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THE BEST AMERICAN HUMOROUS SHORT STORIES


_Edited by_ ALEXANDER JESSUP, _Editor of "Representative American
Short Stories," "The Book of the Short Story," the "Little French
Masterpieces" Series, etc._


INTRODUCTION

This volume does not aim to contain all "the best American humorous
short stories"; there are many other stories equally as good, I
suppose, in much the same vein, scattered through the range of
American literature. I have tried to keep a certain unity of aim and
impression in selecting these stories. In the first place I determined
that the pieces of brief fiction which I included must first of all be
not merely good stories, but good short stories. I put myself in the
position of one who was about to select the best short stories in the
whole range of American literature,[1] but who, just before he started
to do this, was notified that he must refrain from selecting any of
the best American short stories that did not contain the element of
humor to a marked degree. But I have kept in mind the wide boundaries
of the term humor, and also the fact that the humorous standard should
be kept second--although a close second--to the short story standard.

In view of the necessary limitations as to the volume's size, I could
not hope to represent all periods of American literature adequately,
nor was this necessary in order to give examples of the best that has
been done in the short story in a humorous vein in American
literature. Probably all types of the short story of humor are
included here, at any rate. Not only copyright restrictions but in a
measure my own opinion have combined to exclude anything by Joel
Chandler Harris--_Uncle Remus_--from the collection. Harris is
primarily--in his best work--a humorist, and only secondarily a short
story writer. As a humorist he is of the first rank; as a writer of
short stories his place is hardly so high. His humor is not mere
funniness and diversion; he is a humorist in the fundamental and large
sense, as are Cervantes, Rabelais, and Mark Twain.

No book is duller than a book of jokes, for what is refreshing in
small doses becomes nauseating when perused in large assignments.
Humor in literature is at its best not when served merely by itself
but when presented along with other ingredients of literary force in
order to give a wide representation of life. Therefore "professional
literary humorists," as they may be called, have not been much
considered in making up this collection. In the history of American
humor there are three names which stand out more prominently than all
others before Mark Twain, who, however, also belongs to a wider
classification: "Josh Billings" (Henry Wheeler Shaw, 1815-1885),
"Petroleum V. Nasby" (David Ross Locke, 1833-1888), and "Artemus Ward"
(Charles Farrar Browne, 1834-1867). In the history of American humor
these names rank high; in the field of American literature and the
American short story they do not rank so high. I have found nothing of
theirs that was first-class both as humor and as short story. Perhaps
just below these three should be mentioned George Horatio Derby
(1823-1861), author of _Phoenixiana_ (1855) and the _Squibob Papers_
(1859), who wrote under the name "John Phoenix." As has been justly
said, "Derby, Shaw, Locke and Browne carried to an extreme numerous
tricks already invented by earlier American humorists, particularly
the tricks of gigantic exaggeration and calm-faced mendacity, but they
are plainly in the main channel of American humor, which had its
origin in the first comments of settlers upon the conditions of the
frontier, long drew its principal inspiration from the differences
between that frontier and the more settled and compact regions of the
country, and reached its highest development in Mark Twain, in his
youth a child of the American frontier, admirer and imitator of Derby
and Browne, and eventually a man of the world and one of its greatest
humorists."[2] Nor have such later writers who were essentially
humorists as "Bill Nye" (Edgar Wilson Nye, 1850-1896) been considered,
because their work does not attain the literary standard and the short
story standard as creditably as it does the humorous one. When we come
to the close of the nineteenth century the work of such men as "Mr.
Dooley" (Finley Peter Dunne, 1867- ) and George Ade (1866- ) stands
out. But while these two writers successfully conform to the exacting
critical requirements of good humor and--especially the former--of
good literature, neither--though Ade more so--attains to the greatest
excellence of the short story. Mr. Dooley of the Archey Road is
essentially a wholesome and wide-poised humorous philosopher, and the
author of _Fables in Slang_ is chiefly a satirist, whether in fable,
play or what not.

This volume might well have started with something by Washington
Irving, I suppose many critics would say. It does not seem to me,
however, that Irving's best short stories, such as _The Legend of
Sleepy Hollow_ and _Rip Van Winkle_, are essentially humorous stories,
although they are o'erspread with the genial light of reminiscence. It
is the armchair geniality of the eighteenth century essayists, a
constituent of the author rather than of his material and product.
Irving's best humorous creations, indeed, are scarcely short stories
at all, but rather essaylike sketches, or sketchlike essays. James
Lawson (1799-1880) in his _Tales and Sketches: by a Cosmopolite_
(1830), notably in _The Dapper Gentleman's Story_, is also plainly a
follower of Irving. We come to a different vein in the work of such
writers as William Tappan Thompson (1812-1882), author of the amusing
stories in letter form, _Major Jones's Courtship_ (1840); Johnson
Jones Hooper (1815-1862), author of _Widow Rugby's Husband, and Other
Tales of Alabama_ (1851); Joseph G. Baldwin (1815-1864), who wrote
_The Flush Times of Alabama and Mississippi_ (1853); and Augustus
Baldwin Longstreet (1790-1870), whose _Georgia Scenes_ (1835) are as
important in "local color" as they are racy in humor. Yet none of
these writers yield the excellent short story which is also a good
piece of humorous literature. But they opened the way for the work of
later writers who did attain these combined excellences.

The sentimental vein of the midcentury is seen in the work of Seba
Smith (1792-1868), Eliza Leslie (1787-1858), Frances Miriam Whitcher
("Widow Bedott," 1811-1852), Mary W. Janvrin (1830-1870), and Alice
Bradley Haven Neal (1828-1863). The well-known work of Joseph Clay
Neal (1807-1847) is so all pervaded with caricature and humor that it
belongs with the work of the professional humorist school rather than
with the short story writers. To mention his _Charcoal Sketches, or
Scenes in a Metropolis_ (1837-1849) must suffice. The work of Seba
Smith is sufficiently expressed in his title, _Way Down East, or
Portraitures of Yankee Life_ (1854), although his _Letters of Major
Jack Downing_ (1833) is better known. Of his single stories may be
mentioned _The General Court and Jane Andrews' Firkin of Butter_
(October, 1847, _Graham's Magazine_). The work of Frances Miriam
Whitcher ("Widow Bedott") is of somewhat finer grain, both as humor
and in other literary qualities. Her stories or sketches, such as
_Aunt Magwire's Account of Parson Scrantum's Donation Party_ (March,
1848, _Godey's Lady's Book_) and _Aunt Magwire's Account of the
Mission to Muffletegawmy_ (July, 1859, _Godey's_), were afterwards
collected in _The Widow Bedott Papers_ (1855-56-80). The scope of the
work of Mary B. Haven is sufficiently suggested by her story, _Mrs.
Bowen's Parlor and Spare Bedroom_ (February, 1860, _Godey's_), while
the best stories of Mary W. Janvrin include _The Foreign Count; or,
High Art in Tattletown_ (October, 1860, _Godey's_) and _City
Relations; or, the Newmans' Summer at Clovernook_ (November, 1861,
_Godey's_). The work of Alice Bradley Haven Neal is of somewhat
similar texture. Her book, _The Gossips of Rivertown, with Sketches in
Prose and Verse_ (1850) indicates her field, as does the single title,
_The Third-Class Hotel_ (December, 1861, _Godey's_). Perhaps the most
representative figure of this school is Eliza Leslie (1787-1858), who
as "Miss Leslie" was one of the most frequent contributors to the
magazines of the 1830's, 1840's and 1850's. One of her best stories is
_The Watkinson Evening_ (December, 1846, _Godey's Lady's Book_),
included in the present volume; others are _The Batson Cottage_
(November, 1846, _Godey's Lady's Book_) and _Juliet Irwin; or, the
Carriage People_ (June, 1847, _Godey's Lady's Book_). One of her chief
collections of stories is _Pencil Sketches_ (1833-1837). "Miss
Leslie," wrote Edgar Allan Poe, "is celebrated for the homely
naturalness of her stories and for the broad satire of her comic
style." She was the editor of _The Gift_ one of the best annuals of
the time, and in that position perhaps exerted her chief influence on
American literature When one has read three or four representative
stories by these seven authors one can grasp them all. Their titles as
a rule strike the keynote. These writers, except "the Widow Bedott,"
are perhaps sentimentalists rather than humorists in intention, but
read in the light of later days their apparent serious delineations of
the frolics and foibles of their time take on a highly humorous
aspect.

George Pope Morris (1802-1864) was one of the founders of _The New
York Mirror_, and for a time its editor. He is best known as the
author of the poem, _Woodman, Spare That Tree_, and other poems and
songs. _The Little Frenchman and His Water Lots_ (1839), the first
story in the present volume, is selected not because Morris was
especially prominent in the field of the short story or humorous prose
but because of this single story's representative character. Edgar
Allan Poe (1809-1849) follows with _The Angel of the Odd_ (October,
1844, _Columbian Magazine_), perhaps the best of his humorous stories.
_The System of Dr. Tarr and Prof.



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