This week we welcomed the return of William Gaddis’s first two novels to print, carefully placed a portfolio by Christoph Mueller in a prominent position on our coffee table, and relaxed to a rag by Scott Joplin and Louis Chauvin. (The new display font on this and other pages is “Mom’s Typewriter,” a typeface developed by Mr. Mueller.)
Not a bad week overall for the first week of March: the first month of spring (even if its official beginning is a few weeks away) and my birthday month besides. So I’ll end the week as I began it by lifting a glass of Austrian wine to the month that comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb — although opinions differ, as you’ll see below. I’ll be toasting the month with my fellow barfly Gabe at Cafe Katja, where particular people congregate, later today. In the meantime, a favorite bit of comedy from forty-four years ago.
As an art of reproduction, comics always returns to its status as trash, which I think is key to its being seen clearly and read critically; it has none of the innate prestige of writing or painting and so has to earn its stature on its own terms, every time.
An interesting consideration, and one which intersects with two of my other preoccupations, ragtime music and Mark Twain. One of the reasons for comics’ status as “trash” is the original audience to which it was addressed: the broadest general audience, the audience for what we generally call popular culture. Comics, certainly, as entertainments for children published in disposable newspapers and comic books, were never considered lasting contributions to the expression of the human spirit by critics, teachers, or the elite. In 1901, the American Federation of Musicians dismissed ragtime as “‘unmusical rot.’ Members were encouraged to ‘make every effort to suppress and [to] discourage the playing and the publishing of such musical trash.'” The musical journal The Etude went further a year earlier, thundering that “the counters of the music stores are loaded with this virulent poison which in the form of a malarious epidemic, is finding its way into the homes and brains of the youth to such an extent as to arouse one’s suspicions of their sanity.” And in 1885, the year Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was published, the New York Heraldreported the deliberations of the Library Committee of the Concord, MA, Public Library:
Another committeeman perused the volume with great care and discovered that it was “couched in the language of a rough, ignorant dialect” and that “all through its pages there is a systematic use of bad grammar and an employment of inelegant expressions.” The third member voted the book “flippant” and “trash of the veriest sort.” They all united in the verdict that “it deals with a series of experiences that are certainly not elevating,” and voted that it could not be tolerated in the public library.
What made this American trash particularly trashy, in part, was its use of vernacular forms. All three — comics, Huckleberry Finn, and ragtime — were distinctly American creations, repudiating European expression and embracing American voices. But as Ware suggests, it also has to do with the mass reproduction of the work itself, lending it to easy disposal and dismissal; it is, by definition, ephemeral. The greatest artists in each of these forms — Joplin in music, from Mark Twain to Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor in language, and from George Herriman to Robert Crumb in visual art — shanghaied popular American slang culture to serve as a new vehicle for deeply personal individual expression, thereby becoming profoundly subversive of what for a better phrase we call “high art.” And its reputation as popular culture serves, as Ware also suggests, to keep these creators modest, if not necessarily honest.
So at Cafe Katja this afternoon, Gabe and I will raise our glasses to American trash. Long may it live.
It seems like we pessimists in the United States will be rewarded today or tomorrow with further confirmation of the correctness of their temperament, one of those occasions on which being right is no cause for celebration. Nonetheless, we’re ready for it, and there lies the value of cynicism. Let it not lead us to paralysis, however. As another great sage, Walt Kelly, put it in 1953, a time perhaps as politically and culturally dark as our own:
Traces of nobility, gentleness and courage persist in all people, do what we will to stamp out the trend. So, too, do those characteristics which are ugly. It is just unfortunate that in the clumsy hands of a cartoonist all traits become ridiculous, leading to a certain amount of self-conscious expostulation and the desire to join battle. There is no need to sally forth, for it remains true that those things which make us human are, curiously enough, always close at hand. Resolve then, that on this very ground, with small flags waving and tinny blasts on tiny trumpets, we shall meet the enemy, and not only may he be ours, he may be us. Forward!
Forward indeed. Instead of paralysis, this pessimism will lead me today to Cafe Katja, where I raise a toast to the philosophy that has served me well lo these many years and share a few mordant jokes with the crew there. (And, since one of my children is joining me for an hour or so of Friday non-alcoholic cheer, sharpen the philosophical legacy.) Prost!
From all indications, it looks like Americans and the human race generally will be even more idiotic in 2020 than they were in 2019. Stupidity and hatred will fill Facebook and Twitter feeds at the speed of light (literally so, with all that fiber optical cable), never mind its encounters in the flesh, and to me laughter is a healthier response to all this than tears and the gnashing of teeth, second only to stupidity and hatred as the sentiments that flow through the internet.
So any list of resolutions put together in the twilight of this year may be at the same time a strategic defense plan for next year. Any personal resolutions of mine are none of your business, but here at my internet lemonade stand, I plan to be selling more writing about the great Mark Twain; perhaps his only real satiric descendant, R. Crumb; the great American music of the past and my continuing efforts to learn the guitar to play some of it for myself; and whatever barricades I can shore up against the flood of imbecility we’re in for in 2020. I do continue to bear in mind, by the way, that I contribute my own stream of imbecility to that flood; I’m not that different from anybody else. As Twain once wrote, “Ah, well, I am a great and sublime fool. But then I am God’s fool, and all His work must be contemplated with respect.” That goes double, perhaps triple, for me.
So here’s to you, my four regular readers, with my wishes for a tolerable 2020; that may be as good as we’ll get. Let’s work together on our jokes; I’ll be working on a few, as usual, over my semi-official New Year’s cheer this Friday at Cafe Katja. See you on the other side.
Over the past couple of weeks I’ve written a few sentences about The Book of Weirdo, a new history of the magazine by Jon B. Cooke; flogged an upcoming concert from my lovely wife Marilyn Nonken and an upcoming appearance at the Jalopy Tavern by the East River String Band; and enjoyed the first few pages of Gilbert Seldes’ The Stammering Century. I should probably also note that on Monday night Cooke’s history will be honored at a Columbia University discussion and reception. I’ll be there — the event is sold out, but I understand it’s being recorded and will be made available at a later date.
I’ve been listening to a few old 78rpm records these days and came across the below recordings of “Give Yourself a Pat on the Back,” performed by Jack Payne and his BBC Dance Orchestra on an old Columbia disk in 1929 or 1930. When I was ten years old I came across a stash of old records at my grandmother’s house — this was one of them, and swear to God I haven’t been able to get it out of my head since I first heard it. I imagine this is a fairly obscure recording, but oddly enough, I came across a second version as well — a cover version done up as a novelty comedy song. To be honest, I don’t know whether the non-comedy or the comedy version was the original. The first version below is the version I remember from my youth; you can hear the Spike-Jonesy version in the player below that one. I can’t vouch for the quality of either the song or the performance, but it sure has endured, at least in my memory. I’ll be toasting to the song this afternoon during my Friday sojourn to Cafe Katja. Give yourself a pat on the back, and have a good day today.