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Thursday, March 31, 2016

March 31, 2016: 19th Century Humor: Melville’s Chimney



[For this year’s installment of my annual April Fool’s Day series, I wanted to AmericanStudy some 19th century humorists. I’d love to hear your humorous responses and nominations in comments. I’m serious!]
On the deeply strange story that proves that ambiguity and allegory can be funny.
Before doing the research for this post, I had only read Herman Melville’s short story “I and My Chimney” (1855) once, some 20 years ago as a second-year college student. Yet Melville’s text had stuck with me across those decades, far more fully and deeply than have other texts I’ve read much more recently. It didn’t do so because of its quality, necessarily—like Pierre (1852), the novel with which Melville followed up his masterpiece Moby-Dick (1851), “Chimney” is a text I would describe with words like “interesting” and “provocative” rather than “successful” or “good.” And indeed, perhaps the most interesting thing about “Chimney” is how much it refuses to give in to audience expectations—the story of an unreliable (possibly unhinged) narrator obsessed with his titular home furnishing, and of an evolving war between the narrator and his wife over that chimney and what seems to be a hidden room inside it, seems destined to head into the terrifying territory of Poe’s “The Black Cat”; but no such thrills or chills ever appear, and the story ends as ambiguously as it began.
So if “I and My Chimney” isn’t a Gothic horror, what is it? In part, it seems to be an experiment in narration, an opportunity for Melville to create a first-person narrator far more consistently central to his story, yet at the same time far stranger and harder to sympathize with, than Moby-Dick’s Ishmael. That narrator, in turn, is involved in an extended experiment of his own: identifying himself with the oversized chimney that dominates his home and life (and marriage), and taking that personal analogy to depths of detail and philosophy that need to be read to be believed. So thorough is the analogy between man and chimney, in fact, that it seems fair to describe it as an allegory—only I admit to having very little idea, upon this second reading of the story (and I remember feeling the same back when I first read it), about what that allegory might mean or illustrate. There seems to be some theme of how we come to be linked to our homes or settings, but that point alone feels far too pedestrian to which to devote such an extended text.
So I don’t think “Chimney” is a great story, and I don’t really know what (if anything) it means. But I do know this: it’s pretty darn funny. Take the story’s opening paragraph: “I and my chimney, two grey-headed old smokers, reside in the country. We are, I may say, old settlers here; particularly my old chimney, which settles more and more every day.” Or these lines from a couple paragraphs in: “When in the rear room, set apart for that object, I stand to receive my guests (who by the way call more, I suspect, to see my chimney than me) I then stand, not so much before, as, strictly speaking, behind my chimney, which is, indeed, the true host. Not that I demur. In the presence of my betters, I hope I know my place.” Indeed, hardly a paragraph in “Chimney” goes by without producing at least one wry smile, and I laughed out loud a handful of times as well—no small feat for a 160 year old story written in the style and language of its time (and its notoriously challenging author). Whatever else Melville’s strikingly odd story is, it’s most definitely humorous—and as this week’s posts can help remind us, that’s a significant and meaningful thing to be.
Last humorist tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Other humorists you’d highlight?

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

March 30, 2016: 19th Century Humor: Mary E. Wilkins Freeman



[For this year’s installment of my annual April Fool’s Day series, I wanted to AmericanStudy some 19th century humorists. I’d love to hear your humorous responses and nominations in comments. I’m serious!]
On the writer and story that are funny, wise, and anything but narrow.
For a long time, late 19th century local color writing—and specifically women’s local color writing—and even more specifically New England women’s local color writing—was dismissed by many scholars as narrow and parochial, historically and socially representative but not particularly significant in broader, lasting, literary terms. Over the last few decades, many scholars have pushed back on those ideas, seeking to redefine the writing as “regionalist” rather than local color and to recover and re-read many of the individual authors and works within that tradition. Yet outside of academia, I don’t know that such efforts have led to nearly enough public consciousness of these writers—and if I were to make the case for why they should, I might well start with the very talented New England regionalist Mary E. Wilkins Freeman (1852-1930).
Freeman’s prolific career and prodigious talents were certainly recognized in her own era, as she was awarded the 1925 William Dean Howells Medal for distinction in fiction and in the following year became part of the first group of women elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters. While she began her career writing children’s stories, and published works in multiple genres, it was her local color short stories for adults, collected in volumes including A Humble Romance and Other Stories (1887), A New England Nun and Other Stories (1891), Silence and Other Stories (1898), and The Givers (1904), that most established her reputation and these culminating accomplishments. And yet in the half-century after her death those same stories came to many scholars to represent Freeman’s limited scope, interests, and talents, and thus to categorize her as precisely an example of a once hugely successful local color writer whose works now retain only historical or social interest.
I could push back on those ideas and make the case for Freeman in any number of ways (as have many of the scholars I mentioned in my first paragraph), but I don’t know that there’s a better way to do so than to ask you to read my favorite Freeman story, “The Revolt of Mother” (1890). “Revolt” has all the hallmarks of New England local color, from its setting on a New England farm to its characters’ dialect voices; like most local fiction more broadly, the story’s tone is mostly light and witty, with surprising character and plot twists leading to an unexpected conclusion. None of those are bad things nor disqualify the work from literary significance, of course—in fact, they make it engaging for readers, a goal of just about any author in any genre. But Freeman’s story is at the same time deeply wise in its portrayals of every member of its focal family, individually, as a community, and in their histories and evolving present and future identities. It reveals a great deal about its particular historical and social setting, about gender and marriage, about parenting and generational change, and about human nature at its most flawed and its most hopeful. In short, it does just about everything great literature and art can do, and does it all well.
Next humorist tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Other humorists you’d highlight?

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

March 29, 2016: 19th Century Humor: Fanny Fern



[For this year’s installment of my annual April Fool’s Day series, I wanted to AmericanStudy some 19th century humorists. I’d love to hear your humorous responses and nominations in comments. I’m serious!]
On the very serious side to one of our most talented humorists.

There are all sorts of reasons not to take Fanny Fern (1811-1872) seriously. First there’s that name—when Sara Willis (later and perhaps best known as Sara Willis Parton) decided in 1851 to publish her first newspaper columns and articles under a pen name (Willis was a widow with two young daughters to support, and while she had been writing on her own for many years she did not begin publishing until that year, at the age of 40), she opted for a name that parodied the alliterative pseudonym of one of the period’s most prominent authors and columnists, Grace Greenwood. Perhaps if Willis had known that she would within four years’ time be the highest-paid newspaper columnist in the country (as she became in 1855 when the New York Ledger paid her $100 a week), she would have chosen a name based more on her own identity and less on parodying that of another writer.

But even if we leave her name aside, much of Fern’s published work was, by its own admissions and in its explicit purposes and genres, relatively light. One of the catchphrases with which her columns were often described was “witty and irreverent,” and indeed the majority of them, including her first article “The Governess” (which appeared in the Boston newspaper Olive Branch), comprised humorous takes on various social and domestic situations; when those columns were collected and published in book form, it was usually under titles (such as Ginger-Snaps [1870] and Caper-Sauce [1872]) that seemed to emphasize their lightness. Many of her other writings were directed explicitly and solely at youthful audiences, such as all those pieces collected in Little Ferns for Fanny’s Little Friends (1853), The Play-Day Book  (1857), and A New Story Book for Children (1864). Neither humorous columns nor children’s books are without their value—not only as cultural and historical documents, but also as works of literature in their own right—but compared to some of Fern’s immediate predecessors and contemporaries as extremely prominent women writers, especially Lydia Maria Child and Margaret Fuller (but also for example Harriet Beecher Stowe, whose Uncle Tom’s Cabin was a magazine-published phenomenon in the same year that Fern began publishing her columns), these works seem significantly less serious in theme and perhaps less meaningful as a result.

Well, maybe some of them are—and when you’re writing columns as frequently as Fern, it’s difficult to imagine that many of them wouldn’t be somewhat light or forgettable—but any extended engagement with Fern’s writings reveals not only a hugely prodigious talent but an unquestionable ability to connect her humor and style to some of the most serious topics of her own or any other era. Her autobiographical novel Ruth Hall (1854) certainly illustrates both talent and that ability, and illuminates quite effectively the particular situations and settings out of which she was working throughout these years. But we don’t have to leave her columns to find ample evidence of this rare combination of funny and serious, engaging and deep. To cite only two: “Male Criticism on Ladies’ Books” (1857) responds with vigor and passion to a New York Times book reviewer’s overtly sexist perspective on women’s writing, and manages both to skewer that critic as thoroughly as one can possibly imagine and to engage thoughtfully (all this in only a couple paragraphs!) with some of the most complex and important questions of gender, art, and audience; while “Blackwell’s Island” (which begins on page 29 in that linked book, and was part of a series begun in 1858) narrates a journey to the women’s prison located on that New York island and engages at length with a number of critical sociological and psychological factors and effects in the identities and lives of the women Fern encounters there. The two pieces feel quite distinct in many ways, but that of course is part of my point—her columns and writerly roles required her to give her talents quite free reign over a wide variety of topics and focal points, and the common denominator, quite simply, was those talents themselves.

There are specific and very contemporary and salient reasons to read each of those texts, and many others of Fern’s besides (such as her “A Law More Nice Than Just,” written in response to the story of a woman who had been fined for wearing men’s clothing in public, which engages with issues of gender, performance, appearance and identity more clearly and meaningfully than any dozen 1980s literary theorists). But I think the best reason is precisely Fern’s talent itself. In an era when far too many columnists seem unable to string together two coherent thoughts, much less to take our breath away with a phrase—and I’m not trying to sound like an old-timer pining for a Golden Age of writing; I think this is more about an emphasis on achieving partisan political aims and pleasing built-in constituencies and less about a waning of quality in and of itself—Fanny still packs a serious punch. Next humorist tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Other humorists you’d highlight?