August 31, 2014
In 1960, we were living at the height of the Cold War. Nuclear tests were being conducted around the planet, films like On the Beach and Dr. Strangelove were enormously popular, and nuclear war seemed inevitable. I was stationed in D.C. We all had instructions on alternate duty stations in the event of an attack. Oh, yes. Good times. I did not expect that I would ever need to worry about funding my retirement.
In the late fall, A Thurber Carnival opened in center city. It was a live show, not a movie. I'd read a couple of Thurber's stories. They were funny, and I jumped at the opportunity to break away to something lighter. Several of us went. It was hilarious, and within the next couple of days I picked up a copy of the collection on which the show was based. Whenever life got a bit rocky after that, whether it had to do Soviet threats or women who rolled their eyes, I could break the mood by diving into it. Thurber always provided good laughs and a sense of balance.
Since then, I've watched for books that I could dip into, and that could bring me out of a sour mood. Novels never worked. It took something short and to the point. So I picked up Mark Twain's Letters from the Earth. I'd always thought of him in terms of Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer. And sure, they're pretty good novels. But I discovered that if you wanted to get to the heart of Mark Twain, find him at his uproarious best, you needed his essays. Eventually, I picked up the Library of America collections.
Sam Clemens was also a talented speaker. If I had a time travel capability, one of the first things I'd do would be to show up at one of his performances. Since I couldn't do that, I went for next best, and bought a copy of Mark Twain Speaking, edited by Paul Fatour, and published by the University of Iowa Press. This is not a collection of the speeches as actually delivered. That's not possible. Though Clemens wrote his speeches in advance and committed them to memory, he was just too good to deliver them verbatim. But Fatour thinks his versions are close. He's probably right. The voice that comes out of the book sounds very familiar.
I don't know what led me to Leo Rosten, but I picked up, in that same turbulent 1960, a copy of The Return of Hyman Kaplan. These are stories, originally from The New Yorker, in which a guy attending a night school tries to master the English language. That description doesn't sound especially funny, but the stories are hilarious. As are the stories in an earlier collection, The Education of Hyman Kaplan, originally published in the 1930's.
Another book that I picked up in that same era was The Lives and Times of Archy and Mehitabel. Archy and his friends originally appeared in newspaper columns by Don Marquis during the second and third decades of the twentieth century. Archy is a cockroach who, in an earlier life, was a poet. Mehitabel, his friend, is an alley cat. Archy lives in a newspaper office and emerges at night to write stories about his life.
There is, for example, Freddie the Rat, who encounters a poisonous spider that threatens all the local animals. Freddie, to save the others, deliberately eats some poisoned cheese and allows the spider to bite him. Both die. But archy reports that they dropped Freddy off the fire escape with full military honors.
Mehitabel remarks at one point that if anything ever happened to her kittens, and she found out about it, she'd feel just terrible.
Archy, by the way, has to jump up and down on the typewriter keys to make them work, but he's just not heavy enough to manage the shift key, so everything is in lower case.
A college friend, Joe Chapman, recommended Damon Runyon to me. I picked up his collection, More Guys and Dolls. Anyone who hasn't met the clothes-horse Miss Beatrice Gee and Nicely-Nicely Jones and the rest of the Runyon crowd is missing a great deal.
I've also gotten a lot of laughs over the years from The Uncollected Wodehouse. And from Stephen Potter's Three-Upmanship, which is an instructional on getting the upper hand. "If you're not one up," explains Potter, "you're one down." An example on good tactics, when playing tennis, always arrange things so your opponent is facing the sun.
And for those of us who enjoy poetry but need an occasional bash, go with Ogden Nash. Well, he could have done it better, but you get the point.