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Paul Johnson knows everything about history — and humor.
Humorists: From Hogarth to Noël
By Paul Johnson
(Harper, 228 pages, $25.99)
In this eclectic collection of highly readable essays held loosely together by a couple of common thematic threads, Paul Johnson, one of the foremost historians and men of letters of our age, establishes himself as an accomplished humorist in his own right.
Early on, discussing the essence of humor, he shows us some wonderful examples of what it is not, and in so doing makes us (at least some of us) laugh. “Many people, for a variety of reasons,” he writes, “hate to hear others laugh.… Karl Marx thought to pun was a sure sign of ‘the intellectual lumpen proletariat,’ and rebuked Engels for so lowering himself (in German, of course).”
In fact, in Germany, he tells us, laughing was “regarded as a form of weakness.”
“Field Marshall Helmuth von Moltke… was said to have laughed only twice: once when told that a certain French fortress was impregnable, and once when his mother-in-law died.” Martin Heidegger, probably one of the last names along with Immanuel Kant to pop up when discussing humor, “is recorded to have laughed only once, at a picnic with Ernst Junger in the Harz Mountains. Junger leaned over to pick up a sauerkraut and sausage roll, and his lederhosen split with a tremendous crack.”
Apocryphal? Perhaps. But funny. And certainly Sid Caesar material. All humorists treasure Germany as starting point and lodestone. But beyond that, it’s Johnson’s intention to explore in this book, the fourth in a series (preceded by Intellectuals, Creators, and Heroes) the nature of humor in general and how it has been expressed over time.
“If comics fall into broad categories, each, if any good, is sui generis,” Johnson writes. “The gallery I have assembled in this book is a strange collection of geniuses, worldly failures, drunks, misfits, cripples, and gifted idiots. They had in common only the desire, and the ability, to make large numbers of people laugh.”
In this series of books collecting together intellectuals, creators and heroes, I reckon the comics are most valuable. The world is a vale of tears, always has been and surely always will be. Those who can dry our tears, and force reluctant smiles to trembling lips, are more precious to us, if the truth be told, than all the statesmen and generals and brainy people, even the great artists. For they ease the agony of life a little, and make us even imagine the possibility of being happy.
Some of us may have never quite thought of William Hogarth that way, but Johnson does. Hogarth, he tells us, is “the only great master to make you laugh.” And to illustrate, he gives us the testimony of Charles Lamb, who “had a whole room devoted to Hogarth, the place covered in prints, from floor to ceiling, which he furnished with a ragged old carpet and a rackety easy chair; and there he would sit, and drink gin, and smoke his pipe, and laugh.”
Johnson describes the details in those prints that made Lamb laugh. One of them, An Election Entertainment, shows us “Hogarthian comedy at its most direct, brutal, and bizarre.… Most of the characters are drunk.… Drink is available, literally, in great tubs. Some of the faces are bestial in their vile distortions, and the noise, stench, belching, and cries of derision are almost palpable.… Here indeed, is the putative democracy in which the British, alone in the world, rejoiced, and Hogarth shows it in all its naked turpitude.”
In many cases, writes Johnson, his works “are not exactly funny.” Gin Lane, especially, comes to mind. But “the core of Hogarth’s work is his moral paintings, in which he sought to tell the truth about English society in the hope of reforming it.”
THE FIGURES JOHNSON assembles, as he points out, have little in common. But what most of them do seem to share is a sardonic view of life and a quick wit. In America, especially, this finds expression in the one-liner.
In his chapter on Benjamin Franklin, Johnson writes: “It can fairly be said that the one-liner, the quintessential form of American humor, was born in Poor Richard’s Almanac.” (“God heals, and the doctor takes the fees.” “Marry your son when you will, but your daughter when you can.” “One good husband is worth two good wives, for the scarcer things are, the more they are valued.”)
For Johnson, the one-liner runs in a straight line down from Franklin through Mark Twain to Dorothy Parker, the sole American woman represented here, celebrated for the wit that “sprang from her sardonic nature, and her delight in words.”
He provides a sampler. This from her address to the American Horticultural Society: “You can lead a horticulture, but you can’t make her think.” To Harold Ross: “Wit has truth in it. Wisecracking is simply mental calisthenics.” On the theater world: “Scratch an actor and find an actress.” On a work by Horace Walpole: “This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force.”
A man of faith in a godless age is hitting Americans where it hurts.
Mr. and Mrs. American Spectator Reader, let P.J. O’Rourke talk sense to your kids.
In Britain, defending your property can get you life.
It won’t take long for conservatives to scratch this presidential wannabe off their 2008 scorecard.
Was the President done in by the economy, or by the politics of the economy?