The best part of being a historian is that you get to meet all kinds of interesting people. Some of them are really funny. I often find them more amusing than people alive today. Unfortunately, they’re dead. The conversation is a little one-sided then.
My two favorite editorialists are Will Rogers and Finley Peter Dunne. No one quips like that today. Rogers said voters would support Prohibition as long as they could stagger (drunk) to the polls. That’s good stuff. Dunne, who wrote using the persona of an Irish bartender, could skewer the Supreme Court like no one else I’ve ever read. Of the crusade against vice, Dunne said: “Th’ polis becomes active an’ whin th’ polis is active tis a good time f’r dacint men to wear marredge certy-ficates outside their coats,” and be ready “to bail out their wives whin they’re arrested f’r shoppin’ afther four o’clock.” Both Rogers and Dunne had folksy deliveries and were superlative humorists. I like reading them just because they make me laugh. I find them entertaining — every much as or more than most “humorists” today. I often wish that editorialists these days were that funny. The opinion page nowadays is so serious. We used to have a sense of humor about politicians. I think we’ve lost a lot of that. It’s a sin now to have an anti-authoritarian bent — particularly if it’s flagrantly, humorously disrespectful. I wish someone would poke fun of the contemporary illegal alien crackdown the way Dunne made fun of the crusade against vice in the early 20th century. Really, it screams for a good lampooning.
Americans today often consider themselves more sophisticated than their ancestors. This is bunk and a sign of the ignorance that marks ahistorical thinking. If you spend some time with old humorists, you quickly learn that their critiques were intelligent, insightful, and irreverent. These writers held no illusions about politicians as noble statesmen. Corruption was rampant in the 1920’s and these critics had a heyday with that. They didn’t get up on some moral soapbox and decry conditions in solemn plaintive tones. Instead, they attacked with sarcasm and biting satire. These were excellent critiques, but they were downright entertaining too.
Lately, I’ve been subjected to editorials endlessly sermonizing on the importance of this year’s election. It’s the most significant election in American history some of them claim. The stakes are high: the survival of our country depends on it. Blah, blah, blah. What crap — and I say this as a great fan of hyperbole. If exaggeration isn’t funny, though, it’s just ridiculous rigmarole. I’ve started rolling my eyes a lot and pining for some good old fashioned, laugh out loud critical satire.
This is the entertainment value of history. It’s not just educational. It’s also amusing fun. Some of our ancestors were pretty funny, and being a historian, I get to spend a lot of time with them. You can call it research, but it’s also pleasure. They may be dead, but they crack me up.