EDITOR’S NOTE: The most recent issue of Studies of American Humor was put together in conjunction with the 2020 Quarry Farm Symposium “American Humor and Empire.” You can view the symposium program, read the biographies of the presenters, and watch all the paper presentations HERE. CMTS would like to thank all the editors at StAH for this wonderful opportunity and meaningful collaboration.
If you’re a subscriber to StAH, you’ve probably received our most recent number–a special issue on humor and empire—in the last week or so. If you’re not a subscriber, and you are a supporter of CMTS, you will want to check it out.
The idea for the special issue first came about when Judith Yaross Lee, an active member in Twain circles and in humor studies, proposed a Quarry Farm symposium on the topic, which would be a springboard for the special issue. The good people at CMTS and the editorial team at StAH were all in from the first suggestion.
To prepare for both the symposium and the special issue, we suggested that Judith write an essay that would lay out the framework of her thinking about the role of empire in the evolution of American humor. “American Humor and Matters of Empire: A Proposal and Invitation” appeared in the 2020 issue of StAH, and it proved to be just the catalyst we were hoping for. The symposium included a range of thoughtful presentations that dealt with humor in a variety of forms from the antebellum period to our own era, and focused on voices and representations of different races and ethnicities. The presentations and the lively discussion that followed confirmed that Judith is on to something, and that the special issue was likely to be a success.
The special issue features four articles that were developed from these presentations, introduced by Judith Lee’s reframing of her thinking, which the insights of the symposium and journal contributors has helped to evolve from its earlier form.
Jim Caron’s “Gendered Comic Traditions: How Fanny Fern’s Satire Subverts Nineteenth-Century Colonial Continuity and Enables Twenty-first-Century Neocolonial Hybridity” is a mouthful of a title, and the article delivers in every way on the scope that its title foretells. After laying out the convention of the gentleman humorist in the early republic, adopted from the tone and style of Addison and Steele, Caron takes up the case of Fanny Fern, the pseudonymous journalistic identity of Sarah Parton Willis who reinvents the role and rhetoric of the American humorist. Caron employs the trope of the laughing Medusa first propounded by the continental feminist theorist Hélène Cixous to establish a genealogy of American humor of which Fern could be seen as the matriarch.
Sarah Sillin’s “The Cuban Question and the Ignorant American: Empire’s Tropes and Jokes in Yankee Notions” looks at the cartoons published in the popular antebellum magazine to show how Cuba and its inhabitants were subject to erroneous perceptions of US citizens. Projected in these cartoons as consumable, Cuba is portrayed in Yankee Notions as ripe for colonization long before the Spanish American War half a century later. The article includes reproductions and close readings of four cartoons that popularized these imperialistic ideas.
Stanley Orr brings the popular culture conversation into the twentieth century with his analysis of the imperial undercurrents in an episode of the 1960s television series The Wild Wild West. Written by Samoan-American John Kneubuhl, the episode features a south Pacific prince who plays the role of confidence man to frustrate the main characters of this fusion of the spy and western genres popular at the time. Orr shows how Kneubuhl, drawing on the Samoan clowning tradition of fale aitu and linking the characterization of the prince to the notorious Native Hawaiian conman, Sam Amalu, establishes his trickster aesthetics.
Finally, Chris Gilbert looks at the 2019 empire issue of The Nib, a graphic humor magazine that collects satirical cartoons from a wide variety of artists. Gilbert’s sophisticated analysis of 6 cartoons shows how caricature reveals imperialism’s lack of imagination in its embrace of monumentality, historical revisionism, and cultural dominion. For those interested in this topic and in the comic form of caricature, Gilbert’s recently published book Caricature and National Character should be on your reading list.
The editorial team of StAH is grateful to Judith Yaross Lee as the instigator of this fascinating discussion, and Joe Lemak and CMTS for having supported the conversation in the always productive forum of the Quarry Farm symposium.