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  • High-Handed Outrage at Utica

    Posted by Shannon Love on July 15th, 2011 (All posts by )

    Abraham Lincoln like to start his Cabinet meetings with a little humor to relax everyone. On September 22, 1862 he began the Cabinet meeting by reading the following little nugget by the then popular humorist Artemus Ward (spelling in the original.)

    High-Handed Outrage at Utica

    In the Faul of 1856, I showed my show in Uticky, a trooly grate sitty in the State of New York.
     
    The people gave me a cordyal recepshun. The press was loud in her prases.
     
    1 day as I was givin a descripshun of my Beests and Snaiks in my usual flowry stile what was my skorn disgust to see a big burly feller walk up to the cage containin my wax figgers of the Lord’s Last Supper, and cease Judas Iscarrot by the feet and drag him out on the ground. He then commenced fur to pound him as hard as he cood.
     
    “What under the son are you abowt?” cried I.
     
    Sez he, “What did you bring this pussylanermus cuss here fur?” and he hit the wax figger another tremenjis blow on the hed.
     
    Sez I, “You egrejus ass, that air’s a wax figger–a representashun of the false ‘Postle.”
     
    Sez he, “That’s all very well fur you to say, but I tell you, old man, that Judas Iscarrot can’t show hisself in Utiky with impunerty by a darn site!” with which observashun he kaved in Judassis hed. The young man belonged to 1 of the first famerlies in Utiky. I sood him, and the Joory brawt in a verdick of Arson in the 3d degree.

    I have no idea why this story is supposed to be so funny. That in turn tells me that I am missing an important understanding of the culture of the era and the mind of Abraham Lincoln and others of that generation.

    Supposedly, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton didn’t get the joke either and grumbled about the waste of time. To placate Stanton, Lincoln hurried along to the real work of the meeting: announcing his intention to finally release the Emancipation Proclamation. Stanton didn’t think that was funny either.

    I think that the trivial and/or popular works of an era tell us more about the tenor of the times than do the tiny minority of works in any era that time eventually elevates to canon.

     

    Moby Dick flopped when published in 1851. It only became regarded as a great American novel in the 1920s. That suggests the novel didn’t really resonate with the era in which it was written. If we want to understand the mindset of 1851 America, we should probably look at the House of Seven Gables or Uncle Tom’s Cabin, both of which sold well in their day but which are largely unread today.

    Popular humor in particular reveals a great deal about a milieu because understanding a joke is a cognitively intensive process that requires a lot of contextual knowledge.

    All humor is based on a surprise deviation from the normally expected flow of events. It is the surprise that provokes our mirth. That is why a joke is never as funny the second time you here it, there isn’t much surprise left.

    In order for an individual to experience a humorous surprise, he must first understand the expected normal flow of events in the scenario the humorist presents. Without an intuitive understanding of what should happen, what actually happens doesn’t seem funny but merely puzzling. That is why jokes from one culture often fall flat in another.

    I don’t find the Outrage at Utica humorous because I have no clue about the expected normal progression of events in the scenario presented. I can only guess that: (1) The use of phonetic spelling seems to indicate that the reader is supposed to view the narrator as a merely semi-literate bumpkin and laughing at the uneducated is always funny. (2) The idea that someone would treat a wax figure like the real person is mildly amusing. (3) The charge of arson for destroying a wax figure is silly. That’s all I can glean from the scenario but by all accounts Lincoln thought this story one of funniest things he’d ever heard and he read it aloud often.

    Artemus Ward isn’t alone in being opaque to modern readers. A great deal of 19th Century American humor is not only unfunny to modern ears but often simply unintelligible. It’s not that we can see what attempted humor fell flat, it’s that we don’t even understand what the humorist was shooting for in the first place. I have a book of “cowboy humor” full of supposedly uproarious stories collected or written in the period of 1830-1890 and I understand what the author intended as humor in only about one-tenth of the stories. The rest of the stories are as explicable as a Gene Autry movie written by Bertolt Brecht.

    Lincoln regarded the Emancipation Proclamation as a pivotal document in American and world history. He had high hopes for its practical effects upon the war and he believed the war itself absolutely necessary to the success of the American experiment. He viewed the American experiment in turn as vital to the future of humanity. He really wanted to sell releasing the proclamation at that time to the Cabinet and Outrage at Utica was the bit of humor he chose to put his Cabinet members in a receptive state of mind.

    He clearly thought that was some story and the fact that we don’t get it means we don’t really understand our forebearers’ intuitive view of the world. We came from them, their beliefs and actions shaped us at our core but we are not them. I don’t think we will really ever understand the world view of the Civil War generation or any generation a century removed from us. We won’t really understand why southerners thought slavery justifiable or why ordinary men marched in straight ranks directly into withering rifle and cannon fire that they knew would kill most of them. If we really did understand, we would laugh at the same things they laughed at.

    But we don’t laugh, so we don’t understand.

    It’s true: The past is another country. They think different things are funny there.

     

    14 Responses to “High-Handed Outrage at Utica”

    1. Michael Kennedy Says:

      Watching a replay of the British Open as I type this. Wish I was there.

      The dialect humor of the times is hard for us to appreciate, partly because accents have pretty much gone away with radio and TV. Secondly, they are not PC.

      Much of the humor was rather subtle. Read “The Virginian” which has a lot of the elaborate jokes of the time, which Owen Wister must have heard. One quote that has come down to us is “Smile when you say that stranger.” It is a joke to us but not to them. An armed society is a polite society. Humor was prickly. Lincoln was asked if his defense secretary Cameron would steal. He answered, “I don’t believe he would steal a red hot stove.”

      I have probably read 50 books on Lincoln over the years. Part of the understory of his humor was that he could pick up a large axe and hold it outstretched at arms length, something that took enormous strength. If you don’t understand that Lincoln was a gentle giant, you don’t understand him. The newspaper reporters who made fun of him, didn’t do it in his presence. He was a huge man and enormously strong. The sort to bend iron pokers with his hands.

      I think “The Virginian” is as good a place to see the humor of the time, and the undercurrent, as any.

    2. Paul Milenkovic Says:

      But we do get the joke. It is un-PC to laugh, but it is the exact same joke told 150 years later by Fred Armisen channeling the hapless Governor David Paterson responding to perceived ungratitude to his selection of Kirsten Gillibrand to replace Hillary Clinton. The David Paterson character on SNL calls Upstate voters “Deliverance . . . on snow tires!”

    3. Shannon Love Says:

      Michael Kennedy,

      Part of the understory of his humor was that he could pick up a large axe and hold it outstretched at arms length, something that took enormous strength. If you don’t understand that Lincoln was a gentle giant, you don’t understand him.

      I think your right that Lincoln’s physical presence defined a lot about him. I’ve know a lot of very big powerful men who’ve developed a lot little tricks to diminish themselves a bit to prevent their statue from overawing others.

      One friend of mine was 6’8″(203cm) and broad in the shoulders to boot. He slumped down every time he sat so that he could bring himself down to the average eye level. He perfected a strange art of being able to lean against a wall and slide down a good 6 inches so that he could participate in hallway conversations. Whenever he had to go into someone’s cube or office he always pulled up a chair instead of standing. He crossed his arms a lot and avoid wide gesticulations. However, when he needed to, he would pull himself full erect, brace his legs and suddenly transform from an amiable goof to this looming stonewall.

      Lincoln’s hunched posture and somewhat ungainly “spidery” motion were probably attempts to diminish his physical presence and put people at ease. His use of humorous stories no doubt helped people to focus on his personality instead of thinking that he could reach over and pop their head like a grape.

    4. Shannon Love Says:

      Paul Milenkovic,

      But we do get the joke….The David Paterson character on SNL calls Upstate voters “Deliverance . . . on snow tires!”

      I’m not sure that is the case. Utica in 1862 wouldn’t have been the backwoods but a high-tech commercial city (it was located on the Erie canal.) Moreover, would Lincoln, a man from the backwoods himself, have found laughing at others based on the unsophistication seriously funny? Upstate New York of that era was more akin to California in the 1980s that Deliverance on snow tires. The latter typification is a comparatively recent development caused by the implosion of the manufacturing sector there.

      I’m thinking that the “arson in the 3rd degree” was supposed to be the punchline but I don’t know why.

    5. sol Says:

      Please note that Licoln did not read this “liitle nugget” to his cabinet. The humor is lost if its read aloud. Nor did he hand out xerox copies, offset lithographs, or photographs. Although he could have handed out hand written copies, the copies would have been suspect. The document was probably passed from hand to hand around the table.

      In those days no one knew which person in the last supper picture was judas. Most thought it was the guy holding the money bag.

      In those days travelling medicine shows carted around life sizes wax statues of wild beasts and snakes – all in cages. I suppose the idea of a lifesize wax Jesus and the 12 apostles sitting at a table having dinner in an iron cage next to beasts and snakes in their cages seemed funny to Lincoln. It makes me laugh. Hard to know which of the displays was the most dangerous.

      So a guy comes along and grabs the feet of the apostle holding the money bag and jerks him off his seat. But that could be Paul the tax collector or it could be Peter who normally paid the bills. Blasphemy!

      In any case he moved the wax figure at least 1 inch which meets Blackstone’s well known definition of larceny.

      “Arson in the 3d degree” is really “larceny in the 3d degree” – a final clever joke. Most of the jokes are based on using a word that sounds like the rite won.

      ROTFLMAO

    6. cjm Says:

      i think you are right! thanks for that break down, because it was bugging me not knowing why the punch line was meant to be funny.

    7. zenpundit Says:

      ” “Smile when you say that stranger.” It is a joke to us but not to them. An armed society is a polite society.”

      That and the post by Shannon, reminds me of a story.

      A generation earlier than Lincoln, Andrew Jackson was president. Jackson had a feocious temper and a prickly sense of honor and fought a number of duels. At one point before he became president, he fell out with an equally dangerous “western” politician, Senator Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri over a dispute involving one of Benton’s relatives and a third party. The two men fought and Benton shot and badly wounded Jackson while Jackson only grazed Benton. It was a rare instance of Andrew Jackson losing a duel and a man surviving one with Benton, who liked to say: “I never quarrel, sir, but I do fight, sir, and when I fight, sir, a funeral follows, sir.”

      Honor satisfied, the two men later resumed their previous friendship and became strong political allies. Benton kept dueling, and one day when Jackson was president, a DC worthy burst in and complained to Jackson that Benton had challenged the man to a duel and asked Jackson what he was going to do about it?

      “I will suggest that you apologize” was Jackson’s reply.

    8. Michael Kennedy Says:

      Some of these traditions are hard for those of our time to understand. Dueling was common in a society where there was little mechanism for enforcing the law. Capital punishment was common because there was little structure to ensure incarceration of a criminal. Disease was a random factor that could strike anyone any time. Queen Victoria lost Albert to typhoid, which was water born. You would think the queen would have a source of clean water.

      World War I was the first war in which there were more deaths from enemy action than from disease.

    9. darleen click Says:

      World War I was the first war in which there were more deaths from enemy action than from disease.

      My 2x great grandfather was in the Civil War, Union side, joining the 26th Regiment Infantry in 1861-1865, including being at the Battle of Shiloh. During its service, the 26th Regiment lost two officers and 27 enlisted men killed and mortally wounded and two officers and 142 enlisted men by disease.

    10. Mitch Says:

      My guess is that the verdict of “Arson in the 3rd degree,” nonsensical in the circumstances, was brought in against the narrator, an outsider, by a hometown jury for his having had the temerity to sue one of the local grandees.

    11. TM Lutas Says:

      Since it is a religious set up, I would not be surprised that the unspoken joke is that the guilty was condemned for setting a figurative fire. He was inappropriately setting people “on fire for Jesus”. It seems to be a religious joke folks having to do with various methods of evangelization, something that seems to have gone right out of the US humor repertoire. Mr. Stanton, a Methodist, may have not found it funny because his is one of the faiths being gently mocked.

    12. Shannon Love Says:

      Michael Kennedy,

      World War I was the first war in which there were more deaths from enemy action than from disease.

      Actually, that was WWII. The Spanish Influenza killed more soldiers than all other causes in the last year of the war. Typhus and typhoid were endemic because there was no means of easily killing fleas, ticks and lice under field conditions. The germ theory of disease had certainly helped things but the technology had not caught up with theory.

      The arrival of DDT, saved tens of millions of lives during WWII by killing the vector insects. Chlorination tablets and water purification units prevented most of the waterborne diseases. Even so, yellow fever and malaria killed more men than the Japanese in South Pacific.

      In the Civil War, two-thirds of casualties/deaths in the Mississippi river valley campaigns were from disease. Grant was often in a race to get his army to battle before it melted away.

    13. Michael Kennedy Says:

      Typhus and typhoid were endemic because there was no means of easily killing fleas, ticks and lice under field conditions. The germ theory of disease had certainly helped things but the technology had not caught up with theory.

      Sorry, but I don’t think that is correct. One major reason is the style of warfare. Typhoid killed 10,000 British soldiers in the Boer War. By WWI, the TAB (Typhoid and paratyphoid A and B) vaccine was ready and typhoid deaths were a minor problem. Typhus is always a problem in armies and prisons but was not a major killer like it was in Napoleon’s army.

      Tetanus was a big problem the first year of the war but that was solved by the horse serum anti-toxin. In WWII, immunization (not the same thing), prevented all but six cases. Interestingly enough, tetanus was not an issue in the American Civil War because horse manure was not used as fertilizer in the South where most of the battles were fought.

      WWI was a time of innovation as the Americans and Canadians brought blood transfusion in 1917. The British had resisted it and had resisted the treatment of wound shock with fluids IV. I have a chapter on it in my history of medicine. I also have a lecture on the medical history of the American Civil War that I’ve given a few places, including the Royal Army Medical Corps.

      The Germans, who were cut off from quinine by the war, managed with their marvelous chemical industry, to develop a synthetic drug for malaria called atabrine that was widely used by the US in WWII.

    14. Brian Dunbar Says:

      why ordinary men marched in straight ranks directly into withering rifle and cannon fire that they knew would kill most of them.

      With respect, we do know why they did this. For the same reasons that ordinary men jumped off landing boats onto Omaha Beach, at Iwo Jima, Inchon. For the same reason they jumped off a Huey into a hot LZ, or fought all night in a confused mess at Nasiriyah.

      For each other, for the regiment, for country, for God. In that order.