Page:The Cambridge History of American Literature, v3.djvu/41

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search
This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.
23
Leland

Such being the case, the typical work of such humorists cannot stand high in comparison with the subtler manifestations of the Comic Spirit. That, at least, would be the conclusion if American humour were regarded as a mere stage in an inevitable progress from pioneer jocularity to urbane irony. But it is possible that the national preference for unreflective merriment is not thoughtless and immature, but deliberate, permanent, and full grown. While Americans can picture Lincoln deferring discussion of the Emancipation Proclamation to read aloud a chapter from Artemus Ward, the laughter of sheer full-throated relief may well seem to them more manly than the comedy that wakens thoughtful laughter. American humour, then, may claim to be of a different school from the comedy of the Old World, operating on human nature by the lenitives and tonics of mirth instead of by the scalpel of criticism.

One of the most decided believers in recreative humour was a man of many interests whose humorous writing was originally done merely for his own amusement. Charles Godfrey Leland (1824-1903), a native of Philadelphia and a graduate of Princeton, after three years of student life at Heidelberg and Munich and three days as captain of a barricade in the Paris revolution of 1848, found the practice of law in the city of his birth a listless occupation. Turning journalist, he worked successively as managing editor under P. T. Barnum and R. W. Griswold. He gave early and able support to Lincoln's administration, besides seeing service in an emergency regiment during the Gettysburg campaign. The later years of his long life were spent in cultivating a wide circle of friends in America and Europe, in a disinterested and successful effort to establish industrial art as a branch of public education, and in the study of gipsy lore, tinkers' language, Indian legends, Italian witches, and all things exotic, mysterious, and occult. During this time he wrote with extreme fluency more than fifty books on the most varied subjects, not to mention uncounted contributions to periodicals. He would doubtless have wished to be remembered chiefly for his services to education.

His generation, however, persisted in thinking of him exclusively as the author of Hans Breitmann's Ballads, often to his annoyance identifying him with the hero of his lays. Indis-