Finding the hidden city

As the documentary series Philadelphia: The Great Experiment demonstrates, Philadelphia is a city unique in America in countless ways: a palimpsest of history since its formal founding by William Penn in the 17th century. Philadelphia: Finding the Hidden City, due from Temple University Press later this year, unpeels and restores the layers of this palimpsest. I wrote about a few of the more recent layers in May. It was written by Nathaniel Popkin (who also contributed to the documentary) and Peter Woodall, and photographed by Joseph E.B. Elliott. “The book marks out the elements of Philadelphia’s hiddenness through its vivid layers and living ruins,” goes its description here:

Quite unlike books of urban loss that lament or celebrate decline, Finding the Hidden City connects Philadelphia’s particularly accretive form to its idiosyncratic history, culture, and people. By laying out these connections the authors develop an alternative theory of American urbanism to contrast with the better-understood narratives of New York and Los Angeles. The journey here is as much visual as it is literary; Joseph Elliott’s striking photographs the reveal the elemental beauty of Philadelphia never before seen.

The book is now available for pre-order from Amazon here. And don’t forget to check out the documentary series, launched in 2011 and now nearing completion. Episode one — which covers the region’s pre-history, from the Lenni Lenape’s enjoyment of the region to settlers (and opportunists) from Holland, Sweden, and finally England — is below.

Friday roundup

A laff-filled week here at the blog. It started with a nod to a new biography of stand-up comedy pioneer Mort Sahl; I went on to muse upon a possible “golden age of American satire” before describing how I came to love it as a youngster in short pants; and yesterday looked back at what has become curiously the most-read post I ever published here. I assume that this last has just come in handy to be copied and pasted into numerous high-school term papers on American lit. But I shouldn’t look a gift horse etc.

Most appropriately, it was a pleasure to head to the HiFi Bar on Avenue A last night for a reading and celebration of The American Bystander, the lovely new literary humor magazine now into its fourth issue under the wise and indefatigable editorship of Michael Gerber. I was happily parked next to the bar with my lovely spouse. The back room was packed (violating not a few city ordinances, I’m guessing), but I’m delighted to report that literary humor and satire in these disturbed times is still healthy and happy, even if my liver isn’t. My appreciation to those who made it all happen, and I was glad to meet the few of them I had the chance to speak and laugh with.

I’ll close the week with a look at a few other comedy pioneers, Mike Nichols and Elaine May. Nichols and May: Take Two ran on PBS in 1996 as part of the American Masters series, and it’s as good an introduction to the pair as any you’ll find. It’s below. See you at Cafe Katja this afternoon, possibly, once the morning-after beer haze lifts.

 

Huck Finn and Hamlet

Originally published here in April 2016, and by far the most popular post I’ve ever written, with over 1,500 hits upon its first appearance. Go figure.

If, as Ron Powers suggests in his exemplary biography of the writer, Mark Twain is America’s Shakespeare (and this coming Saturday marks the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death), Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is his Hamlet. Comparisons are odious, of course, but that never stopped people like myself from stinking the place up a little.

At first glance, there couldn’t be two works of literature more different in genre, style, and voice. Hamlet is tragedy, Huck Finn comedy; Hamlet is set in 14th or 15th century Denmark, Huck Finn in the 19th century American South; Hamlet’s a play confined to the locality of Elsinore, Huck Finn a picaresque novel. And I could go on. But to lay out only their differences is to obscure the continuing appeal of both works to a 21st century international readership. The similarities are more telling.

For a comic novel, Huck Finn has a large body count, nearly as large as Hamlet’s. Indeed, violent death weaves through the novel like a black thread. Before one reaches page 150, Pap Finn, three men on the Walter Scott, and Buck Grangerford (as well as others of the Grangerford clan) have already met violent ends, via a knife in the back, drowning, and shooting; that’s more than three deaths against the two deaths of Ophelia (drowning) and Polonius (stabbing). And there’s more to come, not least a gunshot that leaves Tom Sawyer near death.

There’s more to come in Hamlet, too, which leads to another interesting similarity, and that’s the controversial and, to some, unsatisfying conclusions of both Huck Finn and Hamlet. There are two schools of thought in Twain scholarship about the last fifth of the novel. The first believes that it represents a falling off of Twain’s talent and the book’s appeal, a cowardly repudiation of what had gone before; the second argues that the book is far more subtly crafted and deliberately structured than that, and the conclusion confirms all the satire that has gone before. I am of the latter opinion myself, but even so, Hamlet’s conclusion also suggests that Shakespeare had written himself into a corner and resorted to the Suddenly, everyone was run over by a truck. The End school of narrative closure that Michael O’Donoghue identified many years ago.

Both Shakespeare and Twain were working in a period of great linguistic transformations. Elizabethan English was in considerable flux in 1600, and the plays written and performed from Marlowe to Ford demonstrate the white-hot development of both written and spoken English in the 16th and 17th centuries. Similarly, written and spoken American English, both vernacular and literary, were just beginning to mature in the 19th century. Twain’s appropriation of Southwestern American dialects as he defined them in the author’s note that precedes the book revolutionized American literature (although, it must be said, many Southwestern literary journalists, including Josh Billings and Petroleum V. Nasby as well as Twain himself, had already started integrating this vernacular into stories written for newspapers and magazines).

Finally there is the question of theme, and Hamlet and Huck Finn share one particular thematic concern, that of guilt and conscience. The title characters of both experience confusion, doubt, and moral quandaries as they make their way through the stories that bear their names. Hamlet is tragic in that his search leads to a death-wish; Huck Finn is comic in that his leads to a desire for freedom. But in both works, individual morality in conflict with cultural morality is a central, if not the central, theme.

I picked up Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as a reprieve from the dour imaginings of Shakespearean tragedy, but it was less a reprieve than I thought. Huck’s story is just as complex as Hamlet’s, and like Hamlet you cant get a firm grasp of Huck Finn on a single reading. Perhaps it is this that has led to its remarkable endurance, and not only in America. Like Hamlet, Huck Finn has been translated into dozens of languages and sold millions of copies around the world, and its popularity does not appear to be waning. (Except, that is, in the United States, where there’s far more Shakespeare than Twain sitting on the shelves of serious readers and critics, in the columns of literary and cultural journals, and in my Twitter and Facebook feeds though Huck Finn like Hamlet has generated entire shelves of critical response.)

Perhaps in part this is because, despite the book’s setting in the American South, there are children, temptation, corruption, violence, rivers, the wonders of friendship, and nostalgic longings for a seemingly more innocent past in every country (not to mention guilt and conscience). It may also be because it’s so funny, and remains so. If we’re going to be honest about it, there are more real laughs in Huckleberry Finn than in any three or four Shakespearean comedies combined. There are also a few in Twain’s own parody of the Hamlet soliloquy embedded in Huck Finn, and for a few laughs here, it’s posted below:

To be, or not to be; that is the bare bodkin
That makes calamity of so long life;
For who would fardels bear, till Birnam Wood do come to Dunsinane,
But that the fear of something after death Murders the innocent sleep,
Great nature’s second course,
And makes us rather sling the arrows of outrageous fortune
Than fly to others that we know not of.
There’s the respect must give us pause:
Wake Duncan with thy knocking! I would thou couldst;
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
The oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,
The law’s delay, and the quietus which his pangs might take.
In the dead waste and middle of the night, when churchyards yawn
In customary suits of solemn black,
But that the undiscovered country from whose bourne no traveler returns,
Breathes forth contagion on the world,
And thus the native hue of resolution, like the poor cat i’ the adage,
Is sicklied o’er with care.
And all the clouds that lowered o’er our housetops,
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action.
‘Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished.
But soft you, the fair Ophelia:
Ope not thy ponderous and marble jaws.
But get thee to a nunnery—go!

A portrait of the satirist as a child

First published here in April 2016.

At the Strand Book Store the other day, I came across Walt Kelly’s Ten Ever-Lovin’ Blue-Eyed Years with Pogo, a book that I cherished as a child. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Kelly’s comic strip was still running in the now-defunct Philadelphia Bulletin, and it was among my favorites, along with Peanuts. After school, I used to lie on my belly on the blue-carpeted floor of the living room, the last orange rays of the afternoon sun dappling the carpet through the window, and open the Bulletin to its last pages, where I studied these, and others, and laughed myself silly (though I imagine most of the time, given the subtle comedy of these strips, I merely smiled in recognition). Other books (mostly pictures, but words too) that I cherished at the time were Gelett Burgess‘s The Purple Cow and Crockett Johnson’s Barnaby, both of these published by Dover in fairly sturdy paperback editions. Paging through the Kelly book this weekend, I won’t say that my childhood came rushing back to me in some Proustian tsunami of memory, but quite a bit of it did.

For those who may not remember it, Pogo was an animal strip. Its lead character was Pogo Possum, and the stories meandered through Okeefanokee Swamp, populated by a frog named Churchy LaFemme, a porcupine named Porky, and an alligator named Albert, among the hundreds of characters major and minor who wandered in and out of the strip over its quarter-century lifetime. More to the point, Kelly often used the strip as political satire; in the late 1940s and early 1950s, the period covered by Ten Ever-Lovin’ Years, its most significant target was Joseph McCarthy, and in later decades Kelly would target the FBI, the Ku Klux Klan, and a gentleman from Whittier, CA, named Richard Nixon. In this odd way, I was introduced as a child to recent American history and contemporary politics and racism. And that’s not all; Kelly was, above all, a liberal humanist, and the strip just as often provided a melancholy reflection on a lost, prelapsarian paradise. “Pogo combined both sophisticated wit and slapstick physical comedy in a heady mix of allegory, Irish poetry, literary whimsy, puns and wordplay, lushly detailed artwork and broad burlesque humor,” says an anonymous Wikipedia editor. “[His] characters are a sardonic reflection of human nature — venal, greedy, confrontational, selfish and stupid — but portrayed good-naturedly and rendered harmless by their own bumbling ineptitude and overall innocence.”

This book was soon joined on my shelf by issues of Mad magazine, then enjoying something of a hey-day with the satiric treasure-box of the early 1970s to work through and before it became a brand under the ownership of Warner Communications; it was inexpensive, advertising-free, and owned and published by the anarchic William M. Gaines; and shortly thereafter by the early issues of the National Lampoon, both of these, too, featuring sophisticated artwork and a profound skepticism, even cynicism, towards the American popular and personal experience of the 1970s.

I read these as a boy between the ages of 7 and 13 or so (though the nonsense rhymes of Burgess may have been introduced to me earlier). It was an odd time to be growing up, and I was in an odd situation. My younger brother and I were often plopped down in front of the TV for dinner time as my parents argued in the kitchen, and we ingested Walter Cronkite’s coverage of the Vietnam War as we ingested our chicken or hot dogs or what-have-you. A few years later, I learned about American history and the United States system of government in social studies class, but during summer break in 1973 I learned how this worked in practice during the Watergate hearings. On a more personal level, I watched The Brady Bunch and All in the Family as my own parents’ marriage deteriorated, eventually ending in separation in 1970 and final divorce about a decade later.

When I first came upon satiric novels in my mid-teens, I must have recognized myself in some of their main characters. Both Gulliver and Huck Finn, the protagonists of the novels that bear their names, end up solitary, distinctly apart from the cultures that the novels satirized, Gulliver ensconced in a stable and Huck Finn ready to take to the river again. This voluntary alienation may be less a misanthropic nihilism than a strategic retreat. Although Gulliver doesn’t stand for Parliament or Huck Finn become an abolitionist, nonetheless they have been exposed to kindness and compassion as well as corruption. This retreat may, instead, be an acknowledgement that as individuals they are too easily corrupted by ideals (both real and false), practices, experience, and religious or social dogma that, upon a few moments of reflection, reveal themselves as catastrophically corrupt; Joseph Heller’s Something Happened reveals their ultimate psychic toll. As Pogo himself once famously said, We have met the enemy, and he is us.

Indeed. Since then I’ve become corrupt too, and unless you head for the stable or the river there’s really no way to avoid it.

I also remember that it wasn’t all satire. I enjoyed other kinds of humor and comedy, not least the gentler proddings of Robert Benchley, James Thurber, S.J. Perelman, and W.C. Fields (though all four had their darker moments as well), who are also finding their way back to my library after a long absence. All of this eventually led me to William Gaddis, Heller, Terry Southern, and the others. What I find curious is that I never tried to write satire in any focused way myself, given my pleasure and admiration for these writers and artists. Maybe I should have, but I imagine that what stopped me from doing so was the knowledge that Kelly, Twain, and Swift said it all far more effectively than I could. As Tom Lehrer once admonished, I feel that if a person can’t communicate, the very least he can do is shut up.

My daughters are now 6 and 7 and, most happily, one of the things their mother and I appear to have successfully handed down to them was this sense of humor, not least the first buds of skepticism and cynicism (this despite the fact that in high school the vice principal told me that I was too young to be so cynical, but I don’t think you can ever really be too young for that; it saves a great deal of time and sorrow). And what they like to do most, really, is laugh. One day not yet, but soon I’ll start slipping Pogo and Mad into their bookshelves, so that they can enjoy their first childhoods as I appear to be enjoying my second.

A golden age of American satire

Michael O’Donoghue

First published here on September 14, 2014.

It’s very easy to make people laugh. That’s not the point. It’s very difficult to make people think. Art is the cake. Comedy is the frosting. The trick is to get them to eat the cake.

Michael O’Donoghue (1942-1994)

Whatever happened to satire? I mean not parody or television shows like The Daily Show, which usually just confirms the prejudices of its audience, but literary satire, the kind that flourished in Rome with Horace and Juvenal, the kind that flourished in early 18th century England with Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope? The product of rage, a sense of the absurd, and skepticism about the hypocrisies of both public and private life, satire is often enough dismissed as hopelessly ephemeral (“Satire is what closes on Saturday night,” as George S. Kaufman memorably dismissed it). But the best satire, like that of the four writers I mention above, unfortunately proves to have considerable staying power. Sometimes righteous anger is justifiable, and only a few kinds of hypocrisy have a sell-by date. In the best satire, there’s always an element of cruelty — especially when that satire is not directed to politics (which admittedly is ephemeral), but to human experience and stupidity and gullibility itself.

The question occurs because I’ve been indulging in a little nostalgia lately, thinking about the kind of reading I did in my teens and as an early adult, and apart from plays it was almost all satire. Fortunately, having been born in 1962, I was growing up in what now appears to have been a golden age of American literary satire. I blame my father, really; among the books on his shelves as I was growing up were Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint (1969) and Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 (1961), masterpieces of satire and parody. But I didn’t have to look at home for this, either; the newsstand helped as well. As print publications, both Mad magazine and National Lampoon also qualify as literary satire, and I devoured Mad‘s parodies and satires in the early 1970s, graduating before too long to the more slash-and-burn, take-no-prisoners attacks of National Lampoon, then in its glory days (as the National Lampoon Tenth Anniversary Anthology 1970-1980, now sadly out-of-print, attests). From inspired silliness like the “Wide World of Meat” to the coruscating “The Vietnamese Baby Book” by Michael O’Donoghue (with Baby’s First Handprint [three fingers, thanks to Agent Orange], Baby’s First Wound, and Ask the Doctor [“Although my baby is over four years old, she continues to suck her stump. What can I do?”]), the Lampoon honed my own sense of the horrifically ridiculous to a razor edge. What made the Lampoon particularly effective was its careful art direction — the “Baby Book” was designed to precisely resemble the kinds of baby albums kept by American parents, at the same time undermining mawkish sentimentality and emphasizing that it’s what some of these same American parents were supporting as the Vietnam war dragged on. I’m a parent myself now, and it wasn’t hard to remember the “Baby Book” during the recent wars in the Middle East and elsewhere, which claimed their own shares of similar victims.

O’Donoghue had his own heroes. “If there was a Mt. Rushmore of modern American humor, Terry Southern would be the mountain they carve it on,” he once said, and Southern quickly became one of mine as well — not because of his Dr. Strangelove screenplay for which he is best known and which has grown somewhat dated and tiresome, but for his astonishing satiric novels, The Magic Christian and Blue Movie among the best of them. The millionaire Guy Grand spends the concise 148 pages of the first novel “making it hot for them,” gaily revealing the greed, corruption, and foolish self-congratulation of American life through a variety of outlandish frauds and tricks; Blue Movie may be the best Hollywood novel since Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust, centered on a Kubrick-like director who is trying to make a big-budget pornographic epic featuring Hollywood celebrities. Southern’s career was wildly uneven, but the novels represent the pinnacle of his achievement, and a high point of American satire of any age, that of Mark Twain included. (Though I should point out that Twain is the grand-daddy of them all, and all of the writers mentioned here owe him credit and reverence.)

Southern was the friend of both William Gaddis and Joseph Heller, to complete a triumvirate, perhaps, of American satire in the years 1955-1975; Gaddis I’ve written about before, but Heller, too, deserves to be remembered as one of the great satirists in the mode of Juvenal and Swift; it’s a shame his later novels, such as the powerful (perhaps more powerful than Catch-22) Something Happened and the more experimental Picture This and Closing Time, aren’t better known. Their books, too, began to pop up on my shelves beginning when I was about 15 or so, and these, along with shows like Monty Python’s Flying Circus that began to appear on American television at about the same time, is enough to corrupt any young mind.

There was plenty of comedy in film and live performance as well that graced the period — Lenny Bruce’s 1961 Carnegie Hall and Curran Theater concerts had been released on LPs (I went through a number of phonograph needles replaying these), and the caustic All in the Family and the somewhat less caustic (despite O’Donoghue’s presence as head writer) Saturday Night Live both had debuted before I was 16 — but the lasting impressions were certainly made by Southern, Gaddis, Heller, Mad, and the National Lampoon. The grace, style, wit, elegance, anger, resignation, and sheer quality of this literature are without parallel, and that they flourished simultaneously is little short of miraculous. It is a rich, accomplished, incomparably American body of great satire that remains valid — The Daily Show and The Onion can’t hold a candle to it. Before long it was over; with the exception of Mad, all of these are now defunct. I hope my daughters’ minds will be similarly corrupted, but I can’t see how.