Home  »  Volume XVI: American EARLY NATIONAL LITERATURE: PART II LATER NATIONAL LITERATURE: PART I  »  § 1. Two Forms of American Humour: Classical and Native

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XVI. Early National Literature, Part II; Later National Literature, Part I.

XIX. Early Humorists

§ 1. Two Forms of American Humour: Classical and Native

ALTHOUGH American literature was, even at the beginning, not without its humour, much of the early writing which seems to us whimsical and amusing may have had no humorous appeal for contemporary readers. From an early period, however, we can discern symptoms of the two kinds of humour which were to be represented by American writers: the one following closely English models, especially Addison, Steele, Defoe, and Goldsmith in the eighteenth century, and Lamb, Hood, Jerrold, and Dickens in the nineteenth century; the other springing from American soil and the new conditions of American life, and assuming a character as new to the world as the country that produced it. Franklin, Irving, Holmes belong to what we may call the classical tradition; the present chapter is concerned with those aspects of American humour which are more essentially native, at least in form and tone.

The great period of American humorous writing has been the last three quarters of the nineteenth century. For all the preceding periods a very brief sketch must here suffice. In the seventeenth century the conditions of colonial life were not propitious to any sort of writing, humorous or other. To secure the means of a livelihood was a practical problem which left little time for the cultivation of the more genial side of life. In bleak surroundings where there was little physical comfort, and under the gloom of Puritanism, most writers were practical and serious. But there are a few exceptions. New England’s Annoyances (1630), a piece of anonymous doggerel, shows that even the Puritans could smile as they regarded some of their discomforts. Nathaniel Ward wrote The Simple Cobler of Aggawam in America (1647), which Moses Coit Tyler called “the most eccentric and amusing book that was produced in America during the colonial period,” although Ward insisted that it should be accepted as a trust-worthy account of the spiritual state of New England. John Josselyn, who wrote New England’s Rareties (1672), declared that most of what he wrote was true; he admits that some things which he recorded he had heard but not seen: for example, that “Indians commonly carry on their discussions in perfect hexameter verse, extempore,” and that “in New England there is a species of frog which chirps in the spring like swallows and croaks like toads in autumn, some of which when they sit upon their breech are a foot high, while up in the country they are as big as a child of a year old.”