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.