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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 with. The University of North Dakota broadcasting service presents 50 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 program
six change and the public letter box. The first program of the series tried to show something of how American newspapers generated American humor. There it was proposed that American humor began in the dearth of news that isolated colonial printers facing a dearth of fresh news were tempted to write fake news items for their weekly papers. But their consciences drove them to make such fake I don't know comic for that would distinguish the fake from the actual bonafide news item. That's a need for news generated a need to be comic. But that is only part of the story. So today we return. To the American newspapers as first generators of American humor. We do not return however to the news column but to the columns of letters to the
editor. Newspapers not only aim to please us through columns of news and gossip but also to instruct us through columns of letters that contain comment and discussion. But such letters to the editor are intended for publication. They are not private letters such as we find in our private letterbox but public letters destined for the newspaper columns those columns that truly are the public letter box. And in the earlier American newspapers the public letter box was not open to any Tom Dick or Harry. On the contrary its use was quietly reserved to the gentry. To the men who had studied Latin and law who had family trees and sufficient property to vote. And these men use the public letterbox to do two things. First they use it to display their acquaintance with learning. And elegant style. Second they used it to discuss and spread political notions
before the time of Andrew Jackson that the public letter box was often a stuffed with formula pistols in elegant style about political matters. The public letters were then those of genteel men addressed to other genteel men and hence full of sober elegant political writing. It'll. With the coming of Jacksonian democracy in the 1830s and 40s However there was change in the public letterbox. The quiet monopoly of it by the gentry was broken. But note that it was broken as most monopolies are broken not by changes in production but by changes in demand production of letters for the public letterbox remained in the hands of the gentry. But the demand for such letters was now from a new class of men men who were not genteel you who had not studied Latin who had short families and little property now had the vote and voters are the natural demand for Letters to an editor. So here very simply we call
this change in demand for political instruction. The change in the public letter box beginning in the 1830s then in the time of Old Hickory the seventh President Andrew Jackson letters appear in the public letterbox that are political but they are not formal sober or elegant epistles. Instead they are comic satirical burlesque letters in dialect. And since they are comic they interest us here. Writers of letters for the public letterbox of the newspaper were still men of genteel education. But these men had changed their style to meet the change demanded instead of formal soberly pistols in elegant language. They write comic satirical letters in dialect and they were aware of what they did. Indeed James Russell Lowell alternates letters in the new comic style with a commentary by an imaginary adherent of the old elegant style. He contrasts the comic letters in dialect of a big
low with a sober elegant commentary of a homer Wilbur minister of Mr. Big Church. Our first example to day of change in the public letterbox shows Mr. Lowell at work contradicting the old elegant style of the minister with a new comic style of his parishioner. You will hear first part of a sermon preached by the Reverend will bear upon a text from his eco chapter the thirty fourth verse the second son of man prophesied against the shepherds of Israel and the shepherds are editors. Then in a letter addressed to the editor of The Boston Courier you will hear the sentiments inspired by the sermon in the breast of Mr. Bigelow. I have to leave my text easy jab to the 30 people out there it's the second
son of man and prophesied against the shepherds of Israel. Brandreth I know of no so responsible position as that of an editor of a public paper who may indeed be called the shepherd of Israel. The editor today bears the same relation to our times that the clergymen barked at the times before the invention of printing. Indeed the position which the editor now holds is that which the clergyman should still hold even now. But the clergyman chooses to walk off to the extreme edge of the world who throws such seed as he has clear over into the darkness which he calls the next life as if next did not mean nearest as if the next life is not be immediately present life and thus it is come to pass that the preacher the old and
shepherd of Israel instead of being a living force has faded into a mere emblematic figure at christenings weddings and a few rows. Meanwhile see what a Pope it Editor amounts daily sometimes with a congregation of 50000 within reach of his voice and never an author or coffer even among them. And from what Bible can he choose his text from a Bible that needs no translation. Which no priestcraft can shut away from the lame and the open volume of the world upon which with the pen of nature the president is even now writing the annals of God. Me thinks an editor who should understand his calling and be equal to it would truly deserve that title on shepherd of the people which Homer bestows upon princes.
But our editors today are wolves dressed in Shepherds clothing. They take up the shepherd's crook. Not that the sheep may be fed but that they themselves may never want war more loans and their legs up much. And for this reason I would derive the name editor or not so much from itto publish as from arrow to eat. That being the profession to which they esteem themselves called they blow up the flames of political discord for no other reason than that they may handily boil their all on pot. Some weeks after the Rev. Homer Wilbur preached the sermon that you have just heard
and editor in Boston received a letter from one big lo a member of the Rev. Wilbur's flock. The letter enclosed a poem. We are now about to hear the letter in the poem. The editor in Boston was himself a Down-East Yankee so perhaps Hosea Bigelow's dialect seem pleasant to his ears in any case he wanted to read the letter to someone. Note too that this point in repeats the same sentiments about editors that we have just heard in the reverend's sober elegant sermon but repeats them in a style that is suited to the columns of a newspaper that is suited to an editor's ears a style that is colloquial comic satirical and in dialect we catch the Boston editor just as he decides that his copy boy should hear the contents of his letter. Well I got a way. Yes come here and sit and learn something about the ethics of our profession. This letter has from Down-East Now you listen carefully.
Yes sir Mr. Buckingham a letter reach Mr. Editor as I was kind of pruning around in a little start out a year or two ago. The Reverend sermon last meet and come into my mind and I took my thoughts about it all in a short time to what I have made our push muster and speak. That didn't read I speak in a kind of poetical lie since the season is dreadful backing it up this way and I had time enough. Yours as usual. You're listening. Yes sir. And here is the poem or the rhyme as he called it. I do believe in freedom cars if it is for a way as I love to see them in a final favor AC. It's well enough to draw a result triggers but kind the thing that don't agree with niggas. I do believe that people want to text on teas and coffees but nothing need to
extravagant provide and I'm off base for I have loved my country since my teeth filled their stockings and particularly his pockets. I do believe in any plan a levy in the taxes as long as like a lumberman I get just what I axes. I do believe it's wise and good to send out further missions. That is understood in orthodox conditions. I mean $9000 per n nine thousand more for outfit and me to recommend the man the place would just about fit. I do believe in special ways a pray and convert the bread comes back so many ways and buttered for certain. I mean pray until one busts where the party chooses. I mean converting public trusts to private uses. You know Uncle Sam provides for his and gives a good sized chunk. I don't care how hard
money is as long as mine's paid punctual. I do believe with all my soul in the great presses freedom to paint the people at a go and in the traces lead a policy that forges yokes and my fat contracts and withered be the nose that pokes into the government and I do believe in being this or that as it may happen one way or t'other handiest is to catch the people who happen to take principle nor men the prudent course is steady. I sent which pays the best and then go and do it. In short I firmly do believe in humbug generally but it's a thing that I perceive to have a solid valet as my faithful shepherd Benyon asked. Sweet as lead May and it will keep the people green defeat me as they fed me. Yeah it's missed a big version of his parson's sentiment now boy. Do you understand why you're here. Yes or to carry a copy and know you're here to help us
uncover the truth and to publish it. And for no other reason give these things to Bill. That then is our first example of the colloquial comic letters and dialect that begin to monopolize the public letterbox in the 1830s and 1840s in those years. Within the circle of genteel educated men appeared writers who had just had their style to the ear of the common man. You know where journalism and journalism style appeared to disturb established genteel ways of writing. And our second and third examples of change in the public letterbox will show how your Rev.. The new journalism could be a sober elegant genteel ways of doing things. The second of our examples is a letter from a book called My 30 years out of the Senate supposedly written by a major Jack Downing. The letter is headed city of Mexico
United States of America September 27 1840 7. As you can see by that heading we are in the midst of the Mexican War and major Downing's letter indeed contains dispatches from Mexico City to two editors of a paper in Washington DC. We catch the two editors as they work through their mail from the public letter box. Boy it's just all the mail you didn't leave any in the corners anyway or lose any of it coming up the stairs now did yeah. No Mr. Gale's that's all and all I have it you should say. There's plenty of it to put it on the table let's get at it. But here's a letter for a major down on why you fetch that big trash hamper from out front which you say right from the city of Mexico by jingo. Let's say your Mexico States of America that December 27 for seven
days for gas and seasons. My dear old friend I'm alive yet but I've been through showers of bullets they can sail in hard uphill work all the way from Veracruz the long and short of it is we fight our way into the city of Mexico and next day it. Santa Ana cleared out the night before with what troops he had left and now he's scurrying around and getting more places ready for us to add mix. And he gets another place ready gets it well fortified and an army of twenty or thirty thousand behind the breastworks. We shall march down upon him with five or six thousand and go through the flurry after they shut down half of it is the rest of us will climb in over that cannon and annex the place and so on when after pretty hard work connection let away what I have to see right. Let's see. He says some think the business ain't profitable. But that's only cause they ain't Seifert into it far enough to understand it on an average we get ten to one for outlay any way you figure it. I mean in the matter of people. Take for instance city of Mexico cost us only two or three thousand men to annex it. Ef we
got into the neighborhood that is. And we've got at least one hundred and fifty thousand and some put it down as high as 200000. So I'm sure I find fault with the quality of the people we get in this country just as if that had anything to do with the merits of the case. Remember that in the government like eyes with people is used for voting and where every nose counts one. It's the number that we have to stand about in an accident not the quality of my no means. So that way in the matter of people we have doing grand business there's a thousand things in this country that I should like to tell you about a bad time to write but things are so unsettled here yet that I have rather a confused chance to write so I must break off here and write a few lines to the president but remain your friend in all latitudes clear down to Cape Horn you're going to read it tomorrow. Yeah but I give just a balun tell them to run it first and as it isn't tomorrow's letter box and don't let me hear you talk in the way Major down right yeah. Our next example of change in the public letterbox is actually from the
years of Andrew Jackson's presidency. And in it one feels again the irreverent freedom that these new letters took with the genteel notion of dignity in politics a notion so apparent in the older elegant public letters one feels in the new public letters a mere pleasure in attacking the dignities of statesmen and law givers. This third letter from the litter box is also from a major Downing but this major Downing is a special press secretary for President Jackson during a tour he made of down east New England in 1833. The letter reporting major Downing's version of that tour appeared in The New York Daily Advertiser and was addressed to its editor. It was headed. July 14 1833 on my way from Saratoga to New York. Part and part by water but all by steam. Through editor two years we seem to hear Major Downing's own voice reporting the happenings Way Down East during Old Hickory's tour there in the summer of 0 8.
Ever since I wrote to you from down in the oval that Peggy long letter that I had written except for the president. So all the other accounts you've seen about him so I thought I'd just wait and see what they'd say about the president going home as a sudden witness to or down east for John about it. Now this is the one on it. You remember I tell you we were going at night to a Clinton and Uncle Joshua's when we did go and we had a great time on it. You may depend. But it ended in trouble and split the president's people up in Dickinson would I to the Clinton that cleared away the Cuban LEDs. President you know you can dodge it but forgot it happened down in Uganda swept so we are at it again and went clean through but I I was keeping my eye on the vice president's demand beer and what Benson but was ready to cut in in case the president knew about yes and as soon as the
presidents dance was done I saw the vice president slipping around to whisper something to the Fed and then he tells us that he'd like to show us a new dance. And Secretary or Cass and Secretary of Navy would bet and i let us run right off to get partners and way o made for the deacon's daughter for Jesus Bruce and his fine is a video. But she didn't gauge herself to the vice president Mr. van Buren that it seems had secured her for his dance where we was all sittin at dinner talking politics. And we'd all been drinking pretty considerable of switchable inside an egg with a little New England in it and we felt good natured and ratty So we come back in here having a fight right off where I didn't kind of like that little move of Mr. Van Berens with the deacon's daughter however thinks I won't spile spite S. and I'm dumb and they all strangers and Old Hickory himself he says to me. Let him alone major he'll put everything to rights see if he don't.
And sure enough I see the vice president were going around putting folks in a ring so they want no top no bottom and all we're level down sort of an what kind of head and kind of tail together. And over by the fiddler I hear him say Now folks I'll call the figures. And you never see. It. Get out of my marriage when I meet you now that you have partners and then but now change partners and shuffle the next and then quicker now hands around Pakistan round crossover with the swing back again recognizing wriggled out of shape and I didn't have a good season just now. They wanted one on em had the same partner he started. Uncle Josh did that off with a new spray and he got his youngest Doctor Sergeant Joe who was dancing with the deacon and the second day cash like they would there were back to back. Shuffling off to nobody yet that great event here and still had the deacon's daughter. And there he went to showing it right alongside the fiddler cleanup ahead and then and he pushed the bow out of the fiddlers head in to give it a draw for a bit of a candle and I
put a stop to the Benson for the night and day and after that you can stand. Yeah after that all the gals off shoes and stockings and went home. Since it was kind of my day and we went to the tavern and the president he went to bed in the cab and we began planning for the next day but nothing seemed to go right so we concluded to call the president. So I went in but he was so sound asleep I thought it wouldn't do to wake him. So for a kind of sport I brought out his hat and coat and he says I here's all I can get of the president tonight so I will try it on whoever they fit best. So decide about my secretary would he was then going to get off his coat. But nigh on of us said that he carried a little too much blubber So he stood he didn't try. And then Mr. van Buren dried up and he
riz up on his toes. But it would not do the coat give it into his heels and the hat fell on his shoulders so you couldn't see nothing on it I mean how does that look. He's sort of in a muffled voice you know it looks pretty curious is the coat too long or my too short. Mr. Van Buren. I don't know exactly which says go and I said That's right. Don't commit yourself. But I see how the cat jumps so I says I'll just step out and rig in another room and I went straight to the president and I walk in and I tell him all about it and he was wrathy is stunned. And when he gets his dander up it's no joke. So in he went well says if I hadn't seen the major Look just so this morning I'd swear that there was the president himself and the president hard look and he said something but played a little softer and the cat was out of the bag and then come trouble.
Watch. Oh I'm your president now who has been trying on my coat. But they were at a Quaker meeting. I'll start my day left for Washington. Major you go by the way you planned and tell the folks I can't come. Or may I turn on my next morning sure enough he was off. So then I streaked through New Hampshire cut across the edge of Massachusetts Connecticut Vermont and New York State and smack up to Saratoga Springs. It was well I did so but the focus was on. I tell them all just one story. It was no use to tell any of that. But the railroad and steam boats go so plaguey fast before I was done telling the folks in one town I was in another. They all wanted to know about the president and I'd tell them to consider about it and that we was all on our own hook now pretty much and I don't see but what I stand about as good a chance to be president is then. Perhaps the final sentence where Jack downing figures his chances to be president as good as anyone's.
Is a sentence that expresses best the spirit of the change in the public letterbox that occurred in the 1830s and 40s. Because at bottom the change was away from a picture of society where positions of responsibility and power were reserved for genteel well-born men and towards a picture a society where anyone might by ability achieve any position and in the presidency of Jackson this new picture of ambition exhilarated Americans now common cats could not only look at Kings which is a comic idea of ancient vintage but they could even become kings which is a comic idea of a new American Vintage. So in their comic exhilaration for a number of years in the middle of the 19th century Americans amuse themselves with being familiar with presidents and great men and with analysis and comment in colloquial style on matters formerly reserved to genteel students of Latin and law. And these exhilarated in comic activities spilled over into the letters to the editor columns which we have
called the public letterbox. Today in the sixth chapter of the heritage of American humor under the title change in a public letter box we have presented three texts. The first was taken from the Bigelow papers by James Russell lower the second was from my 30 years out of the Senate By Ciba Smith and the third was from the letters of Jack downing by Charles Augustus Davis. We hope you have enjoyed. Today's voices. Robert Ralston. Roger Johnson Franklin band and really. Production by E. Scott Bryce technical operation by John Buck wits. 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 are intelligent and the American outlook from Colonial to recent time. The heritage of American humor is produced and recorded by the University of North Dakota broadcasting circle. Under a grant from the National Educational Television and Radio Center. It's being distributed by the National Association of educational broadcast. This is the NH Radio Network. A.
Heritage of American humor
Change in the public letter box
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University of North Dakota
KFJM (Radio Station : Grand Forks, N.D.)
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University of Maryland (College Park, Maryland)
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Episode Description
This program traces the changes in style that can be found in letters sent to be printed in newspapers throughout American history. The emergence of humor in these letters is focused on.
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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.
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Narrator: Smeall, J.F.S.
Producing Organization: University of North Dakota
Producing Organization: KFJM (Radio Station : Grand Forks, N.D.)
Production Manager: Bryce, E. Scott
Writer: Smeall, J. F. S.
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University of Maryland
Identifier: 61-4-6 (National Association of Educational Broadcasters)
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Duration: 00:29:37
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Chicago: “Heritage of American humor; Change in the public letter box,” 1961-01-05, University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed May 28, 2024,
MLA: “Heritage of American humor; Change in the public letter box.” 1961-01-05. University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. May 28, 2024. <>.
APA: Heritage of American humor; Change in the public letter box. Boston, MA: University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from