Twain's Brand

Twain's Brand: Humor in Contemporary American Culture

Copyright Date: 2012
Pages: 240
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    Twain's Brand
    Book Description:

    Samuel L. Clemens lost the 1882 lawsuit declaring his exclusive right to use "Mark Twain" as a commercial trademark, but he succeeded in the marketplace, where synergy among his comic journalism, live performances, authorship, and entrepreneurship made "Mark Twain" the premier national and international brand of American humor in his day. And so it remains in ours, because Mark Twain's humor not only expressed views of self and society well ahead of its time, but also anticipated ways in which humor and culture coalesce in today's postindustrial information economy--the global trade in media, performances, and other forms of intellectual property that began after the Civil War.

    InTwain's Brand: Humor in Contemporary American Culture, Judith Yaross Lee traces four hallmarks of Twain's humor that are especially significant today. Mark Twain's invention of a stage persona comically conflated with his biographical self lives on in contemporary performances by Garrison Keillor, Margaret Cho, Jerry Seinfeld, and Jon Stewart. The postcolonial critique of Britain that underlies America's nationalist tall tale tradition not only self-destructs inA Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Courtbut also drives the critique of American Exceptionalism in Philip Roth's literary satires. The semi-literate writing that givesAdventures of Huckleberry Finnits "vernacular vision"--wrapping cultural critique in ostensibly innocent transgressions and misunderstandings--has a counterpart in the apparently untutored drawing style and social critique seen inThe Simpsons, Lynda Barry's comics, andThe Boondocks. And the humor business of recent decades depends on the same brand-name promotion, cross-media synergy, and copyright practices that Clemens pioneered and fought for a century ago.Twain's Brandhighlights the modern relationship among humor, commerce, and culture that were first exploited by Mark Twain.

    eISBN: 978-1-62103-057-7
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Abbreviations
    (pp. xiii-2)
  5. CHAPTER ONE Twain’s Brand and the Modern Mood
    (pp. 3-26)

    Mark Twain tops most lists of great American humorists, yet analyses of his significance treat American culture as if humor were barely part of it. Among many likely reasons for this oversight, including resistance to studying humor as too recreational for research, is the belief that Twain’s humor belongs to a trivial nineteenth-century popular culture of dialect writing, hoaxes, and tall yarns, while his themes, especially race and politics, belong to the twentieth-century canon of belle lettres.Twain’s Brandapproaches Twain’s humor and its legacy differently. Here I show that Samuel L. Clemens adapted nineteenth-century comic traditions to burgeoning twentieth-century...

  6. CHAPTER TWO Standing Up: The Self-Made Comedian
    (pp. 27-70)

    When Jon Stewart of Comedy Central’sThe Daily Showappeared on CNN’s political talk showCrossfireon October 15, 2004, hosts Paul Begala and Tucker Carlson greeted him with praise for “his one-of-a-kind take on politics, the press and America.” Begala and Carlson represented opposite poles on the political spectrum, but shared comic expectations for their guest, whom they described as “the most trusted name in fake news.”² But Stewart, on a tour to publicize his recently published parody of a high school civics textbook,America (The Book): A Citizen’s Guide to Democracy Inaction, had his own political agenda for...

  7. CHAPTER THREE Humor and Empire
    (pp. 71-106)

    Matters of empire have inflected American literary humor for two hundred years because comic rhetoric carries ideological weight born of old colonial ties to Europe and elsewhere. A strand of humor expressing Anglo-American continuity runs through the present from eighteenth-century English wits like Alexander Pope, who displayed learned wit in essays and classical forms with an elevated literary style; American heirs range from poets such as John Woodworth (1768–1858), the “American Youth” who anonymously satirized Congress inThe Spunkiad(1798), and the more famous James Russell Lowell (1819–1891) to contemporary epic novelists such as David Foster Wallace (1962–...

  8. CHAPTER FOUR Kid Stuff: The Vernacular Vision and the Visual Vernacular
    (pp. 107-158)

    Vernacular humor depends on a carefully constructed rhetoric of artlessness—it is a species of incongruity humor—but owes its cultural import to political meanings that led Leo Marx to call it “a style with a politics in view.”² As detailed in chapter 3, these meanings gained traction after the American Revolution as American language and literature self-consciously diverged from British models: comic incongruities celebrated American distinction, which assigned political values to local colloquial styles and other deviations from social and literary norms. In its classic form, the vernacular style frames lack of linguistic and educational polish as political virtue,...

  9. CHAPTER FIVE Comic Brands: More than Funny Business
    (pp. 159-180)

    John Limon had it nearly right: America has experienced profound “comedification,” but the process began a century before the stand-up comedy breakthroughs of the 1960s. Celebrity had already branded Mark Twain as the embodiment of “American Humour” when Samuel Clemens first visited England in 1872, allowing him to extend his comic brand internationally into commercial endeavors beyond writing. In January of 1879, for instance, the BritishWestminster Reviewgreeted one of his serious money-making endeavors, duly registered as U.S. Pat. #140245 on June 24, 1873, as “Mark Twain’s latest joke”; then, after describing Mark Twain’s Patent Scrap-Book as “his own...

  10. Notes
    (pp. 181-194)
  11. Bibliography
    (pp. 195-214)
  12. Index
    (pp. 215-226)
  13. [plates]
    (pp. None)