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 worked on destroying their marriage 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.

Drew Friedman’s “All the Presidents” at the Strand

Drew Friedman‘s portraits and caricatures, enlivened by expert draftsmanship and a jaundiced eye toward American culture, have graced the pages of  magazines like Raw, Weirdo, SPY, National Lampoon, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal, among other more or less nefarious publications, for decades. His extraordinarily  textured technique reveals in each stroke of his pencil the various personal peccadilloes, ethical strengths, and moral weaknesses of his subjects. So perhaps it’s no surprise that Friedman has finally turned his pencil towards All the Presidents in an album to be published by Fantagraphics later this month. You can pre-order the book here.

I’ve been an enthusiast of both Drew and his father Bruce Jay Friedman (himself a piercing prose satirist whose anthology Black Humor was a treasured volume of my youth) since I was in short pants. He will be at the Strand Book Store on Thursday, October 3, for a conversation with the legendary comedian Robert Klein and a booksigning; you can sign up for this certain-to-be-delightful hour here. (Drew will also be at the Columbia University event celebrating a new history of Weirdo magazine — for which he drew the cover — later in October; more on that here.)

Remembering the Great Man

Redeemed by the love of a daughter: Mary Brian as Hope and W.C. Fields as her father Ambrose in “Man on the Flying Trapeze.”

In 2016, Metrograph, my local repertory theater, offered two of W.C. Fields’ best films on their big screen — It’s a Gift and Man on the Flying Trapeze. In part, this was a celebration of the 70th anniversary of Fields’ death. As part of my own little efforts to keep Fields in the public eye, I republish the below, which originally appeared here in December 2016.

For more about Fields, I recommend James Curtis’ biography, which is likely to be the standard for some time to come; William Everson’s study of his films is still worth a read; and Fields’ grandson Ronald Fields also put together W.C. Fields by Himself and W.C. Fields: A Life on Film. Universal Pictures released this five DVD set containing 18 of Fields’ feature films (including most of the films mentioned below) in 2015. Three of his silent features are available — two of which had been presumed lost for decades — from Kino Lorber.

Christmas Day 2016 marks the 70th anniversary of W.C. Fields’ death, and to mark the occasion Metrograph will present a screening of one of his best films, the 1935 Man on the Flying Trapeze, on Thursday, December 29, at 7.00pm (with special guests to be announced). Trapeze, according to Metrograph, is “a pure poem of domestic desperation,” as are two other films that Fields made around the same period, You’re Telling Me and It’s a Gift. The latter has come to be regarded as one of Fields’ greatest films, but all three together form an informal trilogy of satires about small-town American life that must be considered Fields’ greatest achievement.

It’s hard to imagine Albert Brooks, Fawlty Towers, or Curb Your Enthusiasm without Fields. He seems to have single-handedly established the Comedy of Discomfort: a combination of muttered complaints and insults, general misanthropy, and embarrassing physical situations turned often enough against the comedian himself as well as the world. In contrast to those others, though, there’s a vein of melancholy that also runs through Fields’ work. The domestic comedies present Fields’ characters as trapped in small-town mediocrity, with unhappy personal and professional lives; every attempt that Sam Bisbee, Ambrose Wolfinger, or Harold Bissonette makes to break free of this mediocrity, even (as in Trapeze) just to play hooky from work to attend the fights one afternoon or (as in It’s a Gift) to catch just a little extra sleep before the day begins, ends in comic chaos.

There’s also a touch of tragedy associated with each of these characters, and Fields was a much better actor than he’s been given credit for, as director George Cukor realized when he cast Fields as Micawber in the 1935 David Copperfield for MGM (Fields himself, who was very well-read, was something of a Charles Dickens scholar). In the aftermath of a professional disaster, You’re Telling Me‘s Bisbee seriously considers suicide; Trapeze‘s Wolfinger is on his second marriage, his first having ended with his wife’s early death, leaving him with a daughter to raise on his own; and, in the penultimate scene of It’s a Gift, Bissonette is left in a landscape of astonishing devastation, abandoned by his entire family except for his dog, bereft of comfort or even a future, his dreams destroyed. After the raucous comedy of the previous 60 minutes, the scene is still something of a shock. These being comedies, there’s always a deus ex machina (in the form of a princess, a real estate speculator, or a job offer) to save the character at the end, and more often then not Fields’ failed father figures are redeemed by the love of a daughter. But in real life, deus ex machinas are all too rare, a realization that occurs only a few minutes after the credits roll.

Fields came to the movies rather late in his career, appearing in his first major film, D.W. Griffith’s Sally of the Sawdust, in 1925 at the age of 45; it wasn’t until his mid-50s, with the three films I mentioned above, that he hit his cinematic stride. Before that he had risen from vaudeville’s backwaters as a comic juggler to some considerable fame on Broadway, reaching the top of his profession as a stage comedian in 1923’s Poppy, which ran for over a year at the Apollo Theatre and provided the basis for Griffith’s film. After that, the movies came calling, and Fields appeared in a variety of silent features before his sound debut in the short The Golf Specialist, an adaptation of a sketch Fields created for the stage Follies, which was released in 1930. The rest, as they say, is history.

Fields’ films can be grouped into three different categories: the middle-class domestic comedies; the period pieces (like Poppy, remade in 1936, often set in late 19th-century or turn-of-the-century) such as The Old Fashioned Way — the best of these, in which Fields plays the leader of a theatre troupe travelling through the small towns of middle America, performing the melodrama The Drunkard; and here and there a few absurdist essays, from 1932’s Million Dollar Legs and 1941’s Never Give a Sucker an Even Break. It was in the first two groups, though, that Fields really shone. While the absurdist films have their moments (and nearly all of Fields’ films have an absurdist moment or two), his comic studies of Americana may retain the most interest for us now.

After 1936, Fields began to suffer from a variety of physical ailments, some of which were exacerbated by his heavy drinking, and though he returned to the Paramount studio in 1938 he was never the same. While 1940’s The Bank Dick, made for Universal, is often cited as the quintessential Fields movie, I find his performance and the comedy there somewhat forced; compared to his appearance in Trapeze, Fields looks physically bloated and slow, and the deft grace of his movements in those earlier films has deteriorated.

I’m not sure whether the work of the great comedians like Fields, Chaplin, and Laurel and Hardy still appeals. While it may be thought that we live in a more cynical age, seeing Man on the Flying Trapeze may prove to you that, on the contrary, our age might not be cynical enough. You’ll have the chance to find out for yourself at Metrograph on December 29. (The film — along with most of Fields’ other work — is also available on this DVD set from Universal.)

Forward into the past

R. Crumb’s “A Short History of America,” a glicee print of which hangs on the wall of my apartment.

Later this week I’ll be resuming my guitar lessons, about which I first wrote here. I seem to be heading forward into the past as I get older, and not my own past either, but much further back. My enthusiasm for ragtime and Piedmont blues as well as other early American music appears to tie together with my newfound enthusiasm for Mark Twain and even that archaic writing instrument the pencil. I suppose I can be faulted for being out of touch with my times. “They say Wilder is out of touch with his times,” director Billy Wilder once said of himself. “Frankly, I regard it as a compliment. Who the hell wants to be in touch with these times?”

You can read more about Piedmont blues in Samuel Charters’ classic study of this music, The Country Blues. A few years back, PBS aired the below documentary about the style.

Mark Twain in 2019

The Orchard House in Concord, MA.

Last year, the good people at W.W. Norton released Anne Boyd Rioux’s Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy: The Story of Little Women and Why It Still Matters. Among the contents are a few essays about why I — as a 57-year-old middle class white man living on the Lower East Side in the early 21st century  and certainly not the target demographic for Louisa May Alcott’s novel — should spend a few hours in the company of the March sisters. (Well, not specifically me, but you get the idea.) As it happens, I visited the Orchard House, Alcott’s home, on a recent visit to Concord, MA, and I doubt that anybody of the dozens of visitors there really need any reason to read Little Women; they’d already done so, and enthusiastically enough to seek out the rooms where Alcott wrote the book.

A few days before I’d taken a tour of Mark Twain’s home in Hartford, CT, enthusiasm for Twain’s writing having drawn me there as well. And it led me to muse about Huckleberry Finn and why that novel, along with the rest of Twain’s work, still matters. Of course, those like myself who visited the Twain house needed little rationale for either their visit or their enthusiasm for the book. We were the converted and had already heard the evangel. But it did pose the question: Where was everybody else? What did Twain have to offer those who hadn’t read a word of him since high school, if at all? For such people do exist.

Admittedly, I’ve had qualms myself, and recently. To read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer in 2019 — with its dead cats, its adventures on Mississippi River islands, the role-playing of its characters as pirates or Robin Hood, and its complete and total lack of iPhones, television sets, and electricity — is to wonder what it would have to offer even today’s boys, to whom the book was originally addressed in part. Set in the antebellum South, it was somewhat anachronistic even when it was first published in 1876. These days it reads like science fiction. What could that world offer today’s ten- and eleven-year-olds, who prefer to spend their time on YouTube and Fortnite? (Not to mention that any Department of Child Services worthy of the name would have run the adults of the entire town of St. Petersburg into jail for parental neglect with nary a thought.) The appeal of the book for adults is clearer. All of them were children once, and the book recalls a general nostalgia for the independence, the imagination, and the innocence associated with childhood, before they were assimilated into mature, adult society.

All great writers have the ability to find the universal in the particular, and I think this gives us a clue as to what Mark Twain can offer us today. For even during his own time, one of Twain’s central concerns was the ability of men and women to govern themselves and others, the central issue of democracy itself. Though Twain was an American writer, ultimately that concern cuts to the universal qualities of human nature.

What our treatment of other races says about those qualities can only lead to bitter conclusions. It’s a fool’s game to determine what Mark Twain might say about this or that in our own time, but I’ll play the fool and imagine that Twain would have lauded the New York Times‘ recent “1619 Project,” which posits slavery as America’s original sin. “It aims to reframe the country’s history, understanding 1619 as our true founding, and placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of the story we tell ourselves about who we are,” the Times says in an introductory paragraph, and the controversy that the project has generated, especially on the right, indicates that the issue remains sensitive. Backdating American identity from 1776 to 1619 is, I believe, just the kind of subversive irreverence that Twain would have welcomed.

A central question about next year’s election will be what America itself means — the duties and obligations of a citizen in an imperfect republic. Here, too, history has demonstrated that the distance between our ideals and our behavior, as well as those of our politicians, is so gapingly wide as to be open to ridicule, and ridicule was Twain’s stock in trade. So far as Donald Trump goes, you needn’t ask what Twain would say about the man; he’s already said it in depicting such characters as the Duke and the Dauphin. Indeed, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, like Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels and Ambrose Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionary, is a witty, comic encyclopedia of human iniquity; anybody reading those three books will be ready for the upcoming election season; nothing will be surprising then. You can’t say that about Little Women. And as to whether technology can ameliorate some of these iniquities — well, Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court has already had the last word on that as well.

Do human beings have the ability to govern themselves to their best, most compassionate advantage? Do human beings have the ability to govern each other, for that matter? Optimists will say that it’s an open question, and the jury’s still out. But in 2019, Mark Twain’s closing argument, laid out in all his books, may be impossible to refute. There is comfort in misanthropy and pessimism after all; not the comfort of optimism, but the comfort of being right. “The man who is a pessimist before 48 knows too much; if he is an optimist after it, he knows too little,” said the man itself. And, as Mark Twain also proves, there can be undeniable, liberating joy in knowing it.