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What's so funny about Americans anyway?

IN "INTOLERABLE CRUELTY," last year's screwball comedy by the Coen brothers, Billy Bob Thornton won't shut up. Thornton plays a Texas oil tycoon besotted with a femme fatale. George Clooney, playing an amoral Los Angeles divorce attorney, tries valiantly to silence him, or at least abbreviate him, but he can't. No sentence leaves Thornton's mouth without first meandering through a census of his character's hometown and at least a modest tour of his genealogy. The lawyer is sure that the tycoon is an idiot. And so he comes to the sort of end that usually comes to supercilious lawyers in the movies.

If only he had read the work of Constance Rourke! The author of "American Humor: A Study of the National Character," first published in 1931 and just brought back into print as a New York Review Books paperback, would never have made the mistake of underestimating a character like Thornton's. In fact, she would have prized him as a national treasure. In her day, critics like Van Wyck Brooks and Lewis Mumford were lamenting that America's artists lacked a "usable past." In "American Humor," Rourke answered that they had one, if they would only condescend to acknowledge it. It consisted of Americans themselves -- the funny ones, anyway.

The funniest American types, in Rourke's opinion, were the Yankee, the frontiersman, and the minstrel. To explain the rise of these three archetypal American characters, she quoted the philosopher Henri Bergson: "The comic comes into being just when society and the individual, freed from the worry of self-preservation, begin to regard themselves as works of art." Europe might have castles, cathedrals, and rock sculpture by druids, but the United States had garrulous hicks who were canny enough not to mind being mistaken for fools.

Rourke considered that her "comic trio" of archetypes "must for lack of a better word be called a folk-lore." The term wasn't an exact fit. Folklore has traditionally been defined as culture passed on by word of mouth; one imagines peasants gathered around a hearth. In contrast, most of those who purveyed the culture that interested Rourke were literate, many were urban, and not a few were out to make money. Her sources were pamphlets, joke anthologies, newspaper anecdotes, sporting weeklies, burlesques, unrevivable plays, and comic almanacs. Today we would probably call what she found popular culture. Nonetheless Rourke claimed for it virtues associated with folklore. She believed that it expressed something authentic and unique about the spirit of the United States and that it could be the soil out of which serious literary art might grow. It had already been that soil in the cases of Whitman and Melville, she believed, and had nourished even fastidious writers like Emerson and Hawthorne.

The first of Rourke's archetypes, the Yankee, had grown up under the watchful eye of his fellow Puritans and had learned to hide his playfulness beneath a social mask. His speech was quirky by design. He drawled out such lines as "If you catch me there agin, you'll catch a white weasel asleep, I tell you." He typically answered one question with another, in order to prolong conversation without giving anything away.

The second figure, the frontiersman, shared the Yankee's evasive speech patterns and added, when he told a story, a studied indifference to plausibility, which was at once a tribute to the outsize grandeur of the West and a send-up of it. If the frontiersman's crops were growing quickly, then to hear him tell it, the corn had set off an earthquake, the potatoes were grumbling to one another about the crowded living conditions, and "one of our squash vines chased a drove of hogs better'n half a mile, and . . . one little pig stubbed his toe and fell down and never was heard of afterwards."

Like the Yankee's poker face, the blackface makeup of the minstrel, Rourke's third character, disguised the insolence of the humor, enabling it to go farther than open satire could have. Rourke insisted that minstrelsy was more than a white theft of black culture -- or rather, she insisted that it really was a theft, not just a travesty, and thus the goods that had been stolen were authentic. Like the frontiersman, the minstrel exaggerated. His special contributions to the American character, in her opinion, were a taste for nonsense and a "tragic undertone."

Rourke saw all three as rebels: the Yankee against England, the frontiersman against East Coast civilization, and the minstrel against slaveholders. But the three weren't open about their rebellion and were willing to pretend to be whatever their social superiors took them for. It was this mask, and the way they played with it, that she most appreciated.

. . .

One of Rourke's favorite words of praise was "careless," which she bestowed on minstrel singers and Emily Dickinson alike. Unfortunately, she herself never managed to be as careless as her heroes or, for that matter, as rebellious.

Born in Cleveland in 1885, Rourke was raised in Michigan by her mother, a kindergarten teacher who had studied with John Dewey and whom a friend recalled as "formidable." As a child, she vowed that she would "marry, have a baby, and get a divorce at 35," but she didn't. After studying at Vassar and touring Europe on a fellowship, she taught briefly and then lived for the rest of her adult life with her mother, who survived her by four years. Perhaps she never broke free; perhaps she was economizing in order to survive as an independent scholar, which seems to have been as grim a life then as now. As it happens, money was a force she failed to inquire after in "American Humor."

But she ought to have. She wasn't, after all, studying pure products of a peasant folk. To be popular, in America, is to make a living -- every now and then, to make a killing -- and American humor has never been above it. Her archetypes were moneymakers in their day, but she never wondered what the customers were paying for. This failure made it difficult for her to link antebellum popular culture to the high literature that came later."

There is an essential vagueness in the last chapters of `American Humor,"' the critic Alfred Kazin complained in 1942. In fact, except for a few cases, the link between high and low was impossible to establish, no matter how hard she might have labored. In America serious literary artists have long defined themselves in opposition to the marketplace. Rourke was offering up her archetypes as if they weren't the market's creatures, but they were.

Literature could never accept such a gift without hedges and qualifications. Film, as it happens, couldn't say no. And it is in film and television, much more than in highbrow literary fiction, that her trio has survived, prospered, and multiplied. In Hollywood an army of joke men and dialect fixers continue her beloved traditions. In addition to black minstrelsy, there are now Asian and gay varieties. The frontiersman was launched long ago into outer space. And Katherine Hepburn perfected the movie Yankee, the attempted smothering of whose emotions was as crucial to her success as her fine enunciation. Lately, as movies have grown less verbal, the Yankee per se has become scarce, but the mask is still visible in the deadpan of Bill Murray and the I-know-you-know-I'm-having-you-on charm of Owen Wilson.

On the subject of American humor, Constance Rourke wasn't wrong about the inheritance. She simply mistook the inheritors.

Caleb Crain teaches at Columbia and is the author of "American Sympathy: Men, Friendship, and Literature in the New Nation."

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