Before the early 18th century the term “humor” referred to any one of four chief liquids in the human body, the proportion of which was thought to determine an individual’s character. Only in the 18th century did the term come to refer to a type of writing meant to evoke laughter. The older meaning of the word persisted in the sense that this type of writing focused on human characteristics, personalities, foibles, and eccentricities, as opposed to witty writing, which relied on mental quickness, keen intellectual perceptions, and wordplay.
As a genre the essay has tended more toward the humorous than the witty. Even before there was a such a term, the humorous essay existed. For instance, in “Des cannibales” (1580; “Of Cannibals”), Montaigne shows cannibals from the New World to be more “civilized” than Europeans. The cannibals are shocked by the cruelty of the Portuguese invaders and amazed that young Charles IX’s hefty Swiss guardsmen “should submit to obey a child.” Tongue in cheek, Montaigne admits grudging respect for these noble savages, but then concludes, “All of this is not too bad—but what’s the use? They don’t wear breeches.”
Within the essay tradition Montaigne’s anecdotal humor was offset from the start by Bacon’s more serious, instructive, and epigrammatic approach. If humor is broader, slower, and more open, while wit is more incisive, rapid, and neat, then the tradition of the humorous essay can be traced to Montaigne and the witty essay to Bacon. During the 17th century, La Rochefoucauld explored a sort of middle ground. His maxims were aphoristic and instructive in the manner of Bacon, but retained Montaigne’s skepticism and ironic self-deprecation.
The 17th century was also marked by the rise of the character sketch as a kind of humorous essay. This development grew out of the 1592 publication of a Latin translation of Theophrastus (c. 371–c. 287 BCE), whose Characters offered a model for exploring the eccentricities of the individual. These essays sometimes pretended to be a letter from a neighboring place bringing news about those who lived there. Bishop Joseph Hall, Sir Thomas Overbury, Thomas Dekker, Thomas Harman, John Earle, Thomas Fuller, and Laura Spencer Portor all published collections in which they characterized such types as the bumpkin, the glutton, the busybody, and the hypocritical nonconformist. Ben Jonson’s epigrams also presented types as social or moral models.
The character was also popular in France where La Bruyère created more individualized subjects in his essays.
During the 18th century, the character evolved into the periodical essay, which was brief, gossipy, and topical. Richard Steele developed this type of humorous essay in his Tatler (1709–11) and joined with Joseph Addison to refine it in the Spectator (1711–12, 1714). Samuel Johnson’s Rambler (1750–52) and Idler (1758–60) followed, as did variations by Jonathan Swift, Alexander Pope, the Earl of Chesterfield (Philip Dormer Stanhope), Horace Walpole, Oliver Goldsmith, and George Colman and Bonnell Thornton. Henry Fielding folded similar kinds of essays into his novel Tom Jones (1749). The periodical essayists were also popular in America, spawning imitators such as John Trumbull, Joseph Dennie, Charles Brockden Brown, and William Wirt.
The humor of the periodical essayists appealed to a new, urban, middle-class readership. By satirizing fashions, marriage, coffeehouse conversation, and pastimes such as duelling and card-playing, the periodical essayists sought to reform the manners, morals, and tastes of their readers. The border between fiction and nonfiction was permeable for the periodical essayists, who regularly invented characters, “correspondents,” and clubs in their essays. Addison and Steele targeted women’s fashions and their alleged flightiness and duplicity, charges that Maria Edgeworth answered in her sly Letters for Literary Ladies (1795).
The turn into the 19th century saw the emergence of the Romantic movement with its emphasis on individualism, sensibility, and radical politics. These concerns, along with the more leisurely deadlines and extra space provided in new literary magazines such as Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine and the London Magazine, led to the development of a more sentimental, autobiographical, and urbane kind of humorous essay. Charles Lamb’s persona in his Elia essays (1823, 1828) was apparently not unlike the genial self that he showed his friends and that helped him through his melancholy life. Lamb’s light, whimsical, intimate, somewhat antique style was aspired to by English essayists for a century after his death. William Hazlitt, the other great master of the period, had a bit more edge, writing humorously about such topics as “On the Pleasure of Hating” (1826) and “On the Disadvantages of Intellectual Superiority” (1821).
In America, Washington Irving added length and sentiment to the Addisonian essay in his Sketch Book (1819–20). Sara Payson Willis Parton, who published under the name Fanny Fern, was a professional journalist for more than 20 years. Best known for her sentimental Fern Leaves from Fanny’s Portfolio (1853), she also had a wicked wit with which she punctured masculine pomposity. But it was Irving’s lighter brand of irony and nostalgic musing that most influenced genteel American essayists such as Charles Dudley Warner and Donald Grant Mitchell, who dominated the second half of the 19th century.
Agnes Repplier and Katherine Fuller Gerould kept the genteel or “light” essay alive well into the 1930s with their apt allusions and dry wits.
In England, the essay grew increasingly formal, decorous, and critical until the very end of the 19th century. Oscar Wilde, the sharpest fin-de-siécle wit, only occasionally wrote essays, but Max Beerbohm’s perfect parodies, G.K.Chesterton’s puns and conversational style, Robert Louis Stevenson’s whimsical imagination, and E.V.Lucas’ single-handed resurrection of Lambian geniality brought humor back to the English essay. The problem was that these writers were sometimes so discreet in their choice of subject matter and so light in their treatment of it that their essays became almost parodies of the form. The titles of Hilaire Belloc’s collections demonstrate an awareness of this problem: On Nothing, On Everything, On Anything, On Something (1908–11), and, finally, just On (1923).
It was during this period that the humorous essay moved from the literary quarterlies back to the newspapers and magazines. Oswald Barron, writing as “The Londoner” in the Evening News, produced a light essay—at once sensible, readable, and witty—every day for two decades. Robert Lynd accomplished a similar feat, writing weekly about everything from football to eggs as “Y. Y.” of the New Statesman until his death in 1949.
It was not until the 20th century that the United States developed its own type of the humorous essay. The rustics and cracker-barrel philosophers of 19th-century America, from Sut Lovingood to Artemus Ward to Mr. Dooley, were fictional characters whose humor was mainly dialect humor. Even reallife figures such as Davy Crockett, Mike Fink, and Jim Bridger were turned into tall tales. Mark Twain used the essay form to pillory James Fenimore Cooper, but was himself primarily a fiction writer, as the title of perhaps his best-known essay, “How to Tell a Story” (1895), indicates.
The first few decades of the 20th century in the United States have been called by some “the age of Mencken.” From the Baltimore Evening Sun H.L.Mencken’s iconoclastic, often cynical, always American voice sounded daily. Mencken skewered puritanism, sentimentality, boosterism, pedantry, and other traits of the “booboisie.”
The explosion in the number of newspapers and a desire on the part of readers to be “in the know” also led to the rise of a group who called themselves “colyumnists.” Several of these urban humorists frequented the famous Round Table at the Algonquin Hotel in New York. Competition forced each to pursue his own angle. Franklin Pierce Adams collected oneliners and humorous verse from readers, and wrote mock Pepysian diaries about New York goings-on; R.C.Holliday, Alexander Woollcott, and Christopher Morley displayed bookish and acerbic wits; and Don Marquis used a fictional cockroach to poke fun at the times. But it was Robert Benchley and Heywood Broun who most successfully re-created themselves as characters in their columns. Their version of the “little man”—a kind of bewildered, middle-class American guy doing his best in a fastpaced modern world—was developed and refined by James Thurber and E.B.White in the New Yorker. The beset “little man” has survived as Garrison Keillor’s sentimental Midwesterner and Dave Barry’s suburban father.
The “little man” has bumbled through the 20th century, but his female counterpart has not. The decline of gentility meant that women essayists no longer needed to worry quite so much about being decorous. As Victorian proprieties eroded, female essayists could be more unabashed. Virginia Woolf and Dorothy Parker wrote wickedly funny essays— though this activity did not allow them to escape all the restrictions on their gender in their societies. Parker, in particular, should be regarded as a 20th-century woman, not a 19th-century lady. Woolf was cleverer than most men, Parker was quicker, and both were funnier. Among contemporary female practitioners of the humorous essay, some, such as Nora Ephron, Molly Ivins, and Fran Lebowitz, find their subjects in the (still) masculine public sphere, while others, such as Jean Kerr, Shirley Jackson, Peg Bracken, and Erma Bombeck, focus on domestic life; but all feel free to be both clever and incisive.
In the United States, black and Jewish writers of humorous essays have, like women, long recognized that in a society of inequalities and prejudices, people laugh at different things. Thus, their essays tend to revolve around issues of sameness and difference. As Langston Hughes put it in the preface to his Book of Negro Humor (1966), “Humor is laughing at what you haven’t got when you ought to have it. Of course, you laugh by proxy. You’re really laughing at the other guy’s lacks, not your own.” He then adds that the joke may be “on you but hits the other fellow first—before it boomerangs.” This doubleness in ethnic humor has meant that the African American or Jewish humorous essay often relies on dialect—be it Yiddish or the “signifyin’” codes of black speech. The best of these essays are not strictly in-jokes, however, and can be appreciated by many outside the particular ethnic group. Such doubleness has also meant that black and Jewish essayists often turn their humor back on the pretensions of their own group. Thus there is no real self-hatred in, for instance, Hughes’ uncompromising look at the black middle class in “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain” (1926), Zora Neale Hurston’s “How It Feels to Be Colored Me” (1928) (which opens with the line “I am colored but I offer nothing in the way of extenuating circumstances except the fact that I am the only Negro in the United States whose grandfather on the mother’s side was not an Indian chief”), or even Woody Allen’s exposure of his own neuroses and insecurities.
On the basis of a long view of the history of the humorous essay, one could, if reducing the form to its essentials, say that while it can be aphoristic, quick, and witty, it more often harks back to the 17th-century character’s slower, fuller descriptions of eccentricities and foibles—sometimes another’s, sometimes the essayist’s, but usually both.
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A Subtreasury of American Hutnor, edited by E.B.White and Katharine S.White, New York: Coward McCann, 1941
Blair, Walter, and Hamlin Hill, America’s Humor: From Poor Richard to Doonesbury, New York: Oxford University Press, 1978
Bruère, Martha Bensley, and Mary Ritter Beard, Laughing Their Way: Women’s Humor in America, New York: Macmillan, 1934
Clark, William Bradford, and W.Craig Turner, editors, Critical Essays on American Humor, Boston: Hall, 1984
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Morris, Linda A., Women Vernacular Humorists in NineteenthCentury America: Ann Stephens, Francis Whitcher, and Marietta Holley, New York: Garland, 1988
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Trachtenberg, Stanley, editor, Dictionary of Literary Biography: American Humorists, 1800–1950, Detroit: Gale Research, 2 vols., 1982
Walker, Nancy A., A Very Serious Thing: Women’s Humor and American Culture, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988
Ward, A.C., Twentieth-Century Literature: 1901–1950, London: Methuen, 1956
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Yates, Norris Wilson, The American Humorist: Conscience of the Twentieth Century, Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1964
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