Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Which way: Norman Rockwell on the state of light-hearted humor

Norman Rockwell was a member of the Monday Evening Club from 1961 until his death in 1978. He presented the following paper to the Club about 1967. It is transcribed from an undated manuscript in the collection of the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass. The manuscript is typed in all capital letters, with some handwritten notes; the orthography is revised in this transcription to standard capitalization, but spelling and punctuation is generally left as it is in the original. The transcript was originally contained in an envelope on which was written “Monday Evening Club / Is light heart humor.” Throughout the paper, the word is spelled “humour,” which may have been the habit of Rockwell’s wife Mary L. (Molly) Rockwell, the likely typist. ADDENDUM: The original can now be viewed at the Norman Rockwell Museum's online digital archives.

The Club is grateful for the assistance of Corry Kanzenburg and Jessika Drmacich of the collections staff at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass. for providing access to the manuscript of this and other papers Rockwell presented to the Club, to the museum's director, Laurie Norton Moffatt, for alerting us to their existence (via a Facebook comment!) and to the Norman Rockwell Licensing Company for permission to publish the papers.

Licensed by Norman Rockwell Licensing, Niles, IL.

First of all, I want to apologize for the title of this paper – “Which Way.”

When Joe [Joseph C. Nugent, then Club secretary] called me to get the title I had two subjects that interested me. But Joe needed a title right away to I told him my predicament and suggested the title “Which Way.” He said that was all right but now it does not describe the theme. I apologize.

The subject of this paper is “What Has Happened to Light-Hearted Humour in America?”

[handwritten:] First and foremost I want to say, I am, personally, convinced we are making a better America for all Americans to live in. But we live in an age of change and change is painful and it just ain’t funny. Now to the paper. [marginal note: Nuclear]

I do not know the exact date of what I feel is the demise of our good-natured humour, but I suspect it was about 5 or 6 years ago.

It did not die suddenly but I believe suffered a long and slow decline.

We do know that our brand of humour was born with the birth of our country. Ben Franklin was certainly at the birthday party and contributed many wise and funny comments.

America was a strong and lusty youngster and from the writings and records of those early days we find loads of stories and jests that attest to the fact that a good sense of humour was one of our happy birthrights.

Of course most of the jests were poked at our former British rule[r]s. These were good-natured jokes, after all we had won our freedom and could afford to be jocose.

Then came our expansion westward, from which came the robust earthy humour of our frontiersmen.

They created that marvelous legendary figure of Paul Bunyan, the mighty lumberjack, with his superhuman pranks.

Then there was John Chapman, born right here in Massachusetts in 1774. We know him as Johnny Appleseed. He was very serious about his mission in life, but his comic costume and comic manners have placed him in our history as a light-hearted legendary figure.

There is a whole long list of fabulous humourous folklore characters that our ancestors invented to help our nation to grow bigger and stronger.

There was Mike Fink the last of the keelboatmen,
Sam Toolman, the Yankee Pedlar
Big Moose, the super-fireman
John Henry, the famous Negro railroad spike driver
Blue Johnny, the Mississippi River pilot
Sam Bass, the Texas Robin Hood
and Steve Masorac, massive steel worker
and many others

These were all fabulous giant figures conceived out of the imagination of the common people of America, to help them with the overwhelming task of building a new and mighty nation. They are the folklore giants of our nation’s history.

Then came a great change in the source of our humour. The writers of light-hearted humour appeared. These men were not legends but gifted individual human beings who captured and fun-loving hearts of Americans and, in fact, of readers all over the world.

The two earliest such writers were Josh Billings and Artemus Ward.

It is recorded that Abraham Lincoln, bowed down by the stresses and responsibilities, often had his secretary read him excerpts from the fun of Artemus Ward. Often, too, he would ease the tension and worries of his associates in regaling them with some joke by Artemus Ward or Josh Billings.

That light playful humour hurt no one but helped a whole nation at war with itself.

It seems to me that right now we could use some of that light touch to help us over the rough spots.

But to get back to the subject at hand.

Next came our greatest humourist, and maybe even our greatest writer, Mark Twain.

May I, here, insert a personal note —

About 30 years ago I was commissioned to illustrate Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn.

I had, of course, read both these books when I was at school but I felt, now that I was to illustrate them I must read them again and more intently. I was in California, I bought the two books and boarded a plane (not a jet) for the east. I thought reading them again would be something of a bore, but a necessary bore. On the plane I sat next to a stout, sour-looking, elderly gentleman and began reading.

I suddenly became absorbed and amused. I couldn’t help giggling a bit and finally laughing out-loud. Much to the surprise and disgust of my fellow passenger. Finally he asked me what amused me so much. I gave him Huckleberry Finn to read while I went on with Tom Sawyer. He was really a fine old gentleman and we had a wonderfully jolly plane ride all the way back to New York.

Mark Twain was a real genius and his natural and compelling humour captured America and the whole world.

We all know that later in life he became disenchanted and bitter, writing some of the most frightening books ever written, but they will never extinguish the good-natured humour of those early Mark Twain writings.

Even as I am writing this paper I smile, thinking of that masterpiece of crazy fun “Jim Smily and his Jumping Frog” [sic].

Then came minor geniuses of humour such as Ring Lardner and his “You Know Me Al” series, full of America’s special type of fun.

Irvin Cobb with his quiet humourous stories, and many others. Irvin Cobb wrote a wonderfully amusing series about a Southern judge. But Southern judges are no longer a source of humour.

James Thurber was another.

Again a personal note —

Mr. Thurber wrote a story for the Saturday Evening Post called “You Can Read it in the Newspapers.” The editors sent it to me to illustrate. It was about a very unhappy big league baseball manager, whose team was hopelessly in the league’s cellar. He was drinking at a bar and trying to forget his woes when in walked an awful show-off of a midget. The manager, in his cups, got a brilliant idea and put the midget in a baseball uniform. At the next game, the midget got to first base every time he came to bat because the opposing pitcher could not pitch to the midget’s diminutive strike zone. But unfortunately in the last inning the conceited little bastard, instead of letting the pitcher throw him four balls, tried to knock out a home run. Of course he missed. The infuriated manager charged out of the dug-out and, picking up the midget, threw him up into the bleachers. Badly as I tell it, it was a hilariously funny story and I’ll never forget trying to get a midget in Arlington, Vermont to pose. I finally had to go to a theatrical agency in New York City to get my midget.

Thurber was fine but not a Mark Twain. Nevertheless, he was good medicine for America.

Where are our humourous writers today?

Years ago there were three outstanding humourous weekly magazines. Life magazine was one, now it is a news picture publication. Judge was another, it died as did Puck magazine.

The New Yorker is a fine magazine and publishes many funny ironical drawings and sometimes a Perleman [sic] story, but it can not be classified as a humourous publication.

The college campus magazines used to be gay and light-hearted but now they seem to be always protesting something or other.

Of course there is Mad comics and Playboy!!!!!!!

We all know there are millions of honest, happy, decent Americans and their families, but why then do the most popular big circulation magazines publish almost exclusively articles about sex, homosexuality, race relationship, drug addiction, crime, political corruption, life in the ghettos, sin in the suburbs and war, sandwiched between page after page of glamourous advertising?

This sounds like a pretty grim list and, after a little research, I find it isn’t completely true. These big circulation magazines also print articles on space exploration, advances in medicine, food and fashion, so they are not all bad. But I still contend, and I think they will admit, that what they sell on is the exposé type of thing.

It must be what we want to read and think about, or believe me, the magazines would not print these articles.

[handwritten:] That’s the paper

[handwritten:] Now I am interested to hear whether you gentlemen see the situation as I do?

For 47 years I painted 300 covers for the Post, mostly trying (but not with my tongue in my cheek) to paint the humorous foibles of our friends and neighbors.

No magazine wants them anymore and, to be honest, I could not and do not want to paint them anymore.

I just finished a picture for Look of two colored kids who had just moved into an all white neighborhood*. This type of picture is what I am interested in.


*This painting was “Negro in the Suburbs,” (sometimes referred to today as "New Kids in the Neighborhood") which appeared in Look magazine in 1967.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks to Martin Langeveld for publishing Norman Rockwell's paper for the Monday Evening Club - Some of the interesting materials in the Norman Rockwell Museum archive - c. 1967 - Rockwell's thoughts on humor in his address to the Monday Evening Club ruminating on his keen observations on the changing psyche and humor in America. I think the age of irony was fast descending, pushing aside Rockwell's "old fashioned" humor and sincerity. It was the dawning of Andy Warhol's 15 minutes of fame and the age of celebrity. Now we have reality TV and think that humiliation is funny.

    Laurie Norton Moffatt
    Norman Rockwell Museum