked like a pillowcase with holes turned very blush red and she put down her head and she
said something that sounded like tea and the other lady had a stronger mind and by an effort holding in she replied. There you have made a mistake. This is a place where a society of Richmond ladies leave their work so that it may be so for the benefit of the missions in the southern. The wife that you wish to deposit there was dead. Yes of the typhoid. So I bowed to the two ladies and I gravely beg their pardon. When I walked out by the street entrance However I remember that I heard a laughing sound as of an autumnal brook gurgling and babbling gaily over its pebbly bed in the Virginia mountains. Would you care for cigars. That was over a hundred years ago in the Oriental Hotel in the corner shop and I should be pleased. Certainly I'm not constitutionally nervous and I find that few things disturb me. Thank you very much. Yes yes indeed I remember that hotel so well.
After nobody's business a hundred years ago. The hypothetical man we have chosen to call Arthur steward sat smoking and contemplating another corner of the grotesque in American humor. This time the clear sign of the grotesque had been a macabre little fantasy played with a pun and the idea of a dead wife. And again with the Muse Mr. Stewart does not know open laughter is not a result of contemplating the grotesque and humor the grotesque is not a stimulus for belly laughter. The collector of such humor is rather one who smiles secretly whose reaction to the Weird is a small tickle of laughter within. There remains time for one further exemplification of the grotesque corner in American Humor one clear sign more for Arthur Stewart to experience in his hypothetical hotel lobby. In the hypothetical year 1854.
This sign is the present tales of the Grotesque. Of experiments with time. Size. And color as we know them in everyday life. There is a laughter that goes with small small people or with joy. Or the goes with absurd distortions of time. Or with odd juxtaposition of color. But as I was saying. The hotel helped in 1854 are returning the rooms of the Oriental Hotel to their timeless anonymity and Arthur Stewart sat with a third volume of his father's edition of Edgar Allan Poe waiting for them to finish sat until the friend of the generally B C Smith returned to his seat in the lobby. I cannot remember exactly when I was introduced to the village of wonder of the time it is the village of wonder about time it is in a perfectly circular valley round
as a clock face sixty little houses within each house there is a fire and a huge cloud hangs over it full of sauerkraut and pork which the good woman of the house is always tending watch in hand. She is a little fat lady with the blue eyes and a red face and wears a huge cap with purple ribbons. Producers of our range linsey woolsey very short indeed not reaching the middle of her leg the leg is somewhat thick and so was the ankle. Her Shoes of pink leather are fastened with yellow ribbons poking up in the form of a cabbage. The old man of the house is an exceedingly puffy little old gentleman with a big circular eyes. He has two feet in height with a pipe in his mouth and a watch in his hand. He takes a puff and a look a puff and a look. And he sits at the front door always keeping one of his circular eyes at least focused on the center of the valley. You have used upon which the circular eye is focused is the steeple of the council house. The town council all little round oily intelligent men with big circular eyes and
during my sojourn in the village the council adopted these three important resolutions. OK let's come to the dish. Yes duck it is all wrong too all over the course of Jeanne does no good. OK comfortable looks I don't but I do try to dot stick by our clocks it can't be just above the council is there steeple where exists the great clock of blunder of our time it is and this is the object to which at least one circle I at each house of the valley is always directed never was such a place for keeping time as if under about time it is when the Lodge Clapper in the steeple sails 12:00 all over the town timepieces respond like echoes what a happy village. Alas that so fair a picture should chain.
But imagine the consternation yesterday at five minutes of noon when an odd looking object appeared on the hills to the eastward. Every puffy little old gentleman I was holding turned to one circular eyes slowly to stare at the object in dismay while still keeping the other focused upon the clock in the steeple and at three minutes of noon the droll object in question was seen to be a very dim. far enough he came on at a great rate. Everyone soon could examine him under one Homme he had a huge top hat and under the other a fiddle nearly five times as big as himself. The fellow had a grinning and audacious a sinister face. Then just a half minute before noon the rascal bounced into the midst of them. David shall say they're on a pier away out here and a pigeon winged himself right into the belfry of the steeple where the belfry man sat smoking in dismay and dignity. The little chap sees the belfry man by the nose gave it a swing in a polish of the huge top hat over his head and knocked it down over his eyes and mouth. Then lifting the big fiddle he beat him with it. The great bell was about to toll
the hour and it was a matter of preeminent to Sesame that every eye should look well to its time pieces. Oh.
It seemed his old Nick had taken possession of everything in the shape of a timepiece watches took to dancing out of time and watch packets mental clocks could scarcely contain themselves for fury and kept such a continual striking of thirteen in such a regular of their friend your limbs. And the worst of all the rascally little scapegrace in the steeple evidently exerted himself to the utmost to mock them in their confusion. He was seen in the cloud of sulphurous smoke scraping his big fiddle in no time nor tune. We may now take a last look at our hypothetical man Arthur Stuart as he again sits alone in the hypothetical Oriental Hotel. He has had his last experience of the grotesque corner in American humor and the sign of the grotesque had been an experiment and experiment with science for the men of undervote time it is were only two feet tall with color for their women were
strangely colorful and with time. For there the clock had struck thirteen. And this experiment closes our illustrations of the clear signs of the grotesque in American humor. This program has shown us writings interested in automated mechanical men interested in the aberrations of the mind in jokes about the dead. And in these just mentioned experiments with the fantastic. The grotesque corner of American humor is really a corner of the language. Where the fantastic and the comic are brought together. And it is on this meeting of the fantastic in the comic that I would focus attention. It is a meeting that irritates some minds which find a grotesque simply to be fully snus and not at all comic. Our literature today still smells of romanticism and it still considers second rate that faculty of the mind that creates the grotesque for it. The first great faculty of the mind is the imagination which takes the
fantastic seriously. But the grotesque is a comic view of the fantastic. All those things that can be created from language only non-serious make believe in words for men is unsure of their own language as Coleridge or Wordsworth only stirs up fear and insecurity. It never stirs up humor. The Romantics believed seriously and still believe seriously today in things merely created from words for them. A lady 2 feet high with purple ribbons a sour kraut ladle and pink shoes has a reality beyond the language that creates or in our mind is to enjoy the grotesque corner in American humor. One must have some sophistication in language. One must be able to keep distinct the real and fanciful roots of any linguistic equation. Two tales of the grotesque by Edgar Poe where the man who was all used up and the devil in the belfry. The anecdote of the Richmond Depository adapted from George
Derby may be found in its original form in his honor. We hope you have enjoyed that. Today's voices. Henry Lee Lewis Wangberg Frank Loeb and Barbara Lee Barbara Anderson. Production by East Scott Bryce technical operation by John Buck wits. Thank you. We invite you to listen next week to the heritage of American humor a series of 15 dramatized essays written and narrated by Professor Joseph F. Smeal of the University of North Dakota Department of English. He offers you a perspective on the relationship between the American humor found in newspapers books or anthologies and the American outlook traced from Colonial to recent times. The heritage of American humor is produced and recorded by the University of North Dakota
Heritage of American humor
The grotesque corner
Producing Organization
University of North Dakota
KFJM (Radio Station : Grand Forks, N.D.)
Contributing Organization
University of Maryland (College Park, Maryland)
If you have more information about this item than what is given here, or if you have concerns about this record, we want to know! Contact us, indicating the AAPB ID (cpb-aacip/500-9k45vb8w).
Episode Description
This program, "The Grotesque Corner," presents aspects of American humor that are inspired by the offbeat and the strange. Two stories by Edgar Allen Poe are central to the program.
Other Description
Dramatic essays on the history and nature of American humor. Written by J.F.S. Smeall, assistant professor of English at the University of North Dakota and editor of the North Dakota Quarterly.
Broadcast Date
Wit and humor--Fiction.
Media type
Embed Code
Copy and paste this HTML to include AAPB content on your blog or webpage.
Actor: Lee, Henry
Actor: Lee, Barbara
Actor: Anderson, Barbara
Narrator: Smeall, J.F.S.
Producing Organization: University of North Dakota
Producing Organization: KFJM (Radio Station : Grand Forks, N.D.)
Writer: Smeall, J. F. S.
Writer: Poe, Edgar Allan, 1809-1849
AAPB Contributor Holdings
University of Maryland
Identifier: 61-4-7 (National Association of Educational Broadcasters)
Format: 1/4 inch audio tape
Duration: 00:29:35
If you have a copy of this asset and would like us to add it to our catalog, please contact us.
Chicago: “Heritage of American humor; The grotesque corner,” 1961-01-13, University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed June 28, 2022,
MLA: “Heritage of American humor; The grotesque corner.” 1961-01-13. University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. June 28, 2022. <>.
APA: Heritage of American humor; The grotesque corner. Boston, MA: University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from