A Very Serious Thing

A Very Serious Thing: Women’s Humor and American Culture

Nancy A. Walker
Volume: 2
Copyright Date: 1988
Edition: NED - New edition
Pages: 248
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5749/j.ctttv3pw
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  • Book Info
    A Very Serious Thing
    Book Description:

    Defines why women have been blocked from participating in the mainstream of American comedy yet have overcome hurdles to produce a humor that is sustaining and spells survival for women in society.

    eISBN: 978-0-8166-8291-1
    Subjects: Anthropology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-2)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 3-14)

    In 1924 a book titledDistressing Dialogues,by Nancy Boyd, was published by Harper & Brothers. The book includes satiric sketches, some in the form of dialogues and monologues, of urban sophisticates or would-be sophisticates. In “No Bigger Than a Man’s Hand,” a marriage dissolves because the husband continually leaves the cap off the toothpaste. “Knock Wood” features a group of people identified by such names as “the Man with the Wrong Kind of Tie,” “the Very Clever Woman,” and “the Only Woman in Black,” who talk about superstitions at a party. “Cordially Yours” is a series of imaginary letters...

  5. 1 The Female Humorist in America
    (pp. 15-38)

    In her introduction toThe Widow Bedott Papersby Frances Whitcher (1856), Alice B. Neal had words of high praise for the quality and popularity of the work of this early nineteenth-century humorist. Whitcher’s satiric sketches of small-town life, she says, are “full of humor [and] remarkable for minute observation of human nature.”¹ Neal quotes Whitcher’s sister as saying, “Her humor was chaste and original, so true to nature that the most ignorant reader could not fail to feel its force, and the most refined could discover nothing that would shock the keenest sensibility” (xii). By endorsing this description of...

  6. 2 The Male Tradition and the Female Tradition
    (pp. 39-72)

    Despite the supposed damper of Puritanism,¹ America as a nation has long been proud of its sense of humor, seeing it as evidence of a resilience and a capacity for self-criticism that accorded with the country’s revolutionary origins and its rapid emergence as a world power. That which scholars have over the years identified as traditional or typical American humor, written almost entirely by men, has the swagger of the small boy who, on the one hand, is proud of his youth and strength and, on the other, is calculatedly self-depre-cating in the presence of cultures with longer traditions and...

  7. 3 Humor, Intellect, and Femininity
    (pp. 73-100)

    The publication of Kate Sanborn’s anthologyThe Wit of Womenin 1885 was a direct response to a debate in America’s literary community about whether women possessed a sense of humor. Richard Grant White, a New York art and literature critic, commented in an 1884 issue of the weekly magazineThe Criticthat a sense of humor was “that rarest of qualities in woman,” prompting Alice Wellington Rollins to respond in two subsequent issues of the same magazine that although “we have had no feminine Artemus Ward,” women indeed displayed wit in both conversation and writing.¹ To demonstrate the truth...

  8. 4 The Humor of the “Minority”
    (pp. 101-138)

    In his prefatory note toThe Book of Negro Humor(1966), Langston Hughes provides his own definition of humor:

    Humor is laughing at what you haven’t got when you ought to have it. Of course, you laugh by proxy. You’re really laughing at the other guy’s lacks, not your own. That’s what makes it funny—the fact that you don’t know you are laughing at yourself. Humor is when the joke is on you but hits the other fellow first—before it boomerangs. Humor is what you wish in your secret heart were not funny, but it is, and you...

  9. 5 Feminist Humor
    (pp. 139-168)

    The traditional identification of women with piety and righteousness, rather than with relaxation and fun, has its apotheosis in the stereotypical figure of the female political activist. The temperance crusader taking an ax to a whiskey barrel, the thin-lipped women’s rights speaker of the nineteenth century, and the bra-burners of the 1960s have all been made objects of ridicule, and not only by men. Marietta Holley’s feminist narrator Samantha Allen, in the late nineteenth century, chose the feminist leaders she admired on the basis of their use of what she defined as common sense. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, of whom she...

  10. 6 The Tradition and Beyond: Contemporary Women’s Humor and the Canon of American Literature
    (pp. 169-186)

    Frances Whitcher’s rather plaintive statement in the mid-nineteenth century that “it is a very serious thing to be a funny woman” referred specifically to the circumstances of her own personal and professional life. But her comment can now be understood on several different levels. America’s cultural bias against women as humorists has meant that women have had to exercise both courage and subterfuge in order to express themselves humorously, and that they have frequently been unaware of a female humorous tradition that might well have emboldened them. Despite the efforts of Kate Sanborn in 1885 and Martha Bruère and Mary...

  11. Notes
    (pp. 187-206)
  12. Selected Bibliography
    (pp. 207-214)
  13. Selected List of Humor by American Women
    (pp. 215-222)
  14. Index
    (pp. 223-229)
  15. Back Matter
    (pp. 230-230)