Page:The Cambridge History of American Literature, v3.djvu/393

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375
Humour

those two original characteristics, taste and rhythm. What is growing is the degree of both things. The man is becoming deeper, and as he does so he imposes himself, in this atmospheric way, more steadily on his language.

Curiously enough it is to this period that his only comic writings belong. Too much has been said about Lincoln's humour. Almost none of it has survived. Apparently it was neither better nor worse than the typical American humour of the period. Humorously, Lincoln illustrated as an individual that riotous rebound which so often distinguishes the nature predominantly melancholy; and as a type, he illustrates the American contentment with the externals of humour, with bad grammar, buffoonery, and ironic impudence. His sure taste as a serious writer deserts him at times as a reader. He shared the illusions of his day about Artemus Ward. When he tried to write humorously he did somewhat the same sort of thing—he was of the school of Artemus.

A speech which he made in Congress, a landmark in his development, shows the quality of his humour, and shows also that he was altogether a man of his period, not superior in many small ways to the standards of his period. The Congress of the United States has never been distinguished for a scrupulous use of its time; today, however, even the worst of Congresses would hardly pervert its function, neglect business, and transform itself into an electioneering forum, with the brazenness of the Congresses of the middle of the last century. In the spring of 1848, with Zachary Taylor before the country as the Whig nominee for president, Lincoln went the way of all flesh political, squandering the time of the House in a jocose electioneering speech, nominally on a point before the House, really having no connection with it—in fact, a romping burlesque of the Democratic candidate, Cass. As such things went at that day, it was capital. It was better than most such speeches because, granting the commonplace thing he had set out to do, Lincoln's better sense of language gave even to his romp a quality the others did not have.

We come now to the year 1849, to Lincoln's fortieth birth day, and probably to another obscure crisis in his career. For thirteen years at least, politics had appeared to contain his dominant ambition. Amid bursts of melancholy of the most