January 11, 2014

Great article on Mark Twain

Mark Twain turned frontier humor into literature, as detailed in this article.
“Jim Smiley,” subsequently retitled “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” lifted Twain to fame and laid the foundation for his later triumphs, but it isn’t especially funny anymore. What once made bankers in New York and boatmen in Baton Rouge laugh out loud would now at best elicit a halfhearted chuckle from a generous reader. It’s hard to say exactly why. Humor eludes elaborate theorizing, but it usually relies on context: on shared assumptions about the permissible and the taboo, the familiar and the strange. Some humor stays funny because its underlying truths remain in force—the flirty banter in The Taming of the Shrew, for instance, or the dick jokes inTristram Shandy. A large part of the pleasure in laughing at old material is realizing how little has changed. Other humor, by contrast, loses its power as its context fades.


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