Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Humor
Author:
Asselineau, Roger
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Is there such a thing as humor in Walt Whitman's work? Opinions differ. Constance Rourke included him in her inventory of American Humor (1931), but Jesse Bier in The Rise and Fall of American Humor (1968) made a case for his humorlessness and protested against Richard Chase's claim in Walt Whitman Reconsidered (1955) that on the whole "Song of Myself" is a comic (as well as a cosmic) poem whose comic effects often take the specific form of American humor. Whitman himself in 1889 declared to some of his Camden friends, "I pride myself on being a real humorist underneath everything else" (Traubel 49).

Humor is an elusive quality that defies definition. It mostly consists in discovering and expressing ludicrous or absurdly incongruous elements in ideas or situations, as, for example, in the case of a supposedly omniscient adult stumped by the very artless question of a child about one of the commonest things in the world, grass. It is on this that Leaves of Grass is built, since the major part of the book is an attempt indirectly to answer the child's question: "What is the grass?" This awkward situation implies the true humorist's sense of the relativity of all values. What is important? What is not? No one can tell. This doubt applies to all religions and to time and space, which are mere illusions. Humor is thus a cosmic game between the "real" world of appearances and the ideal world of absolute truths. This is how Havelock Ellis defined it (with reference to Heinrich Heine) in The New Spirit (1890). This leads in particular to cosmic visions in which dimensions have no value: "My ties and ballasts leave me, my elbows rest in sea-gaps, / I skirt sierras, my palms cover continents . . ." ("Song of Myself," section 33). The poet is then turned into a sort of mystical Paul Bunyan or Western backwoodsman. Lyric poetry and the tall tale of the Southwest become almost identical in form and tone. "What widens within you Walt Whitman? . . . Within me latitude widens, longitude lengthens" ("Salut au Monde!," section 1). In chapter 16 of Huckleberry Finn, the drunken raftsmen whom Huck overhears in the middle of the Mississippi use exactly the same words. At such times, lyric poetry and humor lead to—or come from—the same exuberance. Whitman then used humor as a means of self-protection. When he grew grandiloquent, he laughed at himself in order not to be laughed at. He both celebrated himself and laughed at himself, his "gab," and his "loitering" ("Song of Myself," section 52).

As Sören Kierkegaard noted, humor, like realism, frequently results in prolixity, for humor and realism are very closely connected. Henri Bergson in Le Rire (1900) defined humor in contradistinction to irony as consisting in minutely describing things as they are while pretending to believe that they are as they should be, i.e., in describing the real as if it were the ideal. Now describing things as they are is precisely the essence of realism. Such a fusion of humor and prolix realism often occurs in Leaves of Grass, in particular in the "Song of the Exposition" when Whitman treats the Muse with utter disrespect and installs her in the middle of the kitchenware at the Fortieth Annual Exhibition in New York City.

At other times, Whitman's humor combines with irony and bitter invective (the kind of invective he indulged in in "The Eighteenth Presidency!"). He gives full vent to his indignation and despair in "A Boston Ballad (1854)" and above all with bitterness in "Respondez!" He did not like this mood, however, and dropped "Respondez!" in 1881 and kept "A Boston Ballad (1854)" only at the insistence of his friend J.T. Trowbridge.

In general Whitman preferred to stand "Apart from the pulling and hauling . . . amused, complacent, compassionating, idle, unitary. . . . Both in and out of the game and watching and wondering at it" ("Song of Myself," section 4). This is an excellent description of the humorist's attitude to his subject involving self-complacency and narcissism, for, as Freud has pointed out, "humor has something which liberates, like wit and comedy, but also something sublime and lofty. . . . This sublime element of course comes from the triumph of narcissism, from the invulnerability of the self which victoriously asserts itself" (qtd. in Breton 19–20). It is therefore inevitable that there should be humor in "Song of Myself," a Myself full of contradictions, torn between centripetal and centrifugal force, tortured by the incongruous contrasts of the human condition—both mortal and immortal, both finite and infinite (like Vladimir Mayakovsky's "cloud in trousers"), both "one's-self" and man "en-masse"—tempted at times to reach Mark Twain's despairing conclusion at the end of The Mysterious Stranger: "life itself is only a vision, a dream" (138). But Whitman never derides life and man to the point of nihilism, to what Thomas Carlyle called "descendentalism." He was saved from this by his transcendentalism. In his poetry man is not something to be laughed at, but, on the contrary, a miracle to be wondered at. Though we are "little plentiful manikins skipping around in collars and tail'd coats," walking with "dimes on the eyes" ("Song of Myself," section 42), man, in Whitman's eyes, is not a ludicrous and despicable biped, but an unfathomable mystery, "not contain'd between [his] hat and boots" (section 7).

In some forms of humor, there is an element of sympathy rather than scorn for the subject. William Makepeace Thackeray even defined eighteenth-century humor as "wit and love" (270). There is indeed more love than scorn in the humor of Leaves of Grass, even if Whitman occasionally made fun of "neuters and geldings" ("Song of Myself," section 23) or "learn'd and polite persons" ("Respondez!").

He is thus, together with Dylan Thomas and Paul Claudel, the best proof that lyricism and humor can coexist despite their apparent incompatibility. They are impelled by the same exuberance and lead to the same exaggerations.

Bibliography

Asselineau, Roger. "Walt Whitman's Humor." American Transcendental Quarterly 22 (1974): 86–91.

Breton, André. Preface. Anthologie de l'humour noir. Paris: J.J. Pauvert, 1966. 11–22.

Clemens, Samuel L. The Mysterious Stranger and Other Stories. New York: Harper and Row, 1950.

Reynolds, David S. Beneath the American Renaissance: The Subversive Imagination in the Age of Emerson and Melville. New York: Knopf, 1988.

Tanner, James T.F. "Four Comic Themes in Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass." Studies in American Humor ns 5 (1986): 62–71.

Thackeray, W.M. The English Humourists, Charity and Humour, The Four Georges. Ed. M.R. Ridley. London: Dent, 1968.

Traubel, Horace. With Walt Whitman in Camden. Vol. 4. Ed. Sculley Bradley. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1953.

Wallace, Ronald. God Be With the Clown: Humor in American Poetry. Columbia: U of Missouri P, 1984.


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