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It. Was. 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 program for a comic past. Today we deal with the creating of a comic past for America comic beginning for us all which has been an enormous comfort to librarians afflicted with genealogists and to historians afflicted with professional Patriots and flag wavers. We all know the serious past a trip to Williamsburg Virginia to Cooperstown New York to Salem Massachusetts will demonstrate that the American past is taken seriously. But there exists in the heritage of American humor which we are exploring a contrary comic attitude toward our ancestors and their heroic doing. To help us realize this fifth program in our series on American humor. I
have with me two persons interested in our comic Pastore if you wish our comic beginnings. May I introduce Miss Allison Burrage sometime reference librarian for the Virginia Antiquarian Society. I Miss Polly Baker Randolph Winthrop for many many years the recorder of the United mothers of America and a mother herself of nine children. Now ladies I understand that you were sisters is that right. My given name is denarii tall is pronounced as soon. My mother who was a militant suffragette named me after Charles's Wife of Bath and also pronounced the name and as soon she named my sister for the colonial suffragette Miss Polly Baker who was I think your pardon Miss I was soon. I understand they heard it online Mr narrator. Her years as a librarian have made her overvalue precision and certainty. The first question that we would like to ask you ladies is how you first became interested in a comic attitude toward the past.
Oh it was that assume that made the first breakthrough. Yes indeed it was the ME case but Alison you tell it you must understand Mr. narrator that when reference librarians have nightmares when they go mad and when they commit suicide the cause is usually someone who wishes to trace out a family tree. Mr. Smith with such a man he was small very neat and very clean. But he wasn't nice. And through many years a dislike for his type had been rowing in me along with a growing dislike of genealogy. When it turned out that Mr Smith was not nice and a genealogist to boot it was almost too much for me. He had a theory Mr narrator all about the ways that names change and are corrupted. His name he argued had been Smith as far back as possible and John Smith. But before that it had been simply William Black Fitzwilliam and before that it had been simply William and William was William the Conqueror. Yes but it came to me that the family that Mr Smith wanted could only really exist on paper all the ancestors that he referred to were dead and I was wishing that he would.
That was when Alice soon heard the passage from Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. My husband was recording no you already know you let me tell this the passage Mr. narrator is recorded on this tape. So if you would have your sound man put it on his machine he would document our first breakthrough for you in our study of Accomack attitude toward the past. It came to me that Mr Smith's ancestors were dead. They did not really exist. So I said to him the very best records concerning William the Conqueror are deposited in the library in Williamsville Idaho and here we have only records of the John Smith family. Then I went home and heard probably baker's man recording The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn for the children. When you play that tape now please Mr. operator. This is recorded on Columbus Day October 12th 1942. The voice is my husband John with through the window Douglas. She took me for her son and allowed she could civilize me. The widow rung a
bell for supper and you had to come to time when you got to the table you couldn't go right to Eton but you had to wait for the widow to tuck down her head and grumble a little over the vittles though there wasn't really anything the matter with them. Then after supper she got out her book and learned me about Moses in the bullrushes. And I was in a sweat to find out all about him. But by and by she let it out that Moses had been dead a considerable long time. So then I didn't care no more about him because I don't take no stock in dead people but pretty soon I wanted to smoke and I ask the widow to let me but she wouldn't. She said it was a mean practice and wasn't clean and I must try not to do it any more. That's just the way with some people they get down on a thing when they don't know nothing about. Right now here she was above and about Moses which was no kinda and no use to anybody being dead and gone easy yet finding a power of fault with me for doing a thing that had some good in it and she took snuff to the cause that was all right because she done it
herself. That was all of it Mr. Meridor for I interrupted then and there you see. Until then as a trained reference librarian I have been serious about the past but suddenly well Conny because a man was reading I saw the dead past could become ik that Mr Smith's ancestors had been doing those houses a considerable long time and that I didn't need to take no stock in the people and my husband said her experiences in the library reminded him of a saying of Tom Jefferson to Little James Madison to the effect that the use of the land was to the living. And I remembered that my first boy had just told us to let him make his own mistakes. But I'm very sure they don't run on so one can't keep up with your allowance soon after nine children I was beginning to see that really new things were always funny. Children never turned out the way their parents expected. My husband and I planned one thing and found out we had really done something else. So what could one do after nine children but last.
The laugh lets them free and we all saw the folly of your was right and that a comic attitude toward the past was very important when one was dealing with really new things like a new child or a new continent or a new nation or a new frontier. And I asked them Mr narrator wasn't Columbus just like my first boy. Didn't he want to make his own mistakes. Didn't he want to set out for India only to arrive in America. And my husband said yes he guessed the discovery of America was a sort of comic when one considered that it was due to a man set not for one place in a rather large place too was already to arrive in another place that he hadn't planned to visit really that evening so our first breakthrough into the comic past. We began exploring there and collecting materials on these tapes. The tapes are our protection against deadly serious snobs who think ancestors and a rich and glorious and Noble and or important Mister narrator You'd be surprised by one finds comment on the comic past or as I prefer it
the comic Birth of America. That tape we were just hearing has a bit more where Hawthorne shows his sense of the comic past. He was a quiet man but he sensed the comic. Would you let the tape continue please. Nor must we forget to mention a hen coop a very reverend antiquity that stood in the farther corner of the Pyncheon garden. Not the great way from the fountain. It now contained only Chanticleer his two wives and a solitary chick all of them were pure specimens of a breed which had been transmitted down as an heirloom in the Pynchon family and were said while in their prime to have attained almost the size of turkeys and on the score of delicate flesh to be fit for a prince's table. Be that as it might the hens were now scarcely larger than pigeons and had a clear rusty with their despot and a gull to kind of movement and a sleepy and melancholy tone throughout all the variations of their clucking and
cackling. It was evident that the race had degenerated like many a race besides in consequence of too strict a watchfulness to keep it pure. These feathered people had existed too long in their distinct variety. A fact of which the present representative judging by their new goobers department seemed to be aware they kept themselves alive unquestionably and late now and then an egg and hatched a chick not for any pleasure of their own but that the world might not absolutely lose what had once been so admirable a breed of files. The distinguishing mark of the heavens was a crest of lemon to pull its scanty growth in these latter days but a growth so oddly and wickedly analogous to hips about pigeons turban that Phoebe to the poignant distress of her conscience but inevitably was led to fancy a general resemblance between these follow on Hans and her
respectable relatives. That was recorded August 15th 1946 by my eldest son. That is such nice writing Mr narrator. I like it so much for the pinching chickens remind me of the queer rusty withered melancholy clucking and lacking of the people at the library who were trying to trace their blood back to noble ancestors. The people who reproduce not for the pleasure of creativity but only to make sure that the world will not absolutely be without their finds a peer your blueblood Mr Know it all. That is the last thing on that tape. Those were our first excitement's when we began exploring the comic past. But here put the second tape on the machine. Arn explain how we came to see that some things had been written to prevent Americans creating a false pretentious past for themselves while other things had been written to keep them from simply adopting the old countries past the half hour in our time that we have just heard belongs to the first class.
It's mockery of chickens his mockery of Americans for wishing to create pretentious ancestors for themselves. Another effort of the same class is Washington Irving's Knickerbocker history of New York. Isn't that item from Irving the first thing on this tape I was soon. Oh it's either that or the portal for the thing. And yes yes the Erving thing is first Irving You may remember Mr narrator dedicated the Knickerbocker history to the New York Historical Society and if the members of that society were anything like the members of the Virginia Antiquarian Society then they were being mocked in that dedication. Imagine dedicating a book to men whose whole interest in history is to glorify blow up magnify and publicize the reputation of their place and their families. When that book contains the following account of those families sending their men folk into what Irving calls the most horrible that hell ever recorded in poetry or prose. The account is a Homeric about a
list of the great founders of New York's first families. Listen to this. And all was silent horror or bustling preparation war reared is horrid front gnashed loud his iron fangs and shook his dire full crest of bristling bayonets. And now the mighty chieftains marshalled out their hosts. Here stood stock raising firms a thousand rocks and there comes only intrepid hard cupping Pete a second bay on it without fear and without reproach. His brows knit his teeth clenched his breath hard his faithful squire event trenching valiantly at his heels with his trumpet gorgeously be decked with red and yellow ribbons. Then came waddling on his sturdy comrades swarming like the MEMA duns of Achilles and with a van weeks in the van Dyke's in the 10x but then messes the vent test as the van grows the vent holes and gazes the vent black of
the van warts. Then we live in dams the vent pelts the van Ripper's in the Van Brunt's. There were the Van Horn's the Van Deusen has then been shut ins the van Gelder is the Van Arsdale in the van but moves the vendor belts the vendor hooves the vendor boots the vendor tins the vendor pools and the vendor Spiegel's and then. Game on the Hoffman's the hoodlums the helpers the clappers the use outs the Quackenboss as the rower bucks the guera branches Leandre dunks the Sherman horns the Brinkerhoff stick knickerbockers the hawk structures the riches of the tough bridges with almost no more of value and worth these as names of crabs to be written all K-Mart and fortified with my day dinner and to use the words of a great Dutch poet brim full of rats and cabbage recorded at the 15th of January nineteen hundred fifty one and rededicated once again as follows to the New York Historical
Society. This group is respectfully dedicated as a humble and unroot the testimony of the profound veneration and the exalted esteem of the Society's sincere well-wisher and devoted servant. And the sooner the better. Now this new thread that you the race that dedication that dedication with Washington Irving's and it was the dedication of his whole book not just that passage about name. I promise you I would raise it when we get home. In any case Mr. Merry taught you can see that Washington Irving was like Hawthorne in that he wanted to keep Americans from being deadly serious about their history. But Mr. Allison didn't American beliefs and democracy and progress tell against any deep interest in ancestral history. Mark Twain Hawthorne and Irving making mock of stupid American snobs who weren't aware as yet that aristocracy had been abolished in America in the old country. It seems to me a certain sort of ancestral history had meant land wealth and privileges. So it's no wonder
that people there found ancestral history exciting. But wealth land and privileges in America came from Enterprise inventions opening new frontiers and pushing river steamers and railways into the future West. So one would expect Americans to be excited about what we call present progress and not about ancestral history. But what teases my curiosity is what happened when the American president became the American past. What happens when today's progress becomes ancestral history. The book called The puddle people has all the humors of the West. We learn to laugh at another aspect of the past namely its past progress. It's the dream of the men in 1840 who dreams that he visits the future so that his own time is the past. In his dream that is Mr narrator continue that tape please. I dreamed boys that I was in the great patent office at Washington. It seemed that I was in a wilderness of machinery and then a pretty little gentleman in the queerest costumer ever saw came bustling up to me and he asked me for my
ticket. I involuntarily put my hand into my britches pocket and pulling out a card handed it to him. Why sir this is no ticket. It is the business card of a John Smith and advertises patent dog churn which said John Smith was the inventor. It bears the date 1840 two hundred years ago. Very clever. Where did you get the card. Oh yes the dog may be found in the room marked inventions of eighteen for an unknown away who are you if I am not John Smith. Were two appointed by poll the secretary of the interior. And didn't I put in a good word for your appointment. Poll polled the secretary of the interior. I appointed by Polk. Oh dear me no. I was appointed two years ago not two hundred. While we were talking Franklin Jefferson and Fulton walked in and took seats. And these unexpected arrivals interrupted the chuckles of the little man. One of those pauses occurred which frequently do upon the appearance of strangers.
And then then spoke too late to warm your feet. Fire fire. Why Uncle Ben there are no fireplaces nowadays stoves and hot air furnace as are all the things. Why this building has warmed by a great furnace and two miles of pipe that takes the heat to every room in it. Wait a moment so. Wait a moment. Furnaces you say. Why such old fashioned trumpery as all piled away among the inventions of the years long past and gone furnaces. Why such things belong to the age of your dog churn. Gentlemen Haven't you heard of the Great Southern hot air company incorporated in 1960. Whose business it is to furnish hot air from the south to persons in the north at prices to family three dollars a year. What's all done by a gigantic underground tunnel and branches work with a high pressure air pump. Haven't you heard of this gentleman here. We get the natural hot air of the south of warmed by the sun. None of your coal and wood
gas is to corrupt and darken the atmosphere and reciprocity is kept up for the North sends back cold air in the same system and thus an equilibrium compromise between North and South is maintained. Why gentlemen furnace is require constant care. Oh dear me no. The vertices belong to the Dark Ages recorded June 3rd 1951. The voices were my husband and eldest son. Mr narrator as soon used to tease my husband with that tape my husband family moved from Virginia to Texas and my husband was born there. So Allison used to say that most of the hot air from the South came from Texas that it was a natural gas. Nor will I suppose the future will always laugh at us. In any case Mr narrator you have seen examples of the class of writing is designed to keep us from creating a pretentious past. I suppose we should let you hear one example of the class designed to erase the old European past designed
that is to say to take that old harpy off Americas shoulders. If you have him put this tape on the machine we can hear now how Mark Twain's Connecticut Yankee got back into the old European past and something of what he found there. What people do is to confuse the personal private world with its memories that begin when they were young with a great public world of language with its memories that began when men was young. It is interesting to see how writers shift us into the great world of language with its fictive memories. Irving creates a fictive innkeeper who finds the fictive manuscript a fictive historian of New York and there we are back in the New York of the 17th century Henry Hiram Riley creates a fictive part of forty and who dreams and there we are in the future looking back at the telescope past Mark Twain did it in another way. Into the tape now. There was a knock at the door. Must stranger came in and gave him a pipe and a chair made him whipped and comforted him with hot Scotch
whiskey. He gave him another one and then still another hoping always for his story. Well after a fourth persuader he drifted in doing himself quite Shimbun natural way where I was born and reared in Hartford in the state of Connecticut. Anyway just over the river in the country. So I am a Yankee of the Yankees and practical. Yes nearly barren of sentiment I suppose or poetry in other words. My father was a blacksmith my uncle was a horse doctor and I was booked long first and then I went over into the great times factory and learned my real trade. All there was to it. I became head superintendent had a couple of thousand men under me. Well man like that is a man that's full of fight. I goes I say. With a couple of thousand rough men under one one has plenty of that sort of amusement I had anyway.
But at last I met my match. It was during a misunderstanding conducted with crowbars with a fellow we used to call her Achilles. He laid me out with a crusher alongside the head that made everything crack and seemed a spring every joint in my skull so as to make it overlap its neighbor. And then the world went in darkness and I didn't feel anything anymore. I didn't know anything at all at least for a while. When I came to again I was sitting under an oak with a whole beautiful and broad country landscape all to myself. Not in time for there was a fellow on a horse looking down at me. A feller fresh out of a picture book he was in all time iron armor from head to heel with a helmet on his head the shape of a nail keg with slits in it and he had a shield and a sword in a prodigious spear and his horse head on an arm or two and a
steel horn projecting from his forehead in gorgeous red and green silk trappings that hung down all around him like a bed quilt. Nearly always when you just will lie which when you drive as dew forms will end all India will fall. What are you giving me. Get on back to your circus or I'll report you're now what did that man do but fall back a couple of hundred yards and and then come rushing at me as hard as he could tear with his nail keg bent down nearly to his horse's neck and his long spear pointed straight ahead. I saw he meant business. So I was up the oak when he arrived. He allowed that I was his property the captive of his spear. There was argument on his side so I judged it best to humor it. We fixed up an agreement whereby I was to go with him and he was not to hurt me. I came down and we started away. Well at the end of an hour we saw far away
town sleeping in a valley by a winding river and beyond it on a hill a vast gray fortress with towers and turrets the first I had ever seen out of a picture of Bridgeport. No not I I find I can't go on. OK but come with me I've got it all written out and you can read it if you like. First I kept a journal. Then by and by I turned it into a book. If I venture to say that you like the way that Mark Twain gets his Connecticut Yankee back into Arthur's time and I venture that analysis of the passage would reveal why Twain is considered a rich humorist. There is not only the slapstick crowbar but burlesque of courtly ways in writing satire of inventive bragging progressive Connecticut understanding of how dreams
enervate the dreamer attack on cruelty and obtuseness dressed in gracious language and mockery of the human weakness for the far away and long ago. All that in a short passage. But I interrupt. Let us finish the tape please. We can hear something of what the Connecticut Yankee recorded these days in far away long ago Camelot. But as a rule the speech and behavior of King to his people were gracious and courtly and I noticed that they were good and serious news when anybody was telling anything I mean in a dog fight less interval and plainly too they were childlike and innocent like telling lies of the stateliest parent with a most winning and gentle naivety and ready and willing to listen to anybody else's life and believe it too. It was hard to associate them with anything cruel or dreadful and yet they dealt in tales of blood and suffering with a guileless relish that made me almost forget
to shudder. To me Mr Narrator That is a description almost of the searches for distinguished family antecedents of the members of the prestige associations. Their speech is gracious and courtly But as Mark Twain says they use it to tell lies at the stateliest pattern. But more interesting than all this is the characteristic of such people. That is the core of the melancholy nonsense and against which men like Twain battled with their laughter namely their obsessed wish to believe anybody else's life provided that it is couched in gracious and courtly language. Well ladies it's regrettable but that is all we have time for today. I want to thank you very much for your interest and kindness and especially for your tapes that have been such a help to us in our exploration of American humor. They have really given a rich idea of the ways used by American humorists to evoke a comic past. The passages from Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and from his Connecticut
Yankee in King Arthur's Court. And the passage from Nathaniel Hawthorne's House of Seven Gables and the one from Washington Irving's Knickerbocker history of New York. Were all taken from standard editions of their writings. The item concerning the Great Southern hot air Association is from Henry Hiram Riley's public Ford papers or the humors of the West and was suggested to us by Nash. Today as voices. Jane O'Reilly Dorothy Olson and Myron Currie Frank Liban. And really. Production by E. Scott Bryce technical operation by John Buck quits. 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 broadcasting circle. Under a grant from the National Educational Television and Radio Center. And is being distributed by the National Association of educational broadcast. This is the end of the Radio Network.
Heritage of American humor
A comic past
Producing Organization
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 talks about the comedic beginnings for America.
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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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Actor: Lee, Henry
Actor: Olson, Dorothy
Actor: Curry, Myron
Actor: O'Reilly, Jean
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.
AAPB Contributor Holdings
University of Maryland
Identifier: 61-4-4 (National Association of Educational Broadcasters)
Format: 1/4 inch audio tape
Duration: 00:29:16
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APA: Heritage of American humor ; A comic past. Boston, MA: University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from