I like to laugh. Nothing is more refreshing or more thorough in righting a fellow with the cruel hardships of the world than a heart body-shaking laugh. Yet there are people so dried-up and straight-jacketed that they haven’t discovered the fact, and I often find myself surrounded by a wall of hideous, censoring eyes when I burst forth. But I turn on them and laugh again. Poor fools, who can’t laugh and don’t understand why others should! I have to laugh, for I am human. But when people can truthfully say that I have no sense of humor, I am ready to vacat e this world in favor of someone better fitted; for, as Max Beerbohm would have it: “To deprive a man of that sense is to strike him with one blow to a level with the beasts of the field.” I agree with a lusty “Aye” and add, “Lower than that.” And to justify my frequently annoying use of the sense, I will further quote Max Beerbohm. For in this we agree like story-book sweethearts:
“What is it that mainly distinguishes us from the brute creation? That we walk erect? Some brutes are bipeds. That we remember and reason? So do they. That we do not slay each other? Ah, terrible error. We do. On no possible point of superiority can we preen ourselves, save this: that we can laugh, and that they, with one notable exception, cannot.” Now I defy anyone to pronounce me an outcast from the human race. Let him question my qualifications and I’ll laugh in his face.
Yet, try as I may, I cannot force myself to laugh at a blue sky. No person, though he be a trained master of the art, can laugh very many times at reoccurring humor without getting tired and quitting. No longer can I laugh at a comedian who continually plasters his companion’s face with soft, oozy, custard pies. An overworked horse cannot be kept alive with a new set of brass-buckle harness. Jokes, like shoes, are soon worn off and cast aside to be forgotten.
I was looking for a different twist; something so polished and new that I could laugh at it and enjoy it involuntarily. Some one said essays. Had I been more certain of my brutal abilities, I should have twisted his head from his shoulders and popped out his eyes for the sparrows. I had read essays in high school. I knew all I wanted to know about “Good Roads” and “Forestry.” But then one day when I was least suspecting, the same person read, for the benefit of me and my unbelieving kind, a rare morsel of humor that set me vibrating with laughter.
“What was it?” I asked.
He grinned. “An essay.”
The chair behind me seemed to hold out its arms expectantly, but I didn’t die. I wanted to live long enough to call him a liar. But instead of fighting, he handed me a book and I lugged it home, whimpering like a baby whose mother wants it to shake a new rattle. That night, with my feet perched high on the desk like a pair of awkward but loving crows, I read that book, all of it, introduction included. And I laughed! I had never imagined that writing like this had ever been printed. My conception of the essay, like that of many others, had been mercilessly stunted by three years’ association with high school English. My gray-haired instructors there seemed to know of one type only, – the stiff-collared, formal essay. Little did they realize that the world had not stopped when they had, but still trudged on. Edison still lived and invented, but they didn’t know it. They taught as they had been taught, not as they believed (if it were possible for them to believe). One professor, long since dead, had done all their thinking for them. It should be a penitentiary offense for any one to take a field so utterly devoid of clearly defined boundaries and limits as the essay, and tie it down to a formal, impersonal, objective treatise that would put an ordinary person to sleep.
But many a fate has been changed by a popularity contest and the more familiar, impersonal essay has the spot-light. Writers write not only to be read but also, in a few cases, for the assurance of three meals daily. Consequently when they discover the dusty copies of their formal essays still lying forlorn and forgotten on the book store shelves, they turn to other methods. A crust of bread, or rather, the lack of one is extremely convincing. What method should authors use? What will people read?
“Best of all we like to talk about ourselves; the next best thing is hearing somebody talk about himself.” Many a good steak has been burned while the housewife leaned over the back fence treating the neighbor’s wife to a three-hour account of the sweater she knit for the Red Cross.
The more personal the writing, the better the reader likes it, because in it he sees himself and his own experiences; he hears the thoughts which he has always felt but has feared to express. With fiery cheeks that heat his suffocatingly short jerks of breath, he watches and feels the embarrassments, confessions, mistakes and ridiculous blunderings of the writer.
In the familiar essay we have a highly personal, chatty, whimsical talk with the author in which we review common experiences. It doesn’t necessarily say anything of weighty importance for future generations, but who cares? We need a little entertainment ourselves, and the pictures are so true to life that we revive and re-live our own previous experiences. Many a spring day I have dragged out the rusty old lawnmower, squirted oil all over it, and chased it madly from one fence to the other, turning occasionally to swear at the untouched streaks waving defiantly at me. But much as I shoved, hammered and fixed it, I never realized – didn’t even imagine that the rattly old nightmare was really a well-organized machine. Charles Brooks had to tell me. I see that my point of view was entirely wrong, now that the job has passed from my hands. I’d like to see that old lawnmower again and get my face and shirt all smeared with grease, tinkering with its cutters and gears. But an author has to show a knowledge of human nature before he can change my views. He must be armed to the chin with bombs of personal experience to tear down my guards. But who dares deny that Ralph Bergengren fought a long, bitter-cold winter against his coal-eating furnace? I shiver every time I think of the icy steps leading to the darkness that hid the coal pile and furnace. I felt relieved and laughed heartily when I found another as bored and discouraged with steam heat as myself.
But after all there is something more than just laughter. A person doesn’t necessarily have to laugh to enjoy, although laughter does act as a stimulating catalyzer. Pleasure comes to stay with the person who lives to learn. Not all authors write to be laughed at and occasionally we find some getting so bold that they try to say something. It is a dangerous undertaking and, unless he is properly trained, the worst offense an author can commit. The untrained writers forget their natural, easy conversational tones when they attempt to say something and often stumble around like a blind horse in a graveyard. They soon find themselves struggling in deep water when they wade out toward the boundaries of the formal essay, and all but the best swimmers and a few unsuccessful fools turn back toward the shore. People refuse to swallow bitter, raw facts. A mother, patient as she may be, might as well try to smother a volcano as to force castor oil down her darling’s throat. But she can easily mix in a little strained honey and have a mixture that the stubbornest baby will cry for. Authors, especially those with families to support, must follow the same formula. Facts are not digestible unless they are so sweetened with illustrations and personal experiences that the reader can’t recognize them. People who want blunt definitions or short outlines run for the dictionary or the encyclopaedia. Yet there is no one, feeble-minded or educated, who can fool himself long enough to lie back in an easy chair before the fireplace and enjoy an encyclopaedia.
Delbert Judd, The Freshman Scrapbook, May 1925